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Kennedy Center '97: Mixed Political Bag

On September 11, the Kennedy Center announced its 1997 Honorees. Chosen as members of America's de facto performing-arts hall of fame were singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, opera singer Jessye Norman, dancer Edward Villella, actress Lauren Bacall, and actor Charlton Heston. There's not much to say about Norman and Villella other than they're delightful talents, and there's not much to say about Dylan other than he's lost all his talent and no one's understood a thing he's said since, oh, 1982.

What strikes me about the honorees are the similarities and the differences between Heston and Bacall. Each will be 73 when the Kennedy Center ceremony is held in December; they became stars in an era when the movies still were bigger than life. And each has been an active Democrat. It is in that regard, however, that their paths diverged long ago. Bacall remains an outspoken liberal. Heston is perhaps the most visible conservative in show business today.

Heston more accurately should be called a neoconservative. He cast presidential votes for Stevenson and Kennedy and, in the early '60s, marched for civil rights. "My politics haven't changed," he said in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "It was the Democratic Party that changed. It moved so sharply to the left after Kennedy that it was essentially trying to build a welfare state."

The Democrats' loss became the GOP's, and conservatism's, considerable gain. Heston is best known as a longtime supporter of the National Rifle Association. As a recently elected member of the NRA's board of directors, he is now an official spokesman for the group. But this is only one of manyThe right-to-work movement is one. In the 1988 Beck decision, the Supreme Court gave non-union members who must pay union dues refund rights to that portion of dues used for political purposes. Unions simply ignored this ruling, and the Bush administration refused to implement it. Heston vocally called for enforcement, and in the spring of 1992, President Bush at last signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to notify employees of their Beck rights.

Heston remains critical of organized labor. In his 1995 autobiography, "In the Arena," he was unequivocal: "Labor is no longer the working man with a lunch bucket; it's fat cats in limousines milking the shrinking membership to fund the AFL-CIO as a political money-raising machine." (And I suspect not even Heston foresaw the degree to which labor would flex those money muscles in '96.)

Heston's also been highly critical of the media. During the '70s he served as a spokesman for Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media to condemn news coverage of the Vietnam War. Twenty years later Heston turned his fire on the entertainment media. When Time Warner released the nauseatingly violent "Cop Killer" by Ice-T and his band, Body Count, an outraged Heston attended the media conglomerate's annual shareholders' meeting and recited the song's lyrics ("I'm 'bout to kill me somethin'/A pig stopped me for nothin'/Die, die, die, pig, die/F-- the police!"). A humiliated Time Warner pulled "Cop Killer" from future pressings of Body Count's album, and Ice-T, redefining the "sore loser" label, in return threatened Heston's life.

It's that kind of activism that drives liberals like Lauren Bacall mad. In terms of ideological obnoxiousness, Bacall certainly is no Ice-T. That said, she is outspoken in her own right. As with many on the left who believe they have a monopoly on virtue, Bacall can't see the smugness in comments like her November 1994 definition of a liberal on Tom Snyder's CNBC show: "Someone who cares what happens to... people [and who] want[s] opportunities for all."

What, then, does that say about conservatives? Bacall will gladly give you that answer, and just as happily reduce the debate to personal attacks against specific conservatives. In October '94 on Charlie Rose's show, she called Rush Limbaugh "very terrifying" and denounced his "ranting and raving." At a screening of the 1993 HBO film "And the Band Played On," Bacall told the Los Angeles Times that it was "outrageous the way [Ronald] Reagan... ignored what was happening" in the early years of AIDS. It wasn't only Reagan's AIDS policy to which Bacall objected. Attending the first Clinton-Gore inauguration, she commented to NBC, "The last twelve years have been a nightmare... a very disappointing and disenchanting time."

One wonders what Bacall feels about the direction our country's going in today and what she thinks about this "most ethical administration" in history. Surely she realizes how much easier it is to attack than to defend, particularly when there's nothing much to defend to begin with. I suspect she won't have much to say when she receives her award in December.