Feature: Five minutes with the president

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Sept. 2, 2004 at 5:35 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- While President George W. Bush contemplated what he would say Thursday to voters in his acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden, the Creative Coalition -- an entertainment-industry organization that advocates for First Amendment freedom -- promoted a book of essays in which celebrities imagine what they would tell a U.S. president if they had the chance.

"If You Had Five Minutes with the President" has an introduction by Ron Reagan Jr., who, as the son of the late President Ronald Reagan, has more experience than most in speaking face-to-face with the leader of the free world.

Contributors to the book were asked to address their essays to a generic, rather than a specific president. Harper-Collins Executive Editor Maureen O'Brien, who oversaw the project with Creative Coalition President Joe Pantoliano, told United Press International the technique was intended to produce a bipartisan end product.

"We wanted to make sure that this did not turn into a pro-anything or anti-anything book," said O'Brien.

Conventional wisdom holds that celebrities are mostly liberal, and O'Brien acknowledged it was a challenge to enlist enough conservatives to bring some ideological balance to the book, which has its roots in a lunchtime conversation she had with Pantoliano and Creative Coalition Executive Director Robin Bronk in March.

"Once the Abu Ghraib (prison) scandal overtook the media, the essays took a decidedly sharp turn in the more anti-war, anti-Bush mode," said O'Brien. "We had to work real hard to try to keep a balance of subject matter in the essays."

The book contains pieces by liberal contributors such as Margaret Carlson, Hector Elizondo, Morgan Fairchild and Janeane Garofalo. It also includes essays by conservatives such as Michael Medved, the writer and radio talk-show host, and Tucker Carlson, a co-host on CNN's "Crossfire" who recently was selected as host of the PBS public-affairs show "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered."

Carlson told UPI he would use his five minutes to remind the president that there are limits on the authority of the office.

"You can't do that much constitutionally," said Carlson. "You get to veto stuff and you get to send troops to war, but you don't get to make laws."

Carlson said presidents typically oversell their ability to get things done, because they know people want a strong leader.

"They want someone to replace mom and dad," he said. "They want a hand holder. They want someone to say, 'Everything is OK. I'm in charge.' And everything is not OK. That's just the way the world is and people don't want to face that."

The essays cover a wide range of subjects, from serious public-policy issues such as education, prison reform, women's rights and stem-cell research, to some fairly silly notions.

Pantoliano -- the Emmy-winning star of "The Sopranos" and the upcoming NBC series "Dr. Vegas" -- turned his imagined conversation with the president into a comic bit.

"I talked about trying to solve the woes of the Middle East by making the Koreans part of the coalition of the willing -- by buying 500,000 of their troops," said Pantoliano. "They have nothing to offer but nuclear weapons and manpower. Send them to Iraq and bring our kids back."

The actor also said he would tell the president to give less hostile names than "Tomahawk" and "Apache" to weapons systems and to address tension in the Middle East by establishing casinos there.

"Cut a deal with the Palestinians and give them casinos, like we did with the Indians, so at least they could make some profit," he said. "Once you get the croupier and Paul Anka, life ain't so bad."

The book is a relative rarity in a publishing environment characterized by one-sided best-sellers by authors such as Al Franken, Michael Moore, Anne Coulter and Bill O'Reilly.

"It may have been smarter publishing to do a targeted book," said O'Brien, "but there are plenty of those -- and we certainly publish plenty of those here at Harper-Collins, and happily and successfully."

The book comes into the marketplace at a time when many observers question whether the public is interested in the political views of celebrities.

"I hear that all the time," said O'Brien, who has edited books for Bill Cosby, Tatum O'Neal and other celebrity authors. "I specialize in publishing books that come out of the entertainment industry or are inspired by the entertainment industry. I'm a firm believer that public personalities -- anyone who has a public platform, anyone who has access to the media -- has influence one way or the other, conscious or unconscious."

What to say if you had five minutes with the president is an interesting question, but the correlate question has to be asked: How do you get five minutes with the president?

Carlson said even big-money donors find that six-figure campaign contributions purchase only a tiny bit of face time.

"For that kind of money," he said, "you're getting a grip and grab (campaign talk for a handshake and a smile before you are escorted away from the president)."

So, is five minutes with the president worth the trouble it takes to arrange?

"Absolutely not," said Carlson. "For television purposes, yeah. It's a great 'get.' It's a wonderful booking. It's a ratings bonanza. But are you going to get a life-changing conversation? No."


(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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