It's too bad John Kerry never had the courage in the last presidential campaign to take on Hollywood as a presidential candidate. Then again, President Bush said next to nothing about Tinseltown's corrosive effect on America's moral values on his path to re-election, either. Why both camps ignored an issue with such profound political ramifications is a mystery to me.
Would it surprise you that Hillary Clinton is not going to make that mistake?
Last week, in a Democratic debate of sorts on religion and values issues aired on CNN, Mrs. Clinton told a questioning pastor that she could support the idea of seeking a vast reduction in the number of women choosing abortion, and part of her answer turned to our cultural rot.
"We have so many young people who are tremendously influenced by the media culture and by the celebrity culture, and who have a very difficult time trying to sort out the right decisions to make," she said. "And I personally believe that the adult society has failed those people. I mean, I think that we have failed them in our churches, our schools, our government. And I certainly think the, you know, free market has failed. We have all failed. We have left too many children to sort of fend for themselves morally."
It can certainly be argued that the Clintons did not set the proper moral tone for the country in 1998. In a long national soap opera, drawn out to a crawl because the Clintons could not admit wrongdoing, their behavior in private and their savage warring on prosecutors in public coarsened the culture instead of healing it. But that has not stopped Mrs. Clinton from grasping the political appeal of protesting our media and celebrity culture.
I remember that two years ago, Senator Clinton lent her star power to the Kaiser Family Foundation as they issued a new study on the media habits of children. Sadly, the children surveyed said most parents don't set or enforce any rules on media usage. Seizing the stage as a keynote speaker, Mrs. Clinton noted she worked on a bipartisan basis with Republicans to get the federal government to research the media's effects on children. She expressed support for parents and even grandparents raising children and the need to support them by talking about media literacy and putting more emphasis on showing parents a program's rating after every commercial.
She effectively plucked out the most disturbing study finding from Kaiser: that 70 percent of teens between 15 and 17 said they've accidentally come across pornography on the web, and 23 percent report that this happens often. "More disturbing is that close to one-third of teens admit to lying about their age to access a website," she added.
She even highlighted her objections to the "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" video game, especially how it scares parents when their boys are "playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them. [It's] kind of hard to digest and to figure out what to say, and even to understand how you can shield your particular child from a media environment where all their peers are doing this."
This stance gave Hillary great headlines, like this one in the New York newspaper Newsday: "Clinton Assails 'Epidemic' of Media Sex and Violence." It makes her sound tougher on Hollywood than the speech sounded in its entirety. Since everyone knows Hollywood is a major fundraising stop for Democratic candidates, her courage will be further magnified as the primary votes approach.
Hillary critics will be sorely tempted to dismiss all this as artful Clintonian political triangulation, with Mrs. Clinton very wisely and effectively positioning herself in the mainstream against the extremes on the question of unhealthy messages in the media. That is, I think, short-sighted. Of course there is political expediency in the exercise (and no one reads polls better than Mrs. Clinton, with the possible exception of Mr. Clinton). But this doesn't mean she doesn't possess a deep-rooted conviction on this issue. She does, and I suspect she has every intention of taking this issue to the Oval Office in 2009.
Hollywood's muck-makers are advised to see the writing on the wall. When Hillary Clinton is scolding you in the headlines, maybe it's time to shape up. Hillary's would-be Republican competitors had better take notice as well. She is successfully outflanking them on a hugely important issue she intends to make her own.