Top Talent Lining the War Path
By Pamela McClintock
NEW YORK (Variety - 27 Dec) - Sean Penn (news)'s visit to Baghdad earlier this month probably wasn't what the Bush administration had in mind when it reached out to Hollywood for help with the war against terrorism.
Officially, the State Dept. was mum on its opinion of Penn's antiwar trek, just as it has tried to ignore a growing chorus of Hollywood celebs opposed to an American invasion of Iraq.
Problem for Washington is that many Americans are starstruck, so that when Penn or Susan Sarandon (news) or Robert Redford (news) takes to the airwaves to blast Bush administration hawks, people take notice.
There was an unusual detente between the liberal-leaning Hollywood and the Republican administration following 9/11.
All sectors of the industry joined in offering their assistance, whether to get new movies to U.S. military forces overseas or to produce public service announcements extolling America's positive qualities.
But as the administration's focus shifted from the war on terrorism to a war with Iraq, Hollywood's exuberance began to fade.
"Somewhere along the line, the actions of this government are the actions of me," proclaimed Penn during his three-day stay in Baghdad.
"And if there's going to be blood on my hands, I'm not willing to have it be invisible. I wanted to come to Iraq and see Iraqi faces --- children, adults, diplomats, anybody that implies -- and go home with some impressions that will not let me off the hook," he said.
Despite Penn's tentativeness, the official Iraqi News Service was quick to report Penn's apparent view that Iraq is "completely clear of weapons of mass destruction."
Before Penn could deny it, the New York Post had published its top 10 reasons Penn would be a great U.N. arms inspector (No. 2: "After 'Shanghai Surprise,' Penn certainly knows what a bomb looks like.").
While the brooding, prickly Penn may be easy for policymakers in Washington to snub, more mainstream stars such as Ben Affleck (news) could carry great weight with a nervous American public.
Then there's the stable of celebrities who have long been politically active, including Barbra Streisand (news), Rob Reiner (news), Warren Beatty (news), Tim Robbins (news) and Sarandon. They know how to rally a crowd -- and attract the news cameras.
FEDS ENLISTING CREATIVES
Back in Washington, the U.S. State Dept. is rushing to put its spin on world events, enlisting its own cadre of creative types.
Earlier this month, the State Dept.'s International Information Programs put out a pamphlet featuring essays written by 15 well-known authors, including Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford.
The "Writers on America" publication won't be seen at bookstores in this country, since federal law forbids the dissemination of government-sponsored information domestically. The law was enacted in the late 1940s to shield Americans from U.S. propaganda.
At a press briefing Dec. 18, State Dept. public diplomacy chief Charlotte Beers announced that her division has asked author Ken Pollack to interrupt a book tour and travel overseas to talk about his book "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."
Turns out the State Dept. also has been courting foreign journalists over the past year.
"We set up many more responsive facilities than we've had in the past for the foreign press at the president's ranch in Texas, at the White House and in our own State foreign press centers, which are Washington, New York and Los Angeles," Beers said.
A former Madison Ave. executive, Beers extolled the importance of "storytelling" in convincing overseas audiences that the U.S. is only trying to do good.
"And that's something that we really have to get better at. This is an emotionally laden universe now. It's not just the facts that are operating in the world now," Beers said.
Hence, the State Dept. has just published the book "Iraq: From Fear to Freedom."
Beers made sure to point out a passage by President Bush (news - web sites): "I hope the good people of Iraq will remember our history. America has never sought to dominate, never sought to conquer. We have, in fact, sought to liberate and free. Our desire is to help Iraqi citizens find the blessings of liberty within their own culture and their own traditions."
In the middle of Beers' briefing at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, several protesters stood up and began shouting, "You're selling war and we're not buying."
No Hollywood stars were among the protesters, but rest assured, there will be plenty of them hitting the airwaves in the days to come: They'll be taking issue with the Bush administration's Iraq campaign and waging their own war to win the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere.