BOB GARFIELD: Election results for president of the Screen Actors Guild are expected to be announced this week, and we'll be hearing more on that shortly. But if history is any guide, the candidates may be auditioning for another role: U.S. politics. Song and dance man George Murphy used the SAG presidency as a stepping stone to the U.S. Senate in 1964. His successor as guild president, Ronald Reagan, also had some success in politics. And the two shared something else. They were both Republicans.
Though the acting community is notoriously Democratic, most of the actors elected to public office have come out of GOP studios. According to On the Media's John Solomon, this is more than just a coincidence.
JOHN SOLOMON: California State Senator Sheila Kewel [sp?] is one of the nation's few openly lesbian elected officials. But she is a member of an even rarer political minority group -- former actors who have been voted to office as Democrats.
Kewel, who played Zelda Gilroy on the early '60s TV series, the many loves of Dobie Gillis, is only the third such Democrat elected in modern American history.
Previously, theatre actress Helen Gehagan Douglas [sp?] was sent to Congress from Los Angeles in 1944. Ben Jones, Cooter [sp?] on the Dukes of Hazzard, represented a suburban Atlanta district in the U.S. House from 1988 to 1992.
But beginning with George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, the Republican party has fielded a larger cast of elected performers. In 1986 Fred Grandy [sp?] went from The Love Boat to Congress. Sonny Bono joined him there in 1994. Clint Eastwood successfully ran for mayor of Carmel, California, and movie actor Fred Thompson currently represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.
Sheila Kewel suggests one reason for the Republican advantage is that Democratic actors need to build a political resume before party leaders and voters feel they are qualified for office.
SHEILA KEWEL: Whereas many Republican candidates who get elected can be more personalities or simply anti-government, and sometimes a lack of experience is considered a plus in a Republican campaign. One is thought to be, you know, fresh and unspoiled, as it were.
JOHN SOLOMON: Geography is another explanation. According to Ron Braunstein [sp?], author of The Power and The Glitter which examines the relationship between Hollywood and Washington, Democratic actors working and living in Los Angeles or New York often find their ambitions blocked by the lines of Democratic politicians also interested in running, and there are not many places in the middle of the country where a liberal Democratic actor can realistically win, because they can be tarred with Hollywood's Sodom and Gomorrah reputation.
GOP actors don't have that problem. Ron Braunstein.
RON BRAUNSTEIN:It, it may be a little easier for the Republicans than the Democrats to, to make the jump, and it's for a good Hollywood reason in that it's playing against type. You are in effect insulated from the inevitable charge that you stand for a liberal institution that's, that's corrupting American morals.
JOHN SOLOMON: Also politically damaging to liberal celebrities is that activism on the coasts can make them appear more extremist in the heartland, even among moderate Democratic voters. That's according to the Dukes of Hazzard's Ben Jones, the only former actor elected as a Democrat outside of Los Angeles.
BEN JONES: The nature of the issues around Screen Actors Guild politics and things like that sort of push these folks to the left - to not a moderate or centrist Democratic party viewpoint but on the left fringe. Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand, people who are always talking about running for president and have high political profiles, couldn't get elected dog catcher in this neck of the woods in Virginia!
JOHN SOLOMON: Most Democratic actors who have run recently have lost decisively. Ralph Waite, Pa in the Waltons, was soundly defeated by Sonny Bono. Actor Barry Gordon, also a former SAG president lost a California congressional race in 1998. Nancy Culp, banker Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies tried unsuccessfully for Congress from Pennsylvania. It didn't help that co-star Buddy Ebsen campaigned for her GOP opponent. It is likely that the Republicans will continue to recruit in Hollywood. Democrats on the other hand have actively solicited celebrities' financial resources and public support. But the party has not made as much of an effort to sign them up as candidates. Sheila Kewel.
SHEILA KEWEL: It would be a useful thing for the party to think seriously about who might be a good candidate and begin to speak to them.
JOHN SOLOMON: Kewel nominates Tom Hanks and Martin Sheen as actors warranting special attention. Indeed that could be the problem. It may be that politically active Democrats are having too much success to change careers! Veteran actor and former SAG president Richard Masur.
RICHARD MASUR: There has never been anybody who ran for office at the height of their career. Ronald Reagan's career was basically over when he went into politics.
JOHN SOLOMON: So maybe the key for Democrats looking to even the political score is to make sure Republican-leaning actors keep working. After Ronald Reagan became governor of California, movie director William Wyler remarked to a Democratic colleague -- if we had only given him a couple of good parts, he'd never be in Sacramento now.