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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood liberals under fire: The Polanski debate gets political

September 30, 2009 | 11:50 am

It was surely only a matter of time. The noisy partisan divide that seems to infect everything in America today -- from what health care plan you want to what car you drive -- has surfaced again. As soon as commentators started weighing in on Roman Polanski's arrest over the weekend in Switzerland, the debate over whether the filmmaker should be made to stand trial in Los Angeles for his 1977 rape of a 13-year-old girl quickly turned into a series of shouting-match-style denunciations, with conservatives casting Polanski defenders as despicable, soft-headed liberals.

I know because I've been reading my mail, which has been running about 100-to-1 against Polanski. And since I wrote a column that most people interpreted as a defense of Polanski, the mail was also running 100-to-1 against me. I took the position that if California is so broke that it can't properly fund its public schools, assist the elderly and infirm, or even keep criminals off the streets, then when it came to priorities, I was a lot more worried about my kids' and my parents' health and welfare than having the district attorney's office launch a costly legal battle against a 76-year-old man living in Paris.

I didn't say Polanski should be pardoned or let off the hook, since what he did was reprehensible. He is guilty as charged. I did say that we should concentrate on doing a better job of tracking down the bad guys who are breaking the law right now in our own backyard. The response to my argument was divided, to say the least. People inside Hollywood nodded their heads in agreement. People outside of showbiz were outraged. 

"I guess 'art' is more important to you than justice!" wrote Dezi Cardenas. "You are a predictable left-wing moral relativist and idiot," said Lou Bricano. "I know society allows excess for artists, musicians and other talented people, but there was a little girl involved," wrote Lionel Baker. "If this was a 76-year-old truck driver who was arrested for the same crime, would you feel the same way?" "Remember," said Richard Morris, "when the scum of the earth wins an Academy Award, it's still the scum of the earth."

I knew I'd hit a new low when James Gragg said he was so upset that he was writing a letter to the editor for the first time, "and I read all of T.J. Simers' articles." He added, "If there was one thing I thought was completely impossible it would be that no journalist in the world would defend a pedophile. I was sadly mistaken." 

I wasn't surprised that people were incensed -- I get mail from people frothing at the mouth about the size of IMAX theaters and crazed with disgust that PG-13 comedies have curse words in them. We live in an age where everyone is angry about everything. But I was taken aback by how many letters viewed the Polanski issue through a political prism -- if you weren't full of outrage over his crime and subsequent flight from prosecution, then you were a yellow-bellied lefty, always willing to come up with some new excuse for the loathsome behavior of the chic Hollywood elite. 

So once again, we have a right-versus-left divide, with Hollywood, teeming as it is with Prius-driving liberals, being easily tossed into the lefty camp. To hear conservatives tell it, Polanski represents the classic example of the decadent artist who gets a free pass from liberals, the same liberals who'd be the first to express outrage against greedy Wall Street predators or Catholic priests accused of pedophilia.

Is it possible they have a good case? Keep reading:

If you make a sweep of the conservative blogs, starting with Andrew Breibart's Big Hollywood site, you'll find lots of scathing and sarcastic denunciations of liberal moral relativism, with most of the ammo directed at the pro-Polanski screeds at the reliably liberal Huffington Post. Also not to be missed is Deceiver's take down of Whoopi Goldberg's hapless "the difference between rape and rape/rape" Polanski defense.

As it turns out, the Huffington Post isn't firmly in the Polanski camp at all. The website does offer some all-too-predictable hair-splitting, notably by the famous Parisian egghead Bernard Henri Levy, who managed to cook up a pro-Polanski petition, signed by everyone from Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie to Mike Nichols and Diane von Furstenberg. But it didn't take me long to find all sorts of posts decrying Polanski's actions. Screenwriter Michael Seitzman was full of contempt for Polanski defenders, saying "if we're going to let rapists off the hook because of their tragic histories, we should open the prison doors right now." And C. Nicole Mason, an assistant professor at NYU, also weighed in against Polanski, saying "I'm shocked by the outpouring of support from celebrities and others."

So I think the Huff-Po bashing is way off base. But for the sake of argument, let's accept the basic precept of the conservative argument, which admittedly has some firm ground to stand on. Liberals do have a soft spot for bad-boy artists, from the days of Charlie Chaplin and Chuck Berry to Robert Downey Jr. and Oliver Stone. Let's face it, when rap musicians start shooting each other or beat up their girlfriends, it's always Bill O'Reilly, not Keith Olbermann, who's red-in-the-face ticked off about it. And yes, its true -- Teddy Kennedy barely got a slap on the wrist for his inexcusable behavior at Chappaquiddick. 

Conservatives believe in crime and punishment. Law and order. So they're the ones who are especially outraged that Polanski not only did the dirty deed but fled the country and avoided prosecution. If you commit the crime, do the time. Liberals, as a rule, lean more toward "if the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit." They simply don't have the same primal urge for vengeance, although I guess that means I have some conservative DNA running through my veins, since I'm certainly overjoyed to finally see O.J. in the slammer.

Liberals tend to forgive more easily than conservatives. For years, one of the great villains to the left was G. Gordon Liddy, a conservative wingnut who freely acknowledged (in his autobiography) making plans to kill journalist Jack Anderson, based on a somewhat literal interpretation of a statement by his onetime boss, Richard Nixon, who said, "we need to get rid of this Anderson guy." It was Liddy who helped engineer the fabled break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters that led to the Watergate scandal and the Nixon resignation. Liddy was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

And what was the heated liberal reaction to Liddy's evil deeds? President Jimmy Carter, the ultimate squishy moral relativist in the eyes of the right, commuted Liddy's sentence to eight years ("out of the interest of equity and fairness") while LSD guru Timothy Leary, who'd once been arrested and prosecuted by Liddy, cheerfully went out on the lecture circuit with his former adversary to make some quick dough. Liddy now makes his living as a radio talk show host, where he periodically advises good honest citizens -- as he did several times in 1994 -- how to fend off agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, saying that if the agents come armed, people should "go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests."

We don't need to worry about Liddy anymore -- he's obviously been rehabilitated. But not Polanski. He hasn't served his time. He skipped town, sensing, as most people involved with the case have since concluded, that the judge had his own agenda and was going to bring the hammer down on him. But worrying about judicial fairness when it comes to a sexual predator would inject a layer of complexity into this affair that most people don't want to hear. Call it justice or call it vengeance, but people are town-hall-style angry that Polanski got off scott free, just as they are mad at the bankers on Wall Street who got bailed out -- after socking away millions in profit -- while regular folks got the shaft. 

It's liberals who are always accused of being too worried about fairness, but when it comes to Roman Polanski, it's conservatives who are playing the fairness card. If you're guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl, it's never too late to pay the price.

Photo of Roman Polanski leaving a Santa Monica court on Oct. 25, 1977, by Nick Ut/AP.