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Gay marriage support brings Obama renewed Hollywood enthusiasm, but at a familiar risk
Under a tent on George Clooney's basketball court, the cheers were loud and warm for President Barack Obama.
"I want to thank Clooney for letting us use his basketball court," Obama quipped to a glittery crowd that included Barbra Streisand, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Salma Hayek and Tobey Maguire. "This guy has been talking smack about his basketball game ever since I've known him."
It can't feel too shabby to be applauded by Barbra, Salma and Tobey while you're teasing your buddy George. And though many of the guests Thursday night at Clooney's home in the Studio City area of Los Angeles, like their host, had long been steadfast supporters, there was no question the president was feeling some special love at this Hollywood fundraiser, having thrilled the community a day earlier with the support for gay marriage they'd long awaited.
Only months ago, it seemed uncertain whether Obama would get the same kind of loving embrace from Hollywood that he did in the 2008 campaign. Actor and former supporter Matt Damon in particular voiced his displeasure last year, saying the president had "misinterpreted his mandate" and that he needed guts, though he used a blunter term. will.i.am, creator of that "Yes We Can" viral video that ended with the word "HOPE," said: "I don't want to hope anymore." Even Obama's top fundraisers acknowledged the mood was more muted ' unavoidably, they said ' than during Obama's first campaign.
To be sure, the issue was also one of timing ' during the GOP primary season, when a different candidate seemed to be on top each week, there hadn't yet emerged a clear opponent to the president.
"Last year there was no sense of urgency," says Andy Spahn, a political adviser to entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who organized the Clooney event, as well as a top Obama fundraiser himself. "As the race came into focus and the choice became clear, people have been rushing to support the president."
But the gay marriage decision, he says, "will certainly add to the enthusiasm behind the president's campaign. It translates into more energy." And hopefully, dollars: "Funds are critical as we enter the summer months," he says, to counter the "super PAC" money flowing to Republican Mitt Romney. "The re-election is going to need these resources."
He and other fundraisers in the community, though, hasten to note that Obama events had been selling out even before Obama's gay marriage announcement ' as Clooney's did, raising nearly $15 million, a record for a single fundraiser.
"I've never been part of any event that didn't sell out," says Chad Griffin, a member of Obama's National Finance Committee and a prominent gay rights leader. But now, he says, crowds at events like the fundraiser/concert in June he is co-hosting, the LGBT Leadership Council Gala, "will be more energized, more enthusiastic."
"What the president did yesterday was historic," says Griffin, also the incoming president of the Human Rights Campaign. He added that he, like many fellow gay rights advocates, will never forget where he was when he heard Obama's words this week.
Hollywood's obvious happiness went beyond the mood at Thursday's fundraiser. Actress Marlo Thomas, for example, wrote a letter on the Huffington Post website saying: "Thank you, Mr. President, for this remarkable triumph." The co-creator of the monster TV hit "Glee," Ryan Murphy, signed on to host a fundraising dinner that will dovetail with the June 6 concert, featuring the singer Pink.
But does all the enthusiasm come at a cost? Obama's opponents tried as hard as they could in 2008 to make the candidate's Hollywood connections a liability, painting him as a celebrity darling hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Most famous of those efforts: the John McCain campaign ad linking candidate Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The ad was ridiculed by many ' the two celebs were no longer even current, some noted ' and parodied by Hilton herself. But the Obama campaign did downplay the role of celebrities at the Democratic convention that summer.
This time, there's already a similar ad circulating from the pro-GOP super PAC called American Crossroads. "Four years ago," it starts, "American elected the biggest celebrity in the world."
It shows Obama in dark sunglasses, Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, Obama "slow-jamming" the news with late-night host Jimmy Fallon, Obama singing an Al Green song, and calling Kanye West a "jackass" for his Taylor Swift debacle. Then in bold writing it asks: "After 4 years of a celebrity president is your life any better?"
("Typical Republican grousing," retorts Spahn, adding that the Republicans have no problem with singer Ted Nugent publicly supporting Romney.)
But some celebrities undeniably wield influence ' let's not forget Oprah Winfrey's clout in 2008.
"Celebrities can attract a lot of attention, and some people take the comments of celebrities quite seriously," says Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California. "I'm not sure if celebrities alone can make or break a campaign, but they can be a potential factor."
Boyd says McCain's efforts to use Obama's celebrity connections against him obviously failed in the end, given the results. But, he adds, since Obama's newness has worn off, even to his Hollywood base, celebrities on the whole will likely play a lesser role this time.
Whatever the role, Griffin, the fundraiser and gay rights activist, says the wealthy Hollywood Democratic community is now firmly and enthusiastically behind its candidate.
"I don't know anyone staying on the sidelines," Griffin says. "We've got a head-to-head. We're in the game."