President Barack Obama still remains a very popular figure in Hollywood. Showbiz names have lined up for his service initiatives, donors fill Democratic Party coffers and even some of his likely critics from the left, such as Michael Moore, have softened their bite. But perhaps more than any other issue, his pending decision on Afghanistan threatens to create lasting fissures in his support.
The prospect of a troop buildup, as Obama is pondering now, is likely to harden an anti-war contingent within the industry. During the height of the war in Iraq, it’s one that proved to be, at the very least, an irritant to the Bush administration and, at the very most, influential in the culture in shaping popular opinion.
An indicator of the mood in some circles came recently when Arianna Huffington, at the nexus of Hollywood and D.C., wrote on The Huffington Post that Vice President Joe Biden should resign if Obama decides to escalate.
Just a month after the Inauguration, producer Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Films unveiled the first of a series of videos called “Rethink Afghanistan,” questioning the wisdom of sending more troops to the country. Upset that he had posted a video so skeptical of the president’s policy, some supporters pulled their names from his e-mail list, and some key funders dropped out. But last month, MoveOn.org, a big champion of the president’s, sent out a call to millions of its members to host screenings of Greenwald’s film, now in six installments on its website.
“The combination of Iraq fatigue, plus the hope that Obama would not lead us here, kept people on the sidelines,” Greenwald says. “That is starting to change.”
Other views are more tentative, as the entertainment industry reflects the attitude of the population as a whole: aware that Obama, during the campaign, characterized Afghanistan as the right war to fight but wary of the deteriorating situation and the prospect of the United States backing a corrupt government.
“I think generally there is growing concern, reflecting the nation, as it is clear there are no easy answers,” says Donna Bojarsky, director of the Foreign Policy Roundtable, a salon of entertainment industry figures on world issues. “There has always been a contingent that has called for the dismantling of the effort. It may grow, but I think that people are as perplexed as the president understandably is about what the right course is.”
She says that industry figures “appreciate that he is not making a snap decision and that he is, to a certain extent, being transparent about it.”
Opposition is not so clear-cut. High-profile people such as Mavis Leno, the wife of talk show host Jay, have for years spotlighted the plight of Afghan women, and the campaign she chairs for the Feminist Majority Foundation calls for increased security and safety for the Afghan people.
Yet the idea that Hollywood Democrats will follow in lockstep with their president belies history. Former President Bill Clinton embraced the entertainment industry yet endured vocal opposition to welfare reform and protest of his fundraising practices.
The Bush years were a reminder of the vocal potency of the anti-war movement, as stars marched and even led anti-war rallies and creative types produced a spate of war-themed movies.
And as divergent as the stakes are, the Afghan situation does invite comparisons with Vietnam, when President Lyndon B. Johnson saw his liberal support from the entertainment industry crumble as the escalation continued and casualties mounted. One of the more infamous moments came in the White House itself. At an otherwise prim and proper luncheon in 1968, Eartha Kitt took the opportunity to publicly speak out against the war to Lady Bird Johnson, who was near tears after the incident.
Among those with growing concern is producer Mike Medavoy, who, with wife Irena, raised money for Obama and hosted him at a campaign fundraiser at their Beverly Park home.
Medavoy is not for abandoning Afghanistan but suggests that this is a “worldwide problem” that involves the resolution of the disputed territory of Kashmir and needs the engagement of all countries in the region: Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, China. He also says that more attention has to be paid to one issue that gets short shrift: the monetary cost.
“I don’t speak for Hollywood. But it is still about sacrificing lives and body bags coming home, about having a reason to go in and having an exit plan,” says Medavoy, the author, with Nathan Gardels, of “‘American Idol’ After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.” “Let’s face it: We are talking about hundreds of years, in a country with poppy crops and tribalism, that we have to deal with. None of us want to relive Vietnam.”
If Obama ultimately decides to escalate, “he will have thought it out,” Medavoy says, “but my own personal feeling is that it is not a solution unless he’s got an exit plan.”
What is unlikely to happen is a spate of Afghanistan-themed movies, given the dismal results of almost anything that dealt with Iraq at the box office. Nevertheless, Medavoy says Afghanistan already evokes movies made long ago, via words attached to Laurel & Hardy: It’s a fine mess we’re in.