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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood question of the day: Do Republicans run nastier campaigns than Democrats?

October 16, 2008 |  6:27 pm

Ray_2Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, the two dark wizards of hardball politics, have already been the subject of documentaries detailing all of their shrewd election strategies and dirty tricks. Now writer-director Billy Ray, who directed the compelling film "Shattered Glass," has a deal with Fox Searchlight to make a film about Allen Raymond, the GOP political operative who actually went to jail after being convicted of conspiracy charges after jamming the phones at Democratic headquarters in the middle of a hotly contested 2002 New Hampshire senatorial race. (The Democratic candidate lost by roughly 20,000 votes.)

Ray has written a script based on Raymond's recently published memoir, "How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative." He's beginning the process of casting the film, working with a contingent of producers who include Generate partner Pete Aronson, who was Raymond's college roommate and encouraged Raymond to write about his experiences. I immediately called up Ray, because if his take on political chicanery is half as fascinating as "Shattered Glass' " portrait of media fabrication, then we might be in for quite a ride.

One thing that fascinated me about Raymond's story is that, like Atwater, he was a mercenary. As  "Boogieman," the new Atwater documentary reveals, Atwater wasn't a die-hard conservative--he turned to Republican causes early on because in the South in the 1960s, the GOP was the party out of power, offering more opportunities for an ambitious young operative; likewise with Raymond, who came from a family of Democrats. "He had no particular political leanings," says Ray. "It was pure ambition. The job and the money was with the Republicans, so that's where he went. He wasn't a holy warrior, just a bright, extremely competitive guy who wanted to climb the corporate ladder."

If you think about it, it's a universal movie character, whether it's Charlie Sheen in "Wall Street" or Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas" or, to use Ray's example, Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer." "He's a guy whose lost his moral rudder," says Ray. "In my script, while the narrative engine is the world of politics, the pulse of the movie is personal. This is a guy who loses his family and the only way to get them back is by regaining his integrity."

It was Atwater who invented the black art of push polling. Raymond took that deception one step further. When he wanted to influence voters in white ethnic neighborhoods of New Jersey, Raymond would hire an African American voice actor, get him to use his most thuggish ghetto voice and record phone messages, pretending to be a Democratic operative trying to get voters to support a Democratic candidate while, of course, preying on the bias of the person receiving the call. Ray says John McCain is guilty of similar tactics, citing his recent ads portraying Barack Obama's support of a bill educating youngsters on dealing with sexual predators as actually touting sex education for toddlers.

I know what my conservative friends would say: When Hollywood tells a story about campaign dirty tricks, why is it always the Republicans who are always at fault? Sure, the Democrats have gone down to defeat again and again with weak-kneed softies like Bob Shrum running their campaigns, but don't the Democrats play hardball too? Isn't this yet another example of Hollywood bias? Ray didn't flinch. "That's a completely fair criticism," he says. "There have definitely been more movies made about Republican corruption than Democratic corruption. But based on my research and experience, Republicans do it more, do it more effectively and do it without conscience." Why? "Because they believe that their cause is so just that, in a larger sense, any attempt to secure or hold onto power is justified."

Ray insists his script is fair-minded. "I did the reporting. I haven't embellished or manufactured anything. I'm just telling the story and I'll let people judge for themselves." The movie hopes to start production next year, but with a hotly contested election in its final days, I'd be eager to hear your take on the question: Is Hollywood biased against Republicans or do they just step over the line more often than Democrats?   

Photo of Billy Ray by Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times