Leave it to a crafty political consultant like Mike Murphy to coin a great phrase for Hollywood. He calls it Left World, conjuring up the image of a giant theme park overrun, not by rampaging dinosaurs or Hawaiian-shirt clad tourists, but by latte-sipping, tree-hugging, trial lawyer-loving, Dick Cheney-dissing, John Kerry-kissing Demophiliacs.
At 42, the Michigan-born Murphy has been a political consultant half his life, running campaigns for every Republican from Jeb Bush to Oliver North to Mitt Romney — he was also the wisecracking maestro of Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” 2000 presidential campaign. That gives him true fish out of water status in Hollywood, where conservatives pop up on the radar screen about as often as African American hockey goalies. Murphy is here learning the ropes, having spent the past year working as a consultant for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood’s leading GOP luminary. But perhaps the consultant has spent too much time breathing fumes from the governor’s gas-guzzling Hummers, because nothing gets him worked up as much as the Hollywood Prius Thing.
“If you’re a movie star, there’s no better way to drive to your Gulf stream G-4 than in a Prius,” says Murphy, whose hardball political Weltanschauung could be summed up best by the fact that he once had a personal license plate that read “Go Neg.” “These days, you have to drive a Prius to be cool in Hollywood. It’s as if you’d be an inferior human being if you’re not driving a Prius. And then there’s the hypocrisy of it, when showbiz people hop out of a Prius and get into their private plane.”
I knew it might be a bit of a conversation stopper, but when Murphy took a breath, I told him that — ahem — I was one of those Prius-driving prima donnas who thought that all things being equal I’d rather see people drive up to their private planes in a Prius than in a Hummer. “See!” he said, positively exultant that he’d exposed another Left World political contradiction.
It turns out that Murphy’s disdain for Left World conformity is more complicated than it first appears. He hasn’t come to Tinseltown on a knightly quest, holding his nose while he slays as many dragons as possible before retreating to the safety of his old digs in Georgetown. Murphy has gone native.
Even though Murphy will be with the governor when Arnold appears at the Republican National Convention next week, the Schwarzenegger gig is just a temporary stop. The man who’s whispered in the ears of presidential candidates is willing to swap his Beltway-insider access for a job that has brought misery and heartache to generations before him.
What he really wants to do is — gasp — be a Hollywood screenwriter. “I know how it sounds,” he says sheepishly over dinner one night. “I’ve read enough screenwriter memoirs to know that if I was a Vegas oddsmaker, I’d predict failure. But no one counted on me making it in politics either. I’ve always been interested in the entertainment business. I even read the trades, so I’m not a total neophyte. My goal is to pound out a commercial screenplay, maybe a talky dark comedy, and then see what happens, which of course could mean it getting made into an Adam Sandler flying-saucer invasion comedy.”
What Murphy said next was muttered so softly I asked him to repeat it. “As embarrassing as it is to say, what I’d really like to do is direct the movie too.”
It would be easy to dismiss Murphy as the latest rube with a straw boater and a suitcase who’s one step away from being fleeced by Hollywood’s con men. But his career move isn’t as preposterous as it first appears. Screenwriters aren’t born in film school. Two years before Robert Benton and David Newman ushered in a new era in Hollywood with “Bonnie and Clyde,” they were hatching jokes for Esquire’s “Dubious Achievement” issue. Studios routinely hire video directors based on a cool Pepsi commercial, so why not Murphy, who’s produced innumerable campaign ads, as well as a shrewdly sentiment-laden 1988 Bob Dole campaign film that began Dole’s unlikely transformation from partisan hit man to folksy Viagra guru.
Murphy also comes armed with a quick wit and boundless ambition, two qualities always valued in Hollywood. His humor has the barbed edge of someone who’s spent years on the rough-and-tumble campaign trail. Recounting his work on then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s 1997 reelection campaign, Murphy quips: “We beat [James E.] McGreevey even when he was straight.” Murphy has been serving an apprenticeship of sorts, working as a writer and producer for CNBC’s “Dennis Miller” show. And gosh — if you were trying to make connections in Hollywood, wouldn’t it be nice to have a pal who could open a few doors, a pal like Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Murphy insists he’s not counting on any favors from Arnold in return for his political counsel. “Put it this way,” he says. “I got a house in Hollywood, not Sacramento.” Actually, Murphy, who’s as well-heeled as most members of the Showbiz Elite, has apartments in Manhattan and on Miami’s Fisher Island, as well as the new house in Laurel Canyon.
Having seen Murphy in action, Gov. Arnold is impressed. “Mike is the best, whether he’s writing a great opening line for a press conference or knowing the history of every political campaign,” Schwarzenegger told me Friday. “Hollywood is like politics — if you have real substance, you’re in. And if you have nothing to say, you’ll be changing agents 15 times and knocking on doors forever. Whether you’re running a campaign or writing a script, it’s all about selling what you’ve got — and nobody is better at selling than Mike.”
In many ways, Murphy already has a leg up. Consultants are the screenwriters of political campaigns, writing a script they hope the candidate and the media will follow. “I’ve been selling stories to people for 20 years,” Murphy explains. “There’s a narrative to every campaign, with ups and downs and triumphs and reversals. The media thrives on drama and movement. They’re like a ‘Jurassic Park’ dinosaur — 70 feet tall, huge teeth and a brain the size of a peanut. When the press sees a new story, it lumbers over and knocks over a lot of trees while it investigates.”
That’s not a bad description of how the media gave front-page credence to the latest New Story, a crafty smear campaign against John Kerry’s medal-winning Vietnam service by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group largely financed by longtime George W. Bush supporters. When your campaign is going well, the media love to puncture a few balloons. Whether it’s John McCain in 2000 or Howard Dean this past winter, presidential candidates are buoyed by an initial burst of euphoria, then buffeted by a flurry of media second-guessing. “You always go through a period where everything you do is wrong, like with Dean and his crazy shriek,” Murphy explains. “What matters is how you handle it. The hero, when faced with defeat, has to show grace, humility and the ability to learn from your mistakes. If you do, the public — and the media — will accept you in a deeper, more genuine way.”
So what is the narrative of this year’s presidential campaign? Surprisingly, Murphy sees Bush as suffering from an inability to sculpt a successfully inspiring storyline. “His campaign has been really clumsy at trying to manipulate expectations,” he says. “Right now I’m afraid their narrative revolves around hubris. Bush needs some kind of redemption, otherwise the story line is going to be all about his decline.”
Not that Murphy is especially impressed by Kerry, but he believes the challenger has a lower bar to hurdle. “The election is all about the president. If you’re the challenger, all you have to do is look credible enough to be the anti-Bush.”
Murphy doesn’t buy into the theory that Kerry will benefit from the success of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a movie he “hated every minute of” in part because he thought it was full of the “slippery kind of tricks” the media would never let a consultant get away with in an attack ad. “It’s a funny world when a Michael Moore movie can kick Vin Diesel’s [butt],” he says, referring to the fact that “9/11” easily out-grossed the Diesel-starring “The Chronicles of Riddick.” “But political satire doesn’t have anywhere near the power you’d think it does. Most people who watch Jon Stewart’s show or a Michael Moore movie have already made up their minds.”
As for Murphy, he’s made up his mind to give showbiz a shot. When asked if he were forced to choose between being a key advisor to the president or getting a screenplay made, Murphy had no hesitation — he’d take the movie gig. “I can always go back to being a consultant, God help me,” he says.
Perhaps his confidence comes from the company he keeps. If I had a front row seat in Sacramento, watching the voters of California swoon over the Terminator, maybe I’d be convinced that the guy who said there were no second acts in American lives was wrong too.
The Big Picture runs Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.