Several factors explain this shift. The intense polarization of American politics probably encourages celebrities to focus on international issues that don’t divide their audiences as sharply. “There’s hardly a person who is going to blame you for going to Uganda; those issues don’t have any political downside,” says Lara Bergthold, who has organized celebrities for liberal causes since the 1980s. Further, as the entertainment industry has grown more global, so has the incentive for stars to pursue global causes, notes Craig Minassian, a former HBO producer who consults with the Clinton Global Initiative (and who also recently produced Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity). “To the extent they are addressing issues that are important in Africa or Asia, it also helps them from a global-brand perspective,” he points out. Both Bergthold and Minassian note that involvement in development issues also provides stars with more-tangible evidence of effectiveness for the time they commit. “[Fighting] cancer feels like you never get over the hump, but you really can get clean water to 1,000 villagers in Malawi,” Minassian says.
Two individuals have also had a powerful impact in shaping the contemporary pattern of Hollywood activism. One is President Obama. Although Obama has many Hollywood admirers (as demonstrated by his lucrative fundraising visit there last week), he has generally kept his distance from celebrities. That’s an eminently logical response after Republicans attempted in 2008 to portray Obama himself as a vapid celebrity. But the president’s caution has reinforced the tilt toward philanthropy over campaigns. The other, even more consequential figure, is Bono, the frenetic front man for the global rock band U2. Bono, to a remarkable extent, has cut the mold for modern celebrity activism: The other most effective contemporary celebrities (from George Clooney and Angelina Jolie to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) have followed his path of focusing on international poverty and health, building institutions, emphasizing direct action over campaigning, and working politically with both parties. This isn’t a ranking, but if it were, Bono unquestionably would have topped NJ’s list as the most politically effective celebrity of all time.
National Journal Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein is the author of The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection (Pantheon 1990). Some of the material in this article was adapted from that book.
As power in the film industry shifted during the 1960s from the studios to the stars, Beatty helped to define the new opportunities available to Hollywood’s brightest lights. Unsatisfied with appearing before the camera as a magnetic (if often veiled) leading man, he moved behind the scenes as a producer, director, and writer. Beatty engineered the same transition in politics. Although he campaigned some for causes and candidates through the early 1970s (especially for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972), the cerebral, guarded, and self-contained Beatty quickly came to pursue his political passions offstage. “I felt that the advertising aspect of the participation made me feel silly,” he said later. Instead, Beatty perfected a new role: the star as strategist. In McGovern’s 1972 run, and then in the 1984 presidential bid of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado (whom he met while Hart served as McGovern’s young campaign manager), Beatty exercised more influence at the upper reaches of a presidential campaign than any Hollywood figure before him.
For McGovern, Beatty did everything from organizing fundraising rock concerts to mounting a long-shot effort to persuade Hubert Humphrey to run as the nominee’s vice-president. With Hart, he was an all-purpose adviser who nudged the often wonky candidate (with mixed success) to shed the senatorial stiffness in his language and reveal more of his emotions to voters. Hart’s friendship with Beatty, then the most celebrated Hollywood Casanova of his age, stirred controversy, fairly or not, amid the questions about the state of Hart’s marriage. Inside the campaign, however, even Hart’s most hard-bitten advisers viewed the star as a positive, creative, and oddly stabilizing influence on the tightly wound candidate. Occasionally impractical (and sometimes inscrutable) in his advice, Beatty was never again as involved in a campaign and frequently felt alienated from a national Democratic Party that sought the center. But over his period of high-level engagement, he helped cement the idea that celebrities could do more in politics than adorn public rallies.
As a singer and an actor, Belafonte possessed the rarest of commodities for a black man in the 1950s: a public platform. For years, he deployed that asset with commitment and creativity to support the civil-rights movement. Belafonte used every tool at his disposal—his fame (he headlined rallies and fund-raisers and once led a delegation of students to the Eisenhower White House to deliver a petition supporting school integration); his money (he bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham, Ala., jail); and his political savvy (he served as an emissary to and bridge between not only King and Robert F. Kennedy but also King and more-impatient civil-rights groups to his left.) More than a public performer, Belafonte became a confidant of, and a strategist for, the civil-rights leadership. Belafonte has also demonstrated remarkable political stamina. Almost three decades after he met King, he helped organize the star-studded “We Are the World” recording in 1985 for Africa and served as a UNICEF special ambassador. Belafonte’s compass has wobbled in recent years; his comments on foreign policy veered toward the fringe, and during the George W. Bush presidency he offensively compared Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to house slaves. But no entertainer did more to help lift the stain of state-sponsored segregation from the United States.