Until recently, Whoopi Goldberg could be seen in Slim-Fast diet ads with the slogan "I'm a Big Loser," holding her now-too-big pants out a few inches. So when Whoopi insulted the president at an early July fundraiser for John Kerry in New York City by going on an extended rant ("X-rated," said the New York Post) about keeping "bush" in your pants instead of in the White House, you could understand why Slim-Fast thought their sales pitch had just been distastefully discombobulated.
When Slim-Fast gave Whoopi the boot, her sympathizers broke out barrels of high dudgeon about the suppression of free political speech for artists. But do we need to inject vulgarity into our already feisty politics? Is that how we now teach our children about the glories of democracy and campaigning?
Unfortunately, Sen. Kerry didn't fuss about the spectacle, proclaiming at the party that the performers were the "heart and soul" of America. But eventually, Kerry did have to answer for the event.
In a round of pre-convention interviews, Kerry was confronted with this question by Peter Jennings: "President Bush says that you're kowtowing to Hollywood. And you described the people who were with you in Radio City Music the other night as the heart and soul of America. Both President Clinton and Vice President Gore had called in their time on Hollywood for less violence and less sex. Do you feel a need to do the same thing?"
Kerry replied: "Yes, I think there should be less violence and less sex. And when I talked about the heart and soul, I'm talking about the artistic expression...I think there were people at that concert we had in New York who stepped over the line. I've said that. They don't speak for me. They speak for themselves. I will stand up and struggle, as others have, to try to get that right balance between violence, and sex, and things."
Viewers at home would get the distinct impression from this exchange that Kerry only starts talking about achieving a "right balance" when someone brings up the topic of broadcast sex and violence. Washington's usual idea of a "right balance" is to jaw-jaw against too much violence and sex when prodded, but then do nothing. Kerry could take up the cause with vigor like Michael Copps - a forceful FCC Commissioner, and a career Democrat.
Jennings asked more directly: "Do you think there is too much violence and too much sex in American entertainment, and would you, should you, now be using your moral leadership on your Hollywood friends or with your Hollywood friends in order to reduce it?" Faced with talking tough about some of the Democrats' largest campaign donors, Kerry started hemming and hawing: "In the appropriate ways, at the appropriate times, absolutely." When it is appropriate? A rumpled political veteran would quickly guess: "Never."
Then, Kerry decided to internationalize the problem: "And I think it has an impact, frankly, on how America is viewed in the world. I think part of our struggle with those of other religions who object to American culture needs to be thoughtful and sensitive to some of what we export abroad." That's a new twist. As part of his outreach to build alliances to the Islamic traditionalists of the Middle East, he's going to demand the export of milder popular culture from Hollywood?
Don't bet on that. Kerry quickly added: "But I've never been in favor, and I'm not now, of an overreach by the government that has a chilling effect on the First Amendment or that seeks to have a kind of censorship of some kind."
Kerry's problem is that his Hollywood supporters don't even want "thoughtful and sensitive" evaluation of lewd sexual content and graphic violence in their TV, movies, and music. With a "Princess and the Pea" level of hypersensitivity, Hollywood insists that the "chilling effect" begins in the very first moment when the public begins to object. The First Amendment begins to crumple when the first citizen speaks up and demands an explanation from the entertainment elite.
John Kerry could walk a long way into the center of American politics by having the courage to ask his Hollywood friends to explain why pixilated nudity and bleeped obscenities are so crucial to television; why sewage has to be pumped into our "PG-13" movies; why the radio has to be a three-ring audio circus of lust, violence, and greed.
George W. Bush has left the field wide open. He's done nothing about this issue for four years - a true mystery given his personal beliefs - and shows no signs of wanting to touch it in the next four should he be re-elected. So the spotlight's on Kerry: what will he do?