Gore and Hollywood: Biting the Hand That Pays?

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Al, Tipper and Joe at Radio City Music Hall for a Democratic fund-raiser

It was to have been a cozy breakfast on the Paramount lot, just the vice president and the heads of the major movie studios and television networks discussing how to promote cancer awareness. Then Al Gore marched in with a rough cut of his own: a five-minute video of movie and television scenes in which the hottest stars — John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Winona Ryder among them — were smoking cigarettes. The 1997 power breakfast quickly became a food fight, with accusations of irresponsibility and censorship flying back and forth between Gore and the angry moguls.

Over the years, Al and Tipper Gore have had more than their share of tense moments with the entertainment industry. The uneasy relationship started with Tipper's crusade in the 1980s against smutty and violent rock lyrics. It has continued through Al's vice presidency, during which he played a key role in negotiating a voluntary TV-ratings system, a law requiring that new televisions be equipped with a V chip to help parents block out offensive programs, and a deal in which broadcasters agreed to provide three hours of educational children's television a week. In a televised forum on school violence on MSNBC with Tom Brokaw as cohost, after the Littleton tragedy last year, Gore startled his staff by blasting the network that ran the program for refusing to agree to the ratings system.

Last week he put even more heat on Hollywood, as the Federal Trade Commission released its report showing the lengths to which the entertainment industry goes in marketing mayhem and sex to children under 17. Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, a longtime critic of the industry, vowed that if these companies don't change their selling practices, a Gore-Lieberman administration would give the FTC new enforcement powers and prosecute them for false advertising.

By comparison, George W. Bush was nearly mute on what might have seemed an ideal issue for a Republican, commenting vaguely about the responsibilities of parents and movie theaters. It may be that his campaign decided that bashing Hollywood didn't work for Bob Dole in 1996. Or it could be that the entire subject is not particularly comfortable for a candidate who sat for 10 years on the board of Silver Screen Management Services Inc., a New York–based firm that financed more than two-dozen R-rated movies. "The Hitcher," one of its films for Home Box Office (which is owned by this magazine's parent company), was described by reviewers as having a "massacre about every 15 minutes" and "gizzard-slitting depravity." A Bush-campaign spokesman said the governor did not participate in Silver Screen's decision to back the film and wasn't aware of it either.

As for Gore, despite all the disgust he has expressed over Hollywood's marketing excesses, he apparently has no qualms about accepting some of the money Hollywood makes from those excesses. The industry has given more than $22 million this election cycle, better than two-thirds of it to Democrats. Gore's campaign has raked in nearly $1 million in individual contributions from those who make their living in television, movies and music. And that was before last week, when on Thursday night alone, Gore and the Democrats raised $6.5 million with the industry's help. The evening included a party at the Central Park West apartment of Miramax Films chairman Harvey Weinstein, whose company has produced such fare as the NC-17-rated "Kids," a chic portrayal of teen depravity. (At Weinstein's the vice president did not criticize Hollywood.) Then came a starry concert at Radio City Music Hall that featured raunchy jokes by comedic actor John Leguizamo (where Gore did criticize Hollywood). This week Gore and his party are expected to collect an additional $4 million on the West Coast, again largely from the industry.

Democrats insisted that Gore's willingness to bite the hand that writes the big checks proves his independence. But Republicans called that line a hypocritical stretch for "Hollywood's candidate." The conservative group American Renewal sniffed, "World-class chutzpah."

While Gore has often been impolitically blunt with Hollywood, there have also been moments when Gore the Politician seemed to be apologizing to the industry for what Gore the Crusader had done. Those moments, no surprise, have coincided with the times that Gore is gearing up for the grubby, expensive proposition of running for president. Shortly before his 1988 race, Al and Tipper suggested during an off-the-record lunch with leading entertainment figures that her campaign against the record industry had got out of hand, particularly when it reached hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee, where Gore was a member. "I was not in favor of the hearing," Gore said, according to a transcript leaked to Daily Variety. Last year, when the administration ordered the FTC study in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, entertainment executives were furious at the prospect of being made scapegoats. As their contributions to Gore began drying up, Gore met with them privately in August 1999 and noted pointedly that the study (the same one he now touts) had been Bill Clinton's idea, not his — comments the gleeful executives soon repeated to the Los Angeles Times.

At any rate, Gore has pulled off a nimble feat for a Democrat: outflanking Bush and taking a stand to his right on an issue that resonates with young families, a key voter group that polls suggest is still up for grabs. Gore takes Hollywood's money and lambastes it at the same time. In politics, maybe that's what passes for tough love.

—With reporting by Desa Philadelphia with Gore