Letterman will doubtless survive as a comic (and now as a punchline for other comedians), and Polanski’s defenders will not lose jobs or money, but this is just part of the tale. Hollywood and the late-night comedians have been sizable assets for Democrats, and their clout is now diminished. Letterman was not just an entertainer, but a political force, who judged politicians, pressed them on issues, and controlled their access to a fairly large audience. Candidates launched campaigns on Letterman’s program. Barack Obama went on his show a few weeks ago to try to revive his stalled health care agenda; it was political news when Letterman threw a tantrum because John McCain cancelled an appearance on his program during the financial implosion last fall. But politicians do not count creeps as their buddies, at least not in public: The McCains and Obamas will no longer seek Letterman out. He has lost his power to help–or to hurt–politicians, and lost the ability to joke about their failings without having the joke be on him. In the past year, as Howard Kurtz said, “Letterman has been more openly political, and tilted more to the left,” so this is good news for the other persuasion. Sarah Palin has her revenge for the snotty remarks of last summer. Dave the comic may survive or even flourish, but Dave as a pol is kaputt.
Hollywood as a political force is hardly dead, but the Polanski affair wounded it. In particular, anyone who spoke for Polanski or signed the petition supporting him has neutralized himself as a political player, as someone who can hold, host, or perhaps even go to a fundraiser, or perhaps even stand next to a candidate without doing damage to his prospects. On October 7, Politico reported that signers of the Polanski petition gave $34,000 in 2008 to groups backing Obama, that Harvey Weinstein gave $28,500 in 2008 to the White House Victory Fund that supported Obama (and $88,000 over the years to Hillary Clinton), and that six others gave contributions totaling $15,500 to Obama. Contributions in future campaigns will receive the same scrutiny. This may be somewhat unfair, as all politicians and parties are backed by unsavory people, but guilt-by-association is a time-honored tactic, and politicians are often asked to explain their supporters. Can we say chilling effect?