Celebrities Use DNC To Push Causes

Friday, August 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Edwards, who plays a doctor, talked health care. Juliette Lewis, star of ``Natural Born Killers,'' debated violence in film. And former TV cop Jimmy Smits pitched gun control.

While most celebrities at the Democratic National Convention were bit players— throwing parties, entertaining delegates or simply listening to speeches — others accepted starring roles to push their pet issues.

Edwards, star of the television show ``ER,'' joined Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala at an event to promote health care, while Smits won a coveted prime-time speaking slot to pitch diversity and praise Al Gore as the candidate fighting against gun violence.

``Celebrities become energized like anyone else becomes energized,'' said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an expert on Hollywood and politics at Claremont Graduate University. ``Part of it has to do with ideology, or they might get involved just because they're asked as a favor.

``They're just like the rest of us,'' she said, ``except they get cameras following them everywhere.''

``I just like to go out and chew a few ankles,'' supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton said of her activism promoting hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. Hutton addressed female legislators at a convention brunch, and admitted her star power has drawn a spotlight to the cause.

``We get on TV,'' she said. ``You can get out to a much greater audience.''

That's something the Creative Coalition learned at the 1992 political conventions, when it first presented forums on issues such as arts funding, First Amendment rights and public education.

The group, which includes actors, directors and writers, initiated the forums after celebrities got fed up with being seen but not heard on issues important to them, said spokeswoman Melissa Wajnert.

``They were having their pictures taken, but nobody wanted to hear what they had to say,'' Wajnert said. ``They decided, `If Mr. Joe Blow candidate wants me to be involved, I want to really be involved.'''

This year, the group sponsored three forums each at the Republican and Democratic conventions, including one on the association between entertainment and youth violence.

Lewis was joined on the panel by actor-director Sydney Pollack, talk show host Montel Williams, former cabinet secretary and Hollywood critic William Bennett and CBS Television President Leslie Moonves.

Lewis first recognized the influence of celebrity four years ago when she was mobbed by a group of adoring teens at a shopping mall.

``I couldn't believe how powerful being in movies was. I thought if I did nothing with this, it would almost be a crime,'' she said, listing arts education and the relationship between drugs and youth violence as her pet causes.

Veteran character actor Joe Pantoliano participated in a similar discussion at the GOP convention, where he also cornered politicians about the exodus of movie production to countries offering tax incentives.

``People listen to celebrities,'' he said. ``They're not interested otherwise.''

Actor William Baldwin of the famous Baldwin brothers grew up talking politics at the dinner table with his government-teacher dad and later obtained a degree in political science.

President of the Creative Coalition, Baldwin admitted celebrity is a commodity when it comes to advancing political and social issues but said stars and citizens alike have a responsibility to get involved.

``I'm not doing this because I have this special resource known as celebrity. I do it because I'm a concerned citizen,'' he said. ``I'm an activist who happened to become a celebrity, not a celebrity who happened to become an activist.''