The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Obama to Hollywood: Could you just put that $1 million in the mail next time?

August 17, 2010 | 12:51 pm

Barck_obama If you live in Los Angeles, like I do, you already know that things went to hell in a handbasket Monday night thanks to President Obama, whose arrival in town for a fundraiser at "West Wing" producer John Wells' Hancock Park house caused utter chaos, snarling traffic all across the city's Westside. It was ugly. It was also one of those events that may represent a tipping point when it comes to people's attitudes about an out-of-touch politician and his wealthy supporters. I know the president raised $1 million from a host of Hollywood bigwigs, including Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, J.J. Abrams and Jeffrey Katzenberg. But how many millions' worth of goodwill did the president lose by ruining everyone else's evening and making it seem, once again, that he has little understanding of the problems of regular folks.

My wife and I were driving to our monthly book club meeting at a friend's home south of Pico near Robertson when we quickly became trapped in hideous traffic. Wherever we turned, no matter what shortcut we took, we were stymied. Finally, after an hour, we headed in the opposite direction and took what is normally the least desirable option -- the 405, which was the one artery that wasn't being blocked off by LAPD officers. My pal, TV publicist Amy Grey, who was on her way to the book club from the Valley, made it as far as Doheny, just south of Olympic, when traffic ground to a halt. When nothing moved for 20 minutes or so, she ditched her car and tried to walk the last mile to our friend's house. It was 7:10 pm when she made it to the corner of Olympic and Doheny, where she -- and everyone else on foot -- was stopped by a phalanx of policemen.

"They told us to wait till the motorcade came through," she explained this morning. "There were all sorts of angry people there, including kids in baby carriages, screaming, trying to get home. But they wouldn't let anyone cross till the motorcade came through. I stood there, in heels, until 8:20 p.m. when the motorcade with all the SUVs and ambulances roared by -- and still they wouldn't let us cross the street. When I complained to a cop, he said that the Secret Service asked the LAPD to keep the road closed till 9:30 p.m., which seemed crazy since Obama was already at John Wells' house."

When we were stuck in traffic, people would randomly lean out their car windows to shout out insults about Obama. I asked Grey what the people trapped at her intersection thought. "I'll tell you this -- nobody was waving at the president when the motorcade went by. We were all too [ticked] off. It certainly didn't make you feel warm and fuzzy toward your government."

So is there a lesson here? What I found most striking about the president's PR disaster was that his wealthy Hollywood supporters seem to be just as out of touch with reality as the president's own staff. Even though there were dozens upon dozens of showbiz insiders involved in helping plan the fundraiser, apparently not one of them had the brains or foresight to remind their Washington counterparts that having a presidential visit to the heart of Los Angeles would wreak havoc with regular folks' lives, you know, the regular folks who are either out of jobs or worried about their jobs and least likely to cut the president any slack for ruining their Monday night so he could schmooze with some Hollywood divas.

I suspect that the people who live in New Jersey or Nebraska who might be reading this are probably rolling their eyes and mocking us Angelenos for being such wimps about one bad night of mind-blowing traffic congestion. People are dying in Afghanistan and teachers are losing their jobs all across the country and we lose our cool over a few hours of astronomical gridlock? Fair enough. But I wish that one of Obama's Hollywood pals would remind him that it's the little things -- like a $200 haircut or a dumb joke told when no one knows a microphone's still on -- that can tarnish a politician's luster a lot faster than his position on offshore drilling or military aid to Pakistan.

If Obama is worried enough about his image to prevent photographers from snapping pictures of him swimming in the Gulf with his daughter, for fear that magazines will run another picture of him shirtless, then he surely ought to be worried enough about his image as a man of the people to figure out a way to visit a busy city without disrupting half of the population's lives. Some people are asking for an apology. Others are saying the damage is done. When I talked to crack Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, he suggested that the president take responsibility, but in a lighthearted way, giving a self-deprecating answer to a planted question in the White House press room.

But I think the president must do more penance. When Obama returns to L.A., he should hop on a bus downtown and ride it all the way to the ocean. It would be a great way to meet some regular folks, not to mention putting in a helpful plug for public transportation. And, oh yes, he should invite Streisand, Spielberg and some of their limousine liberal Hollywood pals to join him on the ride, so they could get a taste of what real life's like in Los Angeles. Maybe taking a nice bus ride across the city would help them understand why so many people take umbrage when we have to twiddle our thumbs while the prez gets a free ride everywhere he goes.   

Photo: Barack Obama at a meeting of small-business owners in New Jersey last month. Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images