Commentary: Can the Democratic Party kick its celebrity habit?

Two top Hollywood figures — George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein — recently hosted lucrative fundraisers for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" at the Democratic Party fundraising dinner and birthday salute to Presdient John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York, May 19, 1962, REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

It’s not just Hollywood. The cast of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” has added a special matinee for Clinton supporters on July 12. As the former secretary of state amasses her war chest for the national election against her mega-rich rival, she is capitalizing on a long tradition of harnessing star power to raise money for Democrats.

It goes back almost 60 years, when John F. Kennedy elevated the political status of a beleaguered Hollywood left, which was still recovering from congressional investigations into allegations of communism.

Kennedy first emulated the Hollywood Dream Machine to transform himself into a celebrity to gain political power. Then he relied on his celebrity supporters to foot the bill — and they did.

The celebrity presidency launched by Kennedy ingrained not just a showbiz politics style into modern politics, but also a celebrity-driven funding model into the Democratic Party. Despite the increasing criticism about the role of both money and celebrity in politics, both have endured and reinforced the significance of one another.

Hollywood has a long history of fundraising. During the Great Depression, studio executives pressured their top stars to make donations to charities like the Red Cross. It offered an effective way to build goodwill with movie fans, in addition to elevating the social prestige of an industry run by Jewish immigrants — and frequently criticized by the Christian establishment for being immoral.

By the mid-1930s, Hollywood became a “land of causes.” Performances on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday each year benefited the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation — and won favor with the president, the nation’s highest-profile polio victim. Philanthropic causes soon pivoted to more political issues, like supporting the left-wing Popular Front in Spain and anti-fascist organizations in Los Angeles.

This mix of political fundraising and political activism, however, became a subject of controversy — particularly during the Cold War. Conservatives insisted that communists were manipulating Hollywood entertainers by using front organizations. Money raised for orphans or ambulances, the right believed, was actually going to the Communist Party.

The fiercely anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee launched investigations that questioned the patriotism of those who mobilized for progressive causes.

But celebrity activists, especially those committed to causes like racial equality, continued to find ways to raise money to support the civil rights movement. Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte, for example, used their performances at benefit concerts to raise funds for organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

By the 1950s, though, it wasn’t just civil rights activists who needed money to wage political campaigns. Political parties did too.

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Elections increasingly relied on expensive television advertising campaigns. From 1912 to 1952, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and political scientist Herbert Alexander found, campaign costs remained relatively stable --with each vote costing between 19 cents and 20 cents. By the 1960 election, however, that price tag had escalated to 29 cents and then doubled by the 1968 election.

Television ads were not the only culprit. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign broke ground with its media innovations. The charismatic senator took to the primary campaign trail to build enthusiasm, excitement and media publicity to win the nomination.

He relied on a privately funded publicity team — reminiscent of the Hollywood publicity machine his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had worked with when he ran a small studio to promote actress Gloria Swanson during the 1920s. JFK’s new multimedia effort flooded radio, television and newspapers with stories about the photogenic candidate. A production company was hired to follow him on the campaign trail. Kennedy outspent his opponents by an average of 4 to 1 in the primaries.

Kennedy learned that deploying a Hollywood-driven style of “showbiz politics” could help him win not just the nomination, but also the presidency. But it was expensive. The Democratic Party ended the campaign $3 million in the red.

That was when Kennedy turned to Hollywood entertainers for financial support. It also proved a stunning success.

Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, the new president’s brother-in-law, organized Kennedy’s inaugural gala. One newspaper, referring to Kennedy’s campaign theme, called the event, “a new frontier in political fundraising.”

Sinatra built on his experience raising money for the civil rights movement with his fellow Rat-Packer, Davis. The gala set a new party template in how to raise money through star power.

Unlike earlier inaugural events, Kennedy’s directly benefited the Democratic Party. Tickets were pricey -- roughly $100 for general admission tickets or $10,000 for a box. But buyers got their money’s worth: The evening’s performers included Sinatra, Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Poitier, Bette Davis, Gene Kelly, Shirley MacLaine and Henry Fonda.

But, this showbiz approach had more complicated implications for the party structure. Building on lessons from the successful evening, the Democratic National Committee developed the “President’s Club,” which fused elite entertainment with access to the president for those wealthy donors who joined. Kennedy’s Hollywood connection paid off time and time again during his presidency, as stars donated their time to perform at high-end Democratic events.

The sustained reliance on big, private fundraisers, however, focused attention on the president, not state and local parties. The new flood of money came at the expense of building the party machinery.

Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, turned to a different style of fund-raising to expand interest in and loyalty to the party. Led by Richard Viguerie, conservatives strengthened their place in the GOP through mass-solicitation, direct-mail campaigns during the 1970s.

Republican leaders also maintained close connections with Hollywood. But they often encouraged Republican entertainers to run for office themselves, not just raise money for the party.

On both sides, media innovation — showbiz politics and direct mailing — has resulted in new fundraising models. The trend continued with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential race. The Illinois senator’s pioneering campaign model attempted to fuse the GOP tradition of cultivating small donations with the Democratic tradition of celebrity events to build a new political coalition for the party.

Obama’s approach often would offer supporters opportunities to enter a contest to meet celebrities at special events with the candidate — a transformation of the earlier President’s Club model.

But the question remains: Did Obama’s effort help build the Democratic Party? Or did it offer a new version of a president-driven campaign at the expense of state and local races?

The answer matters for Clinton. Though she has millions of dollars for the Hillary Victory Fund, what Clinton needs is party organization to help address the enthusiasm gap that pervade her campaign.

Clooney is said to be sick of throwing fundraisers, but that he is willing to do it so that Democrats can retain control of the White House and take Congress — and then reform the campaign-finance system.

The irony is that it was Clooney’s Hollywood predecessors who ushered in the era of celebrity fundraising.

About the Author

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at Purdue University, is author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life,” which explores the use of Hollywood styles, structures and personalities in U.S. politics over the 20th century.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.