1995: The year the future began
It’s been 20 years since Bob Dole, then the Senate majority leader and a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, went to Los Angeles and condemned what he called Hollywood’s “mainstreaming of deviancy.”
His speech May 31, 1995, was a memorable moment of what became a hapless campaign: Dole won the Republican nomination but lost badly to President Bill Clinton in the 1996 election.
In 1995, Dole was 71-years-old.
He insisted that his Hollywood-bashing was no “codgy old attempt of one generation to steal the fun of another. A line has been crossed — not just of taste but of human dignity and decency. It is crossed every time sexual violence is given a catchy tune. When teen suicide is set to an appealing beat. When Hollywood’s dream factories turn out nightmares of depravity.”
It was strong stuff, delivered at an Republican fundraiser. And Dole named some names, identifying Natural Born Killers (1994) and True Romance (1993) as representative of films “that revel in mindless violence and loveless sex. I’m talking about groups like Cannibal Corpse, Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew. About a culture business that makes money from ‘music’ extolling the pleasures of raping, torturing and mutilating women; from ‘songs’ about killing policemen and rejecting law.
“The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end,” Dole said, “but it will only stop when the leaders of the entertainment industry recognize and shoulder their responsibility.”
He singled out Time Warner as “[o]ne of the companies on the leading edge of coarseness and violence.”
“Today,” Dole said, “Time Warner owns a company called Interscope Records which columnist John Leo called the ‘cultural equivalent of owning half the world’s mustard gas factories.’ Ice-T of Cop Killer fame is one of Time Warner’s ‘stars.’ I cannot bring myself to repeat the lyrics of some of the ‘music’ Time Warner promotes. But our children do.”
Dole dismissed the notion that the entertainment industry was “simply responding to the market,” pointing out that top-grossing movies of 1994 were the family-friendly blockbusters Forrest Gump and The Lion King.
The theme Dole struck 20 years ago tonight was not one he necessarily sustained.
He returned to Hollywood at the end of July 1996 to repeat some of his criticism. “This is a town of sequels, and I’m here today with one of my own,” Dole said then, adding that he had “a few more thoughts to add to the dialogue.”
But the tenor of Dole’s remarks in 1996 was not as harsh — it was “conciliatory, even upbeat,” the Chicago Tribune observed, “compared to the speech he delivered a year ago.”
The speech in 1995 also projected a whiff of expediency and calculation, as if Dole, a moderate Republican, were trying to solidify conservative credentials.
The New York Times characterized the speech in such terms, calling it “an escalation in his effort to increase his support among conservative voters by lashing out at Hollywood, a target in recent years of political figures who say that films, music and television are sapping the moral strength of the nation.”
And a columnist for Variety noted that Dole appeared selective in his criticism, inclined “to exempt from criticism those action pictures like True Lies that star stalwart Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger or are financed by Rupert Murdoch, the Attila of corporate chieftains.”
Dole couldn’t have expected that Hollywood would embrace his criticism. And it didn’t. Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the screenplay of True Romance, was quoted by the Times as saying:
“This is the oldest argument there is. Whenever there’s a problem in society, blame the playwrights: ‘it’s their fault, it’s the theater that’s doing it all.'”
Interestingly, it wasn’t long before Clinton was insisting on his credentials as an advocate for “American virtue against the depredations of the entertainment industry,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote in June 1995.
Shortly after Dole’s speech, the White House made available a five-page summary of Clinton’s criticism about Hollywood and pop culture violence in what the Los Angeles Times called a “‘me-too’ effort.” (Clinton in the 1995 State of the Union address in January had chastised Hollywood for “the incessant, repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media all the time.”)
Still, the Los Angeles Times said, “the President’s remarks have significantly less edge than Dole’s — and with good reason. Hollywood money has been a mainstay of Democratic campaigns for years, and top industry officials have been among Clinton’s most generous sponsors.”
In the end, Dole proved to be another of Clinton’s foils, a point I make in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.
Throughout his years in national politics, I write, “Clinton benefitted from the consistent good fortune of confronting foes who were inept or who lacked his political wiliness and instincts. In winning the presidency in 1992, Clinton had ousted an out-of-touch incumbent, George H.W. Bush. To win reelection in 1996, he handily defeated a hapless, seventy-three-year-old Republican opponent, Bob Dole. During the government shutdowns of 1995, Clinton outmaneuvered [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich, a formidable but blunder-prone adversary, to reclaim political momentum in Washington.”
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