Planet Hollywood, Planet Earth, and Planet Clinton

No political constituency has been more zealously courted and massaged by Bill Clinton and Al Gore than the Hollywood liberals. Not only has this community of stars long been an enormously important source of campaign money, but this year California is vital for Bill Clinton's reelection. Furthermore, support from the Hollywood liberals is a bellwether for how money-giving liberal trendsetters across the country are feeling about the administration.

In this liberal Hollywood set environmental issues are high on the agenda. Robert Redford sits on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council and speaks out for mining reform and the protection of Western wilderness areas. Meryl Streep founded her own group, Mothers for a Livable Planet, which campaigns against the dangers of pesticides. The grand diva of Hollywood, Barbra Streisand, promotes the virtues of the Amazon rainforest, while Richard Gere recites the eco-wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Clinton's pal Ted Danson heads up an ocean protection group. (For those with an appetite for Hollywood trivia, Governor Clinton slipped out for a date with Danson's wife and fellow Arkansan Mary Steenburgen on the night slated for the first execution in Arkansas after the Supreme Court reinstalled the death penalty.) Scores of other Hollywood names attach themselves to causes ranging from desert preservation to saving the whales.

So it was scarcely surprising that a five-bell alarm went off in the White House in mid-May when a series of full-page ads taken out by Voice Of The Environment ran in all Western editions of the New York Times. Voice Of The Environment (or simply: VOTE) is a feisty and unabashedly political group with a mind of its own. Founded by Lewis Siler, son of a Hollywood producer, VOTE's operations are run out of Belinas, California, by longtime environmental activist David Orr. Its board is populated not by big-money types but by hardcore activists, such as Andy Mahler, Susan Schock, Mat Jacobsen, and Dennis Banks. Consequently, VOTE's ad pulled no punches.

Drawing on past Nature and Politics exposés and on a cover story in The Progressive by the present authors ("Slime Green," May, 1996), it featured in bold type the headline: America Betrayed. This was followed by the litany of Clinton-Gore sellouts on the environment: increased logging in ancient forests; support for NAFTA and GATT; retreats on banning the use of ozone-depleting chemicals such as methyl bromide; importing of PCBs for incineration in the U.S.; attempts to overturn dolphin-protection laws; quiet support for Norway's efforts to continue whaling; the salvage logging rider that suspended the rule of law on America's public lands; gutting the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act; lowering cattle grazing fees on public grasslands. "President Clinton," the ad declared, "you have done more to harm the environment and weaken environmental regulations in four years than Presidents Bush and Reagan in their 12 years. Your hypocrisy and deceptiveness while trying to greenwash your administration is not fooling anyone." The VOTE ad concluded by urging anyone caring about the environment and democracy to support Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaign.

The White House received dozens of calls from supporters and big-time contributors on the West Coast worried that such direct attacks might harm the administration in critical states such as California, Oregon, and Washington. Within days of the appearance of this ad, no less an eminence than Vice President Al Gore was swiftly drafted to defend the administration's record. Gore duly placed calls to the Hollywood elite promising to personally address their concerns. He consented to radio and print interviews where he admitted that signing the salvage logging rider had been "the administration's biggest mistake." But the vice president pledged to use "every power in my hands to minimize the damage."

But the fact is that the administration has done absolutely nothing to slow down implementation of the salvage rider. Indeed, the Forest Service claims to be 15 percent ahead of schedule in logging off timber under the law. These sales have resulted in the logging of 1,000-year-old trees in Oregon, irreplaceable rainforest in Alaska, and rare grizzly bear habitat on the border of Yellowstone National Park. The administration had the discretion to cancel all of these timber sales and chose not to do so.

Meanwhile, Gore's staff rushed a column under his name to Western papers attacking Senator Bob Dole's purported plans to usher "takings" legislation through the Senate before he retires in June. The takings issue--which has little public support--is really just a kind of sophisticated ecological extortion racket in which corporations demand to be compensated for not polluting the environment. Gore's column blasts the Republicans advancing this budget-busting idea, but conveniently elides any mention of the Clinton administration's strategy on this subject, which has been to simply give the corporations what they want, such as gaping exemptions from the Endangered Species Act.

While Gore was popping up on op-ed pages and talkshows, his former top aide, Katie McGinty, now head of the Council on Environmental Quality, was dispatched to Los Angeles for a courting ritual with celebrity, glamour, and big money. McGinty had learned that some Hollywood greens had been making dangerous mutterings about defecting to the Nader camp. One of those leading this rebellion was the actor Ed Begley, Jr. Begley is one of the few Hollywood greens who has earned a reputation as a real environmentalist. He lives in a small bungalow in Studio City that is entirely powered by a bank of solar panels. He owns an electric car and studiously avoids travel in autos powered by what he calls "infernal combustion engines." Usually, he bikes to work or hops Amtrak for out-of-town gigs. With these credentials, Begley could pose a big problem for the administration.

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