Sunday 8 December 2019

Can Hillary-inspired TV series propel her to the White House?

When the entertainment industry abandoned her for Obama in 2007 it was the end of Clinton's presidential campaign. But the showmance is back, writes Ed Power

Hillary Clinton - set for a battle for the White House.
Hillary Clinton - set for a battle for the White House.
Scarlett Johansson
Tea Leoni

In new television drama Madam Secretary, glamorous Téa Leoni plays a suspiciously familiar lady politician. She's smart, plain-spoken and, as US Secretary of State, formidably in command of her brief - just the sort of can-do operator you'd want covering your back in a sticky situation. She might even, you can't help thinking, make a pretty good President.

The parallels between Leoni's fictional character and a certain real-life former Secretary of State are, of course, obvious. Leoni's character may disdain Hillary Clinton's infamous pantsuits and her home life is rather stabler than Hillary's incident-packed marriage to Bill. Otherwise, though, the resemblance is obvious - leading some to wonder whether Madam Secretary, which aired for the first time in the US last Sunday, might not amount to a covert entertainment industry pitch on behalf of Clinton as she lays the groundwork for a presumed run for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination.

The charge that the CBS network is engaged in not-so-subtle Hillary cheerleading must be taken seriously because, as a Democrat luminary of long-standing, Clinton's ties with Hollywood and beyond run deep. Throughout her career, and that of her husband, the former Commander-in-Chief, Tinsel Town has (usually) been there for her, assisting in bankrolling her campaigns but, more importantly, spreading the message that the Clintons are the kind of leaders - smart, selfless, left leaning - America needs. The solitary occasion Hollywood let her down, tumbling, instead, into a swoon over Barack Obama and his movie-worthy back story, Hillary suffered the major reversal of career.

Amid charges from conservatives that CBS is seeking to advance Hillary towards the Oval Office, it should be noted Madam Secretary is no straightforward hagiography. While executive producer Lori McCreary is upfront that she was inspired to create the show after watching Clinton defend the US government's response to the terrorist attack on its Libya embassy, she has taken care that her fictional Secretary of State - essentially the US equivalent of Minister for Foreign Affairs - differs from Hillary too.

At 48 Leoni's Elizabeth Faulkner is 20 years younger than Hillary and is presented as less buttoned down than Clinton, a politician whose smile has always seemed ratcheted several degrees too tight ("I think Elizabeth's style is... more easygoing than Hillary's," said costume designer Amy Roth. "She's… subtle. It's a modern sensibility and it's hip thinking).

Nonetheless, right-wing America is crying foul. According to Republican-leaning pundits, CBS has effectively handed Hillary $100 million of free advertising .

"A network series can cost between $3 and $4 million an episode," thundered Daniel Greenfield in Frontpage Magazine. "Assuming that Madam Secretary runs even one season, instead of being cancelled ignominiously like Commander in Chief, the 2005 attempt at giving Hillary a human face, it will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million."

"The connections in the show between Elizabeth and Hillary are clear," Katie Yoder of the Culture and Media Institute told Fox News, the unabashedly pro-Republican US network. "The show portrays Madam Secretary as a champion for the 'right thing,' even if that means challenging the president."

If there is truth to the charge that liberal Hollywood is coming out to bat for Hillary, then, not so very deep down, she will surely experience a quiver of relief. As already attested, in her 2007 tussle with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, several of her most trusted show business backers very publicly switched allegiance to Obama, thrusting a knife into the heart of her campaign and twisting it hard.

"Hollywood is crucial to any Democrat candidate, it delivers major fundraisers," Frank Gilliam, of the University of California said recently. "It's pretty clear she's been developing her relationships with her entertainment donors, I would be stunned if she wasn't. Obviously she hasn't announced but she's gauging how much support she would get from various financial players."

The family of Hollywood Democrats includes George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson (who gave a speech at the party's 2012 National Convention). In terms of influence, however, these mere actors are eclipsed by Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of Dreamworks Animation, and by David Geffen, founder of the record company of the same name. When both publicly declared for Obama in 2007, Hillary arguably suffered a blow from which she never recovered.

She will have viewed Katzenberg's shift to Obama as particularly galling - the mogul was a regular visitor to the Clinton White House, staying in the Lincoln Bedroom on several occasions. Meanwhile, Geffen's defection unquestionably hurt too -  in a notorious interview with the New York Times he described Hillary Clinton as "incredibly polarising" and expressed alarm about the "ease" with which the Clintons moulded the truth to fit with their agenda.

Seven years later, with the Obama Presidency judged somewhat of a damp squib by many, all is changed. First on board Team Hillary was Katzenberg who, before Christmas, hosted a fundraiser for the unofficial frontrunner. "She did an amazing job as Secretary of State," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "She has really shown herself to be a great statesman. The four years of seasoning has really made her the best-qualified candidate out there today, and I'm happy to support her."

His support is about more than optics. Katzenberg is a major backer of Priorities USA Action, one of the so-called 'super PACs' the fundraising powers of which are increasingly important in US politics. With a war-chest of $79 million amassed to date for the 2014 election, his imprimatur will be exceedingly valuable. Bear in mind that Hillary will need all the resources as her disposal as she goes up against the Republicans in the General Election - that party's front-runners include Chris Christie and Ted Cruz, both notorious for their brutal campaign tactics.

"The centre of power in the Democratic Party in terms of money really has moved to Katzenberg," a top Democratic strategist was quoted as saying. "The most important person you should get is Jeffrey. He should be her No.1 priority."

"A lot of people in Hollywood are not 100pc thrilled with Obama and think we need a... centrist Democrat," added Irving Azoff, a leading music manager. "The Clinton brand of the Democratic Party has been the most successful in what, 50 years? Why wouldn't people return to that?"

That Clinton is also regarded as presumptive front-runner will help her standing among Beverly Hills power-brokers. In plumping for Obama in 2007, they arguably followed rather than led the crowd - the initiative was clearly with the newcomer from Illinois. Now, Hillary looks to be the anointed candidate.

"Hollywood in general likes to place their money on the winner," leading talent agent Jay Sures old the Hollywood Reporter, "and when there is a clear-cut leader, people will think twice about making donations to candidates they don't think have a shot."

With Clinton expected to announce her candidacy sooner rather than later, has Madam Secretary enhanced her plausibility as President? Opponents aren't sure. The series has its darker elements, they point out - and is not 100pc flattering towards the central character.

"Ironically, the show stresses that a woman in power, a woman in control, has a conflict with 'masculine energy," Katie Yoder said on Fox. "Rather than achieving its positive Hillary goal, the show's poor construction - lack of dramatisation - and portrayal of women might miss the mark for some viewers."

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