AFFLECK RUMSFELD
Linda Spillers  /  ABC News via AP
Affleck yucks it up with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, before the White House Correspondents Dinner.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 5/10/2004 3:32:06 PM ET 2004-05-10T19:32:06

Ben Affleck is a tall fellow, and at the Bloomberg party following the White House Correspondents Dinner he was a giant. Everyone on the D.C. political/media scene wanted a piece of him — and eagerly waited their turn to look up and gawk in person. His conversational bouquet was better attended than most screenings of "Gigli."

Such mating rituals occur fairly routinely here. We love hanging around celebrities — and celebrities love talking politics. For the ugly Washingtonians who want to seem pretty, and for the stupid celebrities who want to seem smart, it’s a mutual affirmation society. As John McCain once said, "If Washington is a Hollywood for ugly people, Hollywood is a Washington for the simpleminded."

It’s also a competition — but one played on an entirely un-level playing field. Hollywood is a town full of beautiful boob jobs. D.C. gets painful prostate procedures. Hollywood once nominated the movie "Chocolat" for a best picture Oscar, even though it's missing an "e." Hey, didn't they make fun of Dan Quayle for adding one?

I say it’s time to call off the game. Forget the alleged wall between church and state. We need a wall between babbling celebrities and state. Can’t we just say no to celebrities? Let’s kick the habit.

Bush gives us an opportunity
We’ve got the chance now with George W. Bush in the White House. He’s on the right track with Hollywood. Here’s President Bush addressing Tsinghua University in China in 2002: "As America learns more about China, I am concerned that the Chinese people do not always see a clear picture of my country. This happens for many reasons and some of them are our own making. Our movies and television shows often do not portray the values of the real America I know."

Contrast that attitude toward Hollywood with these uniquely Bill Clinton thoughts:

  • "I'm someone who has a deep emotional attachment to 'Starsky and Hutch'."
  • "I loved ‘American Beauty.’ I love Kevin Spacey. I actually liked "Howard the Duck."
  • "Did you see Whoopi Goldberg in 'Sister Act'? I wanted to be in that choir so bad I could spit."

Yes, White House attitudes toward Hollywood have, well, matured with the change of administrations. Which makes it a perfect opportunity to rethink Washington’s worship of all things La-La Land.

Ben Affleck is just one of many celebrities to use Washington as a personal political soap box. His pet cause is raising the minimum wage, presumably high enough to afford a ticket to see one of his pictures. But there’s a long tradition preceding him.

Jane Fonda said on the "Meet the Press" in 1979: "I am a citizen activist. I think it's in the highest tradition of our country for private citizens to speak out, not just as individuals but as members of organizations that can have some power. Obviously as someone who is famous, I have a particular responsibility and I want to try to use it properly." Tell that to James Caan, who succinctly observed last year: "All actors are ignorant. They should keep their mouths shut."

Unfortunately, for every James Caan, there are dozens of Donnie Wahlbergs. Wahlberg’s the guy who once said, "I would like to meet Mikhail Gorbachev. I think it would be great to sit in a room with him and talk about the situation in the world and try to make peace." Nothing like trading Kissinger for the new kid on the block.

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From speaking to acting
Not only do celebrities speak out on politics, they fancy themselves to be actual politicians. Mick Jagger once said, "I'm thinking about entering politics; I'd love to do it, but I haven't got the right wife." Warren Beatty almost did — he flirted with a run for the presidency in 2000 (face it, the guy’s done a lot of flirting). In fact, in the 2000 campaign, Warren Beatty, Cybill Shepherd, and Donald Trump all considered running for president — from the Reform Party. Poor Reform Party. We hadn't seen that many celebrities in a disaster area since "Towering Inferno." Remember when Clinton said he wants a cabinet that looks like America? If any of these celebrities became president, we'd get a cabinet that looks like the "Love Boat."

The country’s better off when celebrities just play politics where they belong — California. That’s where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can get away with this line: "If I can sell tickets to my movies like ‘Red Sonja’ or ‘Last Action Hero,’ you know I can sell just about anything. California is the easiest sell I ever had." It’s much funnier than this misdirected George Clooney missive: "The government is run exactly like The Sopranos." The Sopranos, needless to say, are a huge success.

Of course, keeping actors out of Washington would have meant no Ronald Reagan. But he was in on the joke. President Reagan once remarked — ironically, of course — about the very liberal Ed Asner: "What does an actor know about politics?" He once said, "You'd be surprised how much being a good actor pays off." And President Reagan had this to say about Clint Eastwood: "What makes him think a middle-aged actor who's played with a chimp could have a future in politics."

Maybe Ben Affleck could work with a monkey. For minimum wage, of course.

The Thompson touch
Former Senator Fred Thompson, now of "Law and Order" fame, had his own Reaganesque light touch. He said in 1996: "After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood."

Some in Hollywood must have believed Thompson. The very loud Tim Robbins took himself very seriously when he huffed a year ago to the National Press Club: "Hollywood can be many things. It can be a fantastic place. I've gotten great opportunity from there, and many great friends of mine live out there. But also, at the same time, it's not one particular thing, one particular agenda, one particular point of view, any philosophy. Hollywood is many, many different things, just as America is many, many different things."

Sorry, Tim. That’s why you’ll never hold office. Too long-winded. Take a lesson from Madonna on how to cut through the rhetoric. Here’s what the Material Girl once said: "Freedom of speech is better than sex."

Now why won’t she come to the White House Correspondents Dinner? Bet Madonna could offer table talk far more interesting than the minimum wage.

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

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