If You Had Five Minutes with the President

I usually hold to the “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything” type standard for reviews. Unless there is an important issue at stake or and interesting debate to be had, I am not one to lash out a book I didn’t like. Better just not to review it at all. Even those books I have problems with I usually try to get at why the book might appeal to others or why it has merit even if I found it lacking.

Today I feel the need to stray from these sentiments. The good people at Harper Collins saw fit to send me a copy of a book that left me wondering why it was even published. If You Had Five Minutes with the President is a project put together by the Creative Coalition “the premier nonprofit, nonpartisan social and political advocacy organization of the entertainment industry.” As the title indicates, the group asked its members what they would say if they had five minutes with the President. Not surprisingly, the result is, with a few exceptions, a collection of left wing rants and diatribes either against the current president or a plea for the standard bleeding heart liberal agenda (tax the rich, give to the poor, make love not war, build schools not bombs, therapy not incarceration, etc.), The tone is angry, condescending, often insulting, and on occasion even vulgar (again with a few exceptions).

The thing that puzzles me the most is why anyone thought this book needed to be published. First of all, who really cares what Hollywood thinks? I mean, what in the world makes what actors, writers, producers or other artsy types say carry any more weight than anyone else? As the essays make clear, these people have no particular expertise or knowledge about the subjects they discuss. Sure some of the authors have personal experiences that relate to issues like adoption, health care, etc. But for the most part this is armchair analysis by an almost uniform group of liberal, secular, and urban celebrities in the entertainment industry. That the authors and the publisher thinks these people are important is clear from the lengthy bios that accompany each essay. As if a being in a string of movies or producing records suddenly gives weight to your opinion on the war in Iraq! Are we really turning to the likes of Tom Arnold, Fischer Stevens, Harry Hamlin, Christie Hefner, Fran Drescher, and Morgan Fairchild for advice on foreign policy? Do we really need to know that twelve-year-old Hallie Eisenberg is a vegetarian and thinks arts education is important? Do Tucker Carlson, Janeane Garofalo, Harry Shearer, Montel Williams, Eleanor Clift, Michael Medved, and Catherine Crier (all of whom have access to or are involved in TV, radio, or print media) need another forum in which to spout their opinions?

Perhaps if Harper Collins had collected similar essays from a wide segment of society it would have been of value. If they had surveyed a group of people with ideological, professional, generational, and geographic diversity then the book would have educational and sociological value. But instead we have a collection that simply regurgitates views that are a dime a dozen on the Internet and in newspaper op-ed and letters to the editor pages across the country. The only possible motivation for this book is an unhealthy fascination with celebrity or perhaps as a fundraiser for a Hollywood lobbying group. Take out the celebrity factor and it brings nothing to the table; not new ideas, not creative language, not diverse opinion, nothing except “look what famous people have to say!”

The book is worth a few laughs, however, as it perfectly explaines the stereotyope of actors as left wing idiots. The caricatures scream out from the pages. Allow me to note a few:
– Mike Farrell (of MASH fame) encapsulates the “root causes liberalism” (i.e. its not their fault) of so many:

Drug use, child and spousal abuse, self-abuse, suicide, murder, and other forms of lawless and anti-social behavior are not signs of moral turpitude; they are manifestations of fear, confusion, hopelessness, and mis-directed rage. They are the absence of leadership

I guess murderers aren’t really responsible for their crimes, it is President Bush’s fault for failing to provide leadership. How silly of me to think that abusing children is a sign of moral turpitude!

– Not to be outdone, Stephen Collins spends his theoretical five minutes trying to convince the president that transcendental meditation can bring peace to the world. To prove his seriousness he cites peer reviewed studies and scholarly journals that “show an amazing correlation between large groups of mediators and reduced social violence.” I am not making this stuff up.

– Frances Fisher explains the roots of the world’s problems:

I believe that most of the problems in the world have been caused by people who never learned (from their mothers) how to cooperate

Her solution? Reproductive education and abortion on demand. Now I realize that this issue carries passions on both sides, but I found it interesting that Fisher jumped from the importance of motherhood to a call for abortion as a basic human right.

– Kenneth Cole seems honestly puzzled that anyone could possible think that smaller government is better. He is apparently unaware that massive government social spending is not the norm or that the American Founders intended limited government. But what I find most puzzling is his inability to see that there are ways to help people that don’t involve the government:

With all due respect, Mr. President, why am I getting a $600 check in the mail when so many others beg for quarters? Is it for me to trickle it down to them? Is that the most effective way to help those with less?

With all due respect, Mr. Cole, are you really that dense? Are you telling me that a wealthy person like yourself feels that the best way to help the less fortunate is to send $600 to the federal government? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you can take your $600 and give it to those “begging for quarters.” It boggles my mind that a man who runs a public company “with a social conscience” is unable to understand the concept of volunteer giving and non-governmental charity.

– Other than Iraq and education the most prominent theme is the separation of church and state. Hollywood apparently thinks we are on the brink of theocracy. Not content to argue for greater secularity in public life, Eric McCormack feels free to insult Christians across the board:

Our political decisions have to be made with a sober, secular eye, influenced only by human empathy, not by ancient prejudice and debatable scripture.

Nice. Forget wisdom, prudence, or strategy a president must be guided by “human empathy.” Oh yeah, Christian subscribe to an “ancient prejudice.” Is Mr. McCormack unaware that for many people their faith is what inspires human empathy and that religion has been a important influence in American public life since its founding? And I wonder if Bill Clinton’s regular discusion of the role of faith in his life, his attendence at prayer breakfasts, and his regular church attendance threatened the “seperation of church and state,” or whether you felt more comfortable becuase he seemed to lack a moral compass? Are Jesse Jackson and Reverend Sharpton’s religious rhetoric a threat as well? (You might notice that a vast majority of African American ministers are opposed to gay marriage. Is this an ancient prejudice?)

– Jane Seymour, mimicking a Miss Universe contestant, keeps her requests to a minimum:

I would like to see an end to all religious wars, everywhere . . . In the same spirit, I would like to end all partisan politics.

The liberal clichés trotted out as deep wisdom goes on and on. I am sure these people have heartfelt beliefs on the issues and have come to them honestly but there is little to no value in having them regurgitated in print simply because they were on TV or in a movie.

Since this review has been overwhelmingly negative, allow me to point out a few essays worth reading. The very first entry, by Patty Duke, is short, to the point, respectful, and honest. Ron Silver (I am biased I know because he was at the GOP convention) brings up a very relevant issue: what should America’s role in the world be in an age of terrorism? Antwone Fischer has a calm and yet passionate essay on adoption; Minnie Driver brings up the very relevant issue of trade; Hector Elizondo offers a thoughtful reflection on the role of doubt in acting wisely; Lawrence Bender offers a mostly thoughtful critique of the war in Iraq and does so largely without venom or spite.

So yeah, there are a few thoughtful pieces cast among the rants, lame jokes, and stupid ideas that make up the bulk of this book. But not nearly enough to redeem it from being anything but another glaring example of the celebrity focus of the media. I would think that many of the liberal literary bloggers – who likely agree with the opinions expressed in most of the essays – would view this book as a shameful waste of resources in an age where talented writers often struggle to get their works into print. That Harper Collins publishes a great deal of intelligent and important writing makes the release of this silly work all the more disappointing.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).