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A new kind of revolution

National | Ex-leftist activist David Horowitz attempts to help conservatives infiltrate the movie industry

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

in Los Angeles - In a class B office building four blocks south of that crown jewel of capitalism, Rodeo Drive, David Horowitz hunkers over a PC monitor punching up dates on a scheduling program. He is harried in his rumpled beige suit, intense behind square glasses and salt-and-pepper beard. And no wonder-he's plotting a war. The battlefield is Hollywood and Mr. Horowitz is taking no prisoners. From his command post at the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, the L.A.-based conservative think tank Mr. Horowitz heads, he's orchestrating a direct assault on liberalism in the entertainment industry. His weapon of choice? An explosive mix of Hollywood power and Washington political clout. Mr. Horowitz is an unlikely looking revolutionary, short and bookish, with an affinity for fighting on the side of the underdog. His last revolution was a failure: Growing up in a communist family, he was a chief ideologue of the student radicals in the 1960s. Though Jewish, he became associated with the Black Panthers and ultimately was drawn into their inner circle. But by 1974, he realized the Panthers were not, as was widely believed, a band of noble rebels at the vanguard of a righteous class war. Instead, they were a gang of murderers and thieves. And by slow degrees, Mr. Horowitz became convinced that his life's work, the construction of an American Marxist utopia, was built on a lie. Disillusioned with leftist thought, Mr. Horowitz embraced conservatism. But the tactics he forged over three decades of political trench warfare now serve him well. Mr. Horowitz first took on Tinseltown in 1992. Until then, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (CSPC) had advanced secular conservative thought mainly through the mainstream media, conservative outreach events, and Center publications like the journal Heterodoxy (the antithesis of the incendiary, ultra-left journal Ramparts he edited in the '60s.) But the morning after the Clintons were elected in November 1992, Mr. Horowitz (by then a best-selling political biographer) teamed with filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd (The Hanoi Hilton) to found the Wednesday Morning Club (WMC). The mission of the WMC has been to bridge the gap between leading conservatives and Hollywood by introducing entertainment industry leaders to national political leaders. The goal was to exterminate the myth that all conservatives are compassionless, cigar-smoking bean counters, while all Hollywood's elite are tree-hugging members of the self-righteously compassionate left. So far, it's working. Drawing the desired mix of liberal and conservative audiences, the WMC has, over the years, hosted an A-list of conservative speakers. Podium luminaries in 1998 included congressman Henry Hyde and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Columnist George F. Will, who appeared this past January, and journalist Chris Matthews of the CNBC news program Hardball have topped the WMC bill this year. Studio heads, guild presidents, politicians, and working actors regularly attend WMC events. Tom Selleck, Rep. J.C. Watts, Ron Silver, Kurt Russell, and Sen. Trent Lott are regular participants. But it was on January 15, 1998, when Newt Gingrich's turn as WMC speaker drew a crowd of 350 politicos and entertainment insiders-including a liberal, revisionist filmmaker named Oliver Stone-that Mr. Horowitz knew the Wednesday Morning Club had made its mark. "By then, Gingrich was already a demonized figure," says Mr. Horowitz now. "I knew we had interest before, but that we could draw a crowd that large confirmed we had a good basis to build on." That basis includes a conservative undercurrent in Hollywood that doesn't get much press. According to Mr. Horowitz, the town's touted reputation as a liberal bastion is more reflexive than realistic: "While it's true there are a lot of leftists here, there are also a lot of conservatives," he says. "The industry is driven mainly by the bottom line. In order to make films, you have to get an awful lot people in the front door. Therefore, Hollywood has to respond to [public opinion]. It has to validate itself every cycle." Tinseltown, Mr. Horowitz says, is a "lagging cultural indicator," one driven by public response. He posits, therefore, that any problems conservatives have with Hollywood are really problems with the American people. He points out The Prince of Egypt as an example of a conservative-friendly film whose poor box office performance proves out the "public action/Hollywood reaction" dynamic. Will profit-conscious studios risk another Prince of Egypt? Probably not. And who's at fault? Filmgoers. "Conservatives should stop attacking Hollywood," Horowitz says. "You might as well attack America." He contends that vitriolic attacks on Hollywood by conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, do more to confirm their image as narrow-minded, knee-jerk reactionaries than to reform studio output. Instead, he recommends "praising the positive" and working constructively on the negative. WMC co-founder Lionel Chetwynd says the Horowitz focus on constructive change has transformed Hollywood into a politically diverse environment where conservatism is no longer a closet virtue. "When we first started [the WMC] we used to hold the meetings at my house so that people wouldn't 'be seen,'" he recalls. "But once we got up and running, once we showed [Hollywood professionals] they'd still continue to work and be invited to the 'good' dinner parties, we started drawing an important, influential crowd of people." The practical outworkings of Hollywood's new political diversity are tough to measure-but some signs are appearing. For example, last November, outgoing Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson spoke at the WMC. Citing NBC's popular show Friends in particular, he asked the entertainment industry crowd to consider damping the sexual content of programs broadcast during the traditional family hour of 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. In January, incoming NBC entertainment chief Scott Sassa told the TV press he intended to tone down sexual storylines in some network shows-especially in early-evening fare like Friends. Commenting on the WMC link to that revelation, New York press writer Catherine Seipp said the network turnabout was probably a coincidence. But she pointed out that, in Hollywood, "attitude shifts are incremental. Who can say just what gives them the final push?" CBS's Touched by an Angel is another possible Horowitz-assisted harbinger of a Hollywood attitude adjustment. The show first aired one year after CBS head Les Moonves attended a CSPC-sponsored conference called "Religion in Prime Time." "I won't say there's a direct connection," says Mr. Horowitz, "but I think we've affected the atmosphere here and made it more positive." Mr. Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture is strategically bivouacked within a 10-minute ride from 20th Century Fox, numerous Hollywood power-lunch stops, and the Beverly Hills castles of Hollywood's rich and influential. Scattered around his corner office are reminders of his failed revolution: a photo of his parents, leftist political utopians who weaned their son on Marxist doctrine the way other parents might raise a child to believe in God; a 1966 photo with fellow '60s radical Ron Radosh in front of Karl Marx's tomb; a conciliatory, no-hard-feelings note from Richard Nixon acknowledging Mr. Horowitz's "honest and vigorous" opposition to the former president's policies. Also on the office wall: a front page San Francisco Examiner story in which Mr. Horowitz de-mythologizes former Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Elaine Brown, once his comrades and fellow "strugglers." Mr. Horowitz's article exposed Mr. Newton and Ms. Brown as murdering, larcenous thugs, and accused the Panthers of the still unsolved murder of Betty Van Patter, Mr. Horowitz's friend and colleague. That 1974 tragedy crystallized his disillusionment and political rebirth-and led to this new revolution. As David Horowitz hunches over his computerized schedule working feverishly on the day's battle plan, two lieutenants march in with updates and reminders: lunch today at Chasen's with a legislator; tomorrow, a speaking engagement on a yacht. Ever since Mr. Horowitz gained national prominence as a secular conservative activist, his former radical comrades-in-arms have accused him of selling out, of abandoning the noble struggle for "the People" to join forces with rich, oppressive American imperialists. But the truth is, in battling from the besieged conservative trenches of the current culture war, Mr. Horowitz is once again taking the battle to his opponents' terrain, while fighting on the side of the underdog.

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