Peter Bart: George Clooney’s Joe Biden Reversal Stirs Both Respect And Angst Among Politics-Shy Stars

It’s all about trust. “There is an unspoken trust between fans and the stars they admire, and politics undercuts that trust. That’s why politics is off limits to celebrities who have a survival instinct.”

That’s what one star confided to me on issues that now seem irrelevant (details below). I’m certain George Clooney considered that trust this week before going public with his startling call for Joe Biden to withdraw from the presidential race.

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I have great respect for Clooney’s decision, but I also believe it will cost him. I don’t claim a personal friendship with Clooney, but I’ve spent enough time with him to know that this must have been a painful decision.

Politics, he knows, is a dangerous game for celebrities. Some survive, others are permanently damaged. Again, there’s that subtext of trust.

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The details involve some “generation jumping.” I once hired Jane Fonda to star in a movie at a moment when her name was anathema in the industry. “Are you sure you want to get involved with someone as poisonous as me?” she asked me candidly. “There will be angry noise.”

My offer stood. Some studios backed away. Fun with Dick and Jane was a hit, but it had to endure a mixed media response and some angry pickets. To this day, her name still stirs argument.

Ironically, I had similar conversations with John Wayne when I slipped him the novel titled True Grit in 1968. “Duke” knew he was widely loathed by young filmgoers for his Vietnam War position. I had argued with him about the war over steak dinners. He was both intelligent and gracious in our conversation but stubbornly unyielding. True Grit was a bigger hit than his Vietnam movie.

I often played tennis with Charlton Heston, who was keenly aware that his hard-right positions on guns and other issues had alienated many of his fans. Thoughtful and articulate, Heston’s attitudes softened in his later years and he had regrets about allowing himself to be typecast politically.

Warren Beatty, by contrast, never regretted his years as a liberal activist. He was criticized by the right for his support of Gary Hart as a presidential candidate but was outraged when Hart’s political life was canceled by rumors of sexual indiscretions.

Today’s stars, by contrast, are zealously steering clear of political debates fearing a Trump-like backlash. The exception is Clooney, who has been stalwart in his support of Biden and out front in raising money for the Biden-Harris ticket.

George Clooney
George Clooney

Apart from potential career damage, Clooney must confront donors who have spent millions at his urging to support a ticket he now renounces.

He is as stubborn as John Wayne and as courageous as Jane Fonda and will continue to occupy the center of the celebrity stage. But in interfacing with his fans, there will always be that cloud of trust.

As a young reporter for the New York Times I covered the political rise of Ronald Reagan and recall a 15-minute discussion with him about Richard Nixon. “I want people to like me, even voters who vote against me,” he told me. “Nixon doesn’t seem to care, but I’m still an actor.”

Clooney is still an actor who wants to be liked, which has become an ever more difficult challenge.

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