President Nixon meets with Sammy Davis, Jr. to discuss the administration’s program to control drug abuse, July 1, 1971.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
comment / culture

Hollywood Has Always Been Political. And it Hasn’t Always Been Liberal.

Conservatives have used celebrity glitz effectively, too.
At times, Hollywood activists used their fame to advance liberal politics, just as they often do now. Charlie Chaplin’s films took on immigration authorities and worker-hostile industrial efficiency measures like the assembly line , but his pro-labor performances were seen as pro-communist during the post-World War II Red Scare, and his right to live in the United States — Chaplin was born in Britain — was revoked by the U.S. attorney general in 1952. Frank Sinatra and Jack Warner worked for the Democratic Party, creating memorable radio spots for Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection campaigns in 1944. And Harry Belafonte later became a trusted confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and central to spreading the message of civil rights to unite white and black America behind the cause. 

But music and movies were not political tools reserved solely for the left. The conservative author (and Hollywood screenwriter) Ayn Rand saw an opportunity to roll back the New Deal with motion pictures. “Don’t take politics lightly,” she wrote in her 1947 “Screen Guide for Americans,” as she encouraged Hollywood to use “good entertainment” to sell the merits of free enterprise, celebrate wealth and promote industrialists as American heroes. As a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, Rand and other Hollywood anti-communists attempted to regulate the activism of Hollywood liberals off the screen and police films for hints of a left-wing agenda. They encouraged the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate Hollywood and were eager witnesses at hearings.

The right has been effective in translating entertainment into votes ever since Louis B. Mayer turned his studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, into a political tool for Republicans in the 1920s — taking pictures of Calvin Coolidge on set in 1924, raising money and delivering radio addresses for Republicans in 1928. In return, President Herbert Hoover rewarded him with an overnight stay at the White House in 1929.

But it was Richard Nixon who cemented the Republican-Hollywood connection.
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