D.C. Does Hollywood

Ted Sarandos and Chelsea Clinton
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty
Peter Hamby
January 13, 2022

It’s been a rollicking week for observers of the bicoastal political-media revolving door. Most notable was a trio of cable news programming announcements, with Fox News adding Jesse Watters to the 7 pm hour; CNN poaching Audie Cornish from NPR to helm a new show on CNN+, its forthcoming streaming platform; and MSNBC hiring Symone Sanders, the talented Bernie-and-Biden campaign pro, to host a weekend program on the network’s linear channel and another show for its digital outpost on Peacock. As my colleague Dylan Byers wrote yesterday, each move portends how these networks are incrementally pivoting talent in anticipation of a world where the traditional cable business is inevitably going away.

That backdrop of media industry transformation was very much on my mind this week, and on the minds of Puck readers who wrote to me at peter@puck.news. Herewith, my thoughts and observations on the Washington-Hollywood complex, Ted Cruz’s struggle session with Fox News, and the second coming of Beto O’Rourke in Texas.

Peter, I’m noticing a pattern of Democratic talent exiting high profile political gigs for media/entertainment: Symone Sanders to MSNBC, David Sirota to Hollywood. The Obama guys seem largely focused on their podcasting empire; Axelrod appears to be enjoying his emeritus status.  Is political work, as opposed to political media, simply less appealing these days?

I’ll get to political media in a moment. But on the Hollywood front, I have tremendous respect for anyone who manages to make that leap from politics to entertainment—because it’s far, far more difficult to transition from politics to Hollywood than it is into cable news or punditry, which is really just a different side of the same coin. One reason for my take here is just practical: Once you’ve “made it” as a political strategist or journalist, it’s a big risk to give up your income stream and try to change careers. Or to move across the country to Los Angeles so you can make it in showbiz (a word no one in Los Angeles actually uses). In Washington, you can lock in your career in your 20s and ride it comfortably until retirement, climbing a few steps up the ladder with each election cycle. But not many people actually leave that world to try something new. Jon Lovett of Pod Save America fame bailed on his speechwriter career in D.C. to develop a sitcom, before getting into comedy and podcasting. Scott Conroy, a longtime political journalist, is now in L.A. writing and developing shows and movies. Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine is reportedly developing a drama for AMC. Before that, longtime Democratic strategist Jay Carson went west to become a writer and producer on films and shows like House of Cards, The Front Runner and The Morning Show. Sirota is a Bernie bro who is pretty unpopular in mainstream Democratic circles, and who knows if he’s planning to write more films, but I can’t knock his hustle in this case.

Another reason few people in politics make the leap into writing films and television shows is that it requires an entirely different kind of creative talent—a big imagination, some whimsy, the ability to write creatively and tell genuinely entertaining stories—that a lot of people in Washington, journalists included, simply don’t possess. Successful political fiction has to be just that: Fiction. A story has to be scripted and produced in such a way that it appeals to the millions of gettable viewers out there who also watch shows about hot vampires or brooding cowboys or hot Instagram bozos trapped on an island together in their bathing suits. And that might generate eye-rolls from know-it-all political insiders who tweet all day long about how politics really works. But that’s not how shows and movies about politics are sold—in a pitch room at Netflix or to the general public if they ever get made. Outside of election seasons, most Americans find politics tedious, toxic, or just plain annoying. And so successful shows and movies about that world aren’t about politics at all—they’re about the characters and storylines unfolding in whatever the world is. Think about hit dramas like Succession and Yellowstone. Both series have major political subplots, but they are still only subplots. And if they weren’t included in the story, people would be watching those shows anyway. 

Maybe this is a counterpoint, but I will say that political expertise is probably more in demand in Hollywood than it was a few years ago. After 2016, every liberal producer and director in Los Angeles suddenly started paying attention to politics in a way they hadn’t before, including Adam McKay, who co-created Don’t Look Up for Netflix with Sirota. After Trump, there are just more shows and movies being developed today about politics and media, good ones and bad. And more volume means more opportunity for political experts to write comedies and dramas with some verisimilitude.

Still, it’s also just really hard to go from politics to Hollywood. It can be a slog. You have to make time every day to write, to write, and to write some more. You get rejected constantly. And most shows, even the ones that get sold, don’t ever get made. Scott Conroy and I wrote a comedy series a few years back called EMBEDS, about young campaign reporters figuring out their lives while covering a presidential campaign. We wrote in back in 2012, found an agent at CAA, pitched it across Hollywood in 2013 and 2014, put it on ice for a while after every studio passed on it, then sold it to Verizon’s now defunct Go90 platform in 2016 once Trump-mania was overtaking the culture, and finally made six episodes in Iowa after that. We got some good press, but no one really saw it, in part because it was on a platform no one actually watched. And that’s a success story! 

As for the media gigs, yes, it’s true that plenty of Democrats have now found a lucrative home in cable news, in podcasting, or wherever their content creation takes them. Twenty years ago, a top-tier campaign strategist or politician who wanted to leave politics at the height of his or her earning potential would get a lobbying gig or become a highly-paid media consultant. More recently, prominent Democrats took lucrative jobs or board positions with big tech companies, like Jay Carney at Amazon or David Plouffe at Uber. But now, the always-on content gods are beckoning Democrats in their direction. Anyone with a laptop and a point of view can make a podcast or a web show. The Obamas have their Netflix and Spotify deals. The Clintons are doing their ghostwritten novels and Masterclasses. Crooked Media is still humming even without Trump in office. And cable news, despite its diminishing viewership, still has paychecks ready for big, charismatic names. 

I actually think Symone Sanders will be great at her job for MSNBC. That network’s talent roster is populated either by very online idealists who have no idea how politics actually works, or by aging politicos who haven’t worked on a campaign since the Clinton era. Sanders understands the restive activists on the left, but also the pragmatic realities of electoral politics, from both inside and outside the White House. She’s young, funny, opinionated, and has relationships throughout the Democratic universe. During her time on the Bernie and Biden campaigns, she gave reporters great quotes because she wasn’t afraid to skewer conventional wisdom and talk like a normal person, not a brain-dead Twitter poster. Hopefully she gives a dose of that medicine to her new audience, telling liberals what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. 

I was struck by Ted Cruz’s groveling appearance on Tucker Carlson last week, in which he begged forgiveness for calling Jan 6 a “terrorist attack”. I wonder if we’ll look back at that capitulation like Trump forcing Cruz to phone bank for him after calling his wife ugly—a surreal moment that revealed an essential truth about the locus of power in the Republican Party.

I couldn’t agree more. This isn’t even a new or sophisticated take at this point, but the vast majority of Republican officeholders and candidates now live in fear of crossing Trump’s base. Cruz is a choice example of that. He has traveled a remarkable distance from 2016, when he called Trump an amoral, unprincipled and dangerous liar, issuing his harshest condemnation after Trump grotesquely insulted his wife Heidi’s appearance. When Trump won the nomination and the presidency, he became one of his most loyal sycophants, rising from his seat in the Senate on Jan. 6 to challenge the results of the 2020 election. And even though Cruz had used the phrase “terrorist attack” with sincerity to describe the Capitol Hill riot four or five times over the last year, Carlson happened to see this one. And Cruz suddenly felt compelled to apologize for it. This is all coming from a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer who once claimed to be one of the most principled conservative voices on the right. 

What was interesting to me about the Carlson moment, though, wasn’t just the groveling. It was that while Republicans continue to live in total fear of Trump’s base, it doesn’t seem that still they live in total fear of Trump himself. In this case, the fury of the Trump base was embodied by Carlson, who has emerged as maybe the most powerful voice on the MAGA right now that Trump is mostly deplatformed. Cruz wasn’t bending the knee to Trump. He was groveling to the Trumpists that are growing in power even as Trump sits at home in Mar-a-Lago: Carlson, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ron DeSantis, Alex Jones, Sebastian Gorka and others were trashing Cruz on social media and going viral. Combined, all of them currently have more reach in our feeds and on our screens than Trump does right now. 

I wrote about this for Vanity Fair last year regarding Sarah Palin. It’s memory-holed now, but for almost four years, from 2008 to 2011, Palin was the biggest celebrity in G.O.P. politics, with an unmatched ability to grab attention in the mainstream media, on nascent social media platforms, in the celebrity press and certainly among fire-breathing conservative activists. But while she eventually faded, the nativist and anti-intellectual forces she unleashed lived on. I think the same dynamic will unfold with Trump. He will grow less important over time—maybe before 2024, maybe after—but his dark impact on our political system is only getting worse.

You see a whiff of this in the current feud between Trump and DeSantis over vaccine boosters. When Trump does interviews and appearances these days, he’s praising the vaccines and the effectiveness of booster shots, sounding a lot like Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci when he calls the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic of the unvaccinated. He’s still against mandates and he can’t undo the damage he did to the pandemic response during his presidency, but he now seems to grasp that vaccines are popular with most Americans, and he doesn’t want Biden getting the credit for saving the country from the virus. 

DeSantis, meanwhile, is perhaps the most prominent Republican politician in the game right now—and he’s tripling down on the idea that he’s protecting Florida from the finger-wagging libs and their mandates. In his state of the state address this month, DeSantis declared that “Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under the authoritarian, arbitrary, and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions” put forth by Democrats. While Trump has been hyping the effectiveness of the booster shot, DeSantis refused to say whether he got the booster in an interview with Maria Bartiromo, calling it a personal medical decision and none of your business, thank you very much. Trump saw that interview and called DeSantis “gutless,” though not by name. 

But DeSantis isn’t backing down from Trump at all, even as the former president grumbles in private about him. And Trumpy voices like Alex Jones and Candace Owens are now on the side of DeSantis, trashing Trump’s new pro-vaccine tone. Jones even called Trump a “dumbass.” Trump will obviously be the frontrunner if he seeks the Republican nomination next year, but he, too, will be subject to an old rule about presidential campaigns—that they are always about the future, never the past. Trump was a transformational figure who has brought our democracy to the brink of collapse. But his supporters will be here long after he’s gone—and Cruz, DeSantis and others will need them whether Trump is around or not.

Beto O’Rourke just hosted his first El Paso campaign event in his bid to oust Texas Governor Greg Abbot. How do you assess O’Rourke’s chances?

Not great! And I say this having spent more time with O’Rourke over the last four years than I have with most other politicians. He’s raw, rarely-scripted and genuinely believes in the power of grassroots politics over poll-tested campaigns. His authenticity—yes, that word is overused—was the central appeal of his 2018 Senate campaign and his aborted presidential bid, even though his Gen X earnestness grated on younger liberals, cynical-by-nature reporters, and women who said he radiated the white male privilege of long-lost ex-boyfriends.

There are a few reasons why O’Rourke is such a long-shot in Texas. The first is just the political gravity of the midterms. There will always be outliers, but the party in power in Washington historically usually gets drubbed in their first midterm—the only moden exception being George W. Bush’s Republican Party in 2002, buttressed by the patriotism and paranoia that followed 9/11. Midterms really do follow a pattern. Democrats will almost certainly lose seats in Congress and in statewide elections in November. The only question is whether Biden can get his approval rating back over 50 percent, which might reduce down-ballot Democratic losses on the margins. Abbott isn’t popular as he seeks a third term in Austin—his approval ratings are underwater. But O’Rourke, no longer a fresh face like he was four years ago, is less popular. Abbott is already nationalizing the campaign and making O’Rourke the poster boy for unloved Democratic ideas in Washington, whether O’Rourke supports them or not. Nor has Abbott forgotten O’Rourke’s promise in the presidential race to confiscate automatic weapons. Lots of people in Texas own guns, including plenty of registered Democrats and Hispanic voters! The first attack ad produced by a pro-Abbott SuperPAC was a black-and-white image of O’Rourke’s face mutating into Biden’s, which tells you everything about the Republican strategy. And like his predecessor Rick Perry, Abbott has quiet designs on running for president. He needs a win.

Working in O’Rourke’s favor: It might be more difficult for Abbott to nationalize a governor’s race rather than a Senate campaign, and O’Rourke is trying to keep the focus on issues that have a real-world impact on Texas voters, like the state’s infrastructure freezing over during last winter’s brutal winter storm, or the law Abbott signed effectively banning most abortions in Texas. But most politics are national now, thanks to social media, and Republican base voters will be fired up more than they were in 2018, when O’Rourke won over 4 million votes—but still lost to Cruz by two points. O’Rourke has worked hard over the last two years to register new voters, especially rural Hispanics who don’t vote, and that might help add to his vote share. But even with a radical incumbent like Abbott on the ballot, it seems improbable that O’Rourke will outperform the ceiling he built in 2022, when panicked Democrats are no longer raring to vote against Trump, and when Republicans everywhere are ready to scrawl Let’s Go Brandon all over their ballots in bright red ink.