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What columnists Arthur and Barbara Gelb described as the Kennedy administration’s “extraordinary liaison between politics and art” can be attributed in large part to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. During her husband’s first year in office, Mrs. Kennedy had a permanent stage installed in the White House and hosted performances by the Metropolitan Opera, a Shakespeare troupe, and cellist Pablo Casals. According to Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, “It was important to demonstrate that the White House could be an influence in encouraging public acceptance of the arts.” During the Kennedy years, artists who had been silenced in the McCarthy period, as Shirley MacLaine recalled, “came out into the real world again and began to fight against the politics of exclusion.” As the Vietnam War escalated, performers chose sides in an increasingly divided country, polarized by politics and culture.

Politics that are void of the insight of art—its compassion, humor and laughter—are doomed to sterility and abstractions.—Shirley MacLaine, 1972


Robert Kennedy’s Funeral

In a candid letter to Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) expressing gratitude for the music he presented—the “Adagietto” movement for strings and harp from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—at the funeral service for her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994) expressed her deep feelings concerning the place of the arts in public life. Bernstein later wrote Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts.

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Celebrity Support for Civil Rights

After years of political inactivity because of the climate of fear during the McCarthy period, Hollywood figures by the late 1950s began to participate in the civil rights movement. A 1963 NAACP campaign to secure equal employment opportunities for African Americans in the film and television industries, and productions that included non-caricatured black characters, prompted some celebrities to action. Involvement crystallized during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as performers delivered speeches and sat together in a “celebrity delegation.”

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  • Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) and Charlton Heston (1923–2008) at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post (082.00.00) [Digital ID # bhp0082]

  • Paul Newman (1925–2008), Diahann Carroll (b. 1935), James Garner (b. 1928), Marlon Brando (1924–2004), and James Baldwin (1924–1987) at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post (082.01.00) [Digital ID# bhp0082_01]

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Candidates Vie for Bob Hope’s Support

During the 1968 presidential campaign, candidates from both parties sought Hollywood support. Nancy Sinatra (b. 1940) organized a youth rally for Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978), who hoped to win over followers of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968)—as Sinatra herself had been—at the Camelot set on the Warner Brothers lot. Studio head Jack L. Warner (1892–1978) of Hollywood’s old guard had difficulty attracting youth to the campaign of Richard Nixon (1913–1994). Both invited Bob Hope to help.

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Actor George Murphy Throws Hat into Ring

George Murphy (1902–1992) acted with Bob Hope on Broadway and introduced Hope to his future wife, Dolores (1909–2011). After a film career as a song-and-dance man, Murphy became active in Republican campaigns. In 1964, he researched whether “people would accept an actor running for office.” Finding the results promising, Murphy ran for U.S. Senator, taking advantage of his likable image. Murphy’s win set the stage for the successful bid by Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) for California governor in 1966. In 1974, Murphy founded “American Cause” to promote conservative causes and invited Hope to participate, believing that “the potential of people like Bob Hope and Duke Wayne (1907–1979) for a world propaganda tour to tell the truth about America . . . would be more effective than all the atom bombs and troops we have.”

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Californians for Reagan

In 1970, Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), a major fundraiser for Democratic candidates since Franklin Roosevelt, astonished Hollywood and the political world by joining the reelection campaign of California Governor Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) against Speaker of the California State Assembly Jesse Unruh (1922–1987), whom Sinatra disliked intensely. His Rat Pack pal and Democratic fundraiser Dean Martin (1917–1995) joined Californians for Reagan shortly after Sinatra. In October, Sinatra and Martin along with Republican entertainers Bob Hope and John Wayne (1907–1979) performed at a fundraising dinner for the governor, who remarked, “I have never ceased being proud of the people of the profession I belonged to.” Two years earlier, Reagan humorously implored Hope to perform at the National Republican Governors Conference.

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A Controversial Embrace

In July 1971, President Nixon (1913–1994) appointed Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925–1990), to his National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity. Davis faced ostracism from former friends who accused him of “selling out” when he hugged Nixon at a televised youth rally during the 1972 Republican National Convention. According to Davis, a widely publicized photo of the embrace infuriated members of the black press and also some of Nixon’s supporters, who were outraged to see a black man hug the president.

Marion S. Trikosko, photographer. President Nixon with Sammy Davis, Jr., new member of the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, July 1, 1971. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (080.02.00) [Digital ID # ppmsca-31145]

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Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda (b. 1937) watched U.S. political developments during 1968 on television from Paris and “realized that people were finding a way to create change.” Returning in late 1969, she traveled across the country, frequenting GI coffeehouses and risking arrest to encourage soldiers to support the peace movement. In 1972, Fonda journeyed to North Vietnam, where she delivered speeches on Hanoi radio imploring U.S. pilots to stop bombing and posed provocatively with an antiaircraft gun.

Jane Fonda speaks at University of Maryland, May 22, 1970. Courtesy of the District of Columbia Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post (082.02.00) [Digital ID# bhp0082_02]

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George McGovern Accepts Hollywood’s Support

Prior to his 1972 presidential bid, Senator George McGovern (b. 1922) met with Hollywood celebrities at the home of Shirley MacLaine (b. 1934). Stars, he came to realize, might “lend credibility” and “charisma” to his campaign because he was not well known and had little support within the Democratic party. MacLaine campaigned extensively, while her brother, actor Warren Beatty (b. 1937), arranged fundraising rock concerts, surrounding McGovern with “hip” stars to attract young voters.

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  • “Show Biz in Politics,” Newsweek, September 25, 1972. Courtesy of Kim Curry (081.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0081]

  • Letter from George McGovern to Jules Feiffer (b. 1929), February 3, 1972. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (083.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0083]

  • Letter from George McGovern to Jules Feiffer (b. 1929), June 16, 1972. Jules Feiffer Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (079.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0079_02]

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“I Know It Is Not a Popular War”

After acquiring the film rights to the best-selling novel by Robin Moore (1925–2008), The Green Berets, John Wayne (1907–1979) wrote this letter to President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) to request Defense Department cooperation in making a film to rally support behind the unpopular Vietnam war. The administration acceded to Wayne’s wishes after he agreed to extensive script changes. Released in mid-1968, the film, characterized by Wayne as “naturally from the hawk’s point of view,” became a box-office success despite critics’ pans.

Letter from John Wayne to President Lyndon B. Johnson, December 28, 1965. Reproduction. Courtesy of Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (083.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0083_01p1] (083.01.01)

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Return to Causes and Controversies List Previous Section: Government Support for the Arts | Next Section: Polarization in the 1960s

Sections: Political Humor | Causes and Controversies | Blurring of the Lines