After radio shock jock Don Imus was forced off the air for comments no worse than many he'd made over the past 35 years, his longtime sidekick, Bernard McGuirk, wondered where along the way the rules had changed. The answer was probably Malibu, California, where Mel Gibson was pulled over last July for driving erratically after a night out with some buxom blondes, setting in motion a chain of events that would permanently change the contours of the public debate in America and ultimately lead to Imus' ouster.
Gibson's drunken explosion at the police officer who arrested him touched one of the deadliest third rails of Hollywood politics: the specter of anti-Semitism within the film industry, which has been, for nearly a hundred years, one of the most hospitable sectors for American Jews. "Fucking Jews ... The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world!" the multimillion-dollar producer of The Passion of the Christ reportedly spat at L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy James Mee, before asking, "Are you a Jew?" Gibson was thrown into a detox cell at a Los Angeles County Sheriff's station to sober up.
In the ensuing outcry, Gibson apologized and admitted that his life had been spiraling out of control for some time due to alcoholism. He sought rehabilitation treatment immediately, and apologized publicly: "I am deeply ashamed of everything I said, and I apologize to anyone who I have offended."
The Gibson incident was the butt of late-night television jokes for months to come, and even the basis for an episode of Law and Order; more importantly, the basic storyline that Gibson premiered was rapidly incorporated into the Hollywood narrative library. "Past-peak star says something biased and is forced to prostrate himself in apology and leave the public stage" joined such hardy Hollywood social scripts as "married actor leaves wife for ingenue" and Johnny-come-lately "hott nobody releases sex tape, becomes a celebrity, and flashes crotch while exiting car." Call it "Hollywood Values, Too Real for TV Division."
Hollywood being Hollywood, entertainment reporters keyed up for the next big hit in the Gibson genre. They didn't have long to wait. In October, actor Isaiah Washington reportedly got into an on-set fight with his Grey's Anatomy co-star Patrick Dempsey, a k a "Dr. McDreamy." The show was ABC's No. 1 draw and had been the subject of countless fawning profiles on its way to transforming a cast of unknowns and character actors into major stars. Washington was complaining about T.R. Knight's late arrival on set, and called him a "faggot," which sparked the fight.
Gossip Web sites and The National Enquirer reported the fracas, and gay-rights groups started a national campaign to force ABC to fire Washington. Knight, forced out of the closet by the controversy, took to the pages of People magazine. ABC executives hunkered down and forbade the cast from talking about the incident. That -- and the arrival of an even more compelling contender for top social drama -- quieted public outrage against Washington, though it continued to simmer.
That contender: Michael Richards, the actor who played Cosmo Kramer in NBC's 1990s hit Seinfeld. Richards was performing at The Laugh Factory, a Hollywood comedy club, where, after being heckled, he launched into a tirade against an African American in the audience. "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass!" he screamed. "You can talk, you can talk; you're brave now, motherfucker! Throw his ass out!" Richards said, before calling the man the n-word five times in a row, with real rage in his voice. Gossip blog TMZ instantly provided video and a transcript of Richards, along with a photo essay on "Prejudiced Celebs."
The public reaction was swift, furious, and outraged, and Richards quickly began a tour of contrition on The Late Show With David Letterman, where he was introduced by Jerry Seinfeld. Richards then apologized directly to the father confessors of American racial politics, the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and went on Jackson's radio show to discuss the incident. The drama was national news and played for more than a week.
After that, the national press knew it had a hit on its hands. Audiences loved it. The new script was a winner.
Back on the east coast, the political world was developing its own version of the new narrative. As is typical for Washington, a k a "Hollywood for Ugly People," the local version had much lower production values. Instead of glamorous actors or grizzled has-beens, it featured a round-faced senator with a big grin who was partial to cowboy boots and the Confederate flag, and who had called a young brown-skinned political tracker with a video camera the odd-sounding, previously unknown word "macaca." In mid-August 2006, as Hollywood was up in arms about Mel Gibson, Democrats in Washington and Democratic northern Virginia took up arms against Virginia Senator George Allen's slur (macaca is a derogatory French term meaning "monkey," which some have said Allen picked up from his French Tunisian mother) against the Indian-American who had filmed him.
Allen at first refused to apologize. Then he apologized halfheartedly. Then his campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, appeared to retract the apology. So Allen apologized all over again. Ten days after news of his remark first hit, the controversy had only increased. Allen broke down and called the tracker for his opponent, Jim Webb, to apologize directly. But even that did not end the story.
Because the political arena is less responsive to public opinion than the commercial one, and because it operates by different rules, Allen could not rescue his career by a brief retreat from the public eye, or even by a decisive apology. To save his job, he had to persuade voters to reelect him, despite their newfound suspicions. That meant he'd have to weather two-and-a-half more months of reporters digging up ever-more dirt about his racist past -- including college-football teammates who recalled Allen's use of the n-word -- while trying to soothe voters in the state. It was as if Richards had to go back to The Laugh Factory every single night for two and a half months to try to change the audience's mind.
It didn't work. Between the macaca fracas and the overall national turn against the Republican Party, Allen couldn't stave off Webb. And for the first time in political history, a sitting southern Senator lost his election over a negative racially charged remark. The national audience cheered.
The serialized racial drama took a hiatus in December, but came back with a bang the next season. The Isaiah Washington story reemerged at the Golden Globes in January, after Washington brought up the fall's "faggot" incident in the pressroom and denounced media reports about it as "vile" lies. This time, ABC could not quash the outrage. T.R. Knight took to the Ellen DeGeneres Show to say, "He referred to me as a faggot ... Everyone heard it," while cast mate Katherine Heigl fought back tears as she angrily told Access Hollywood: " [Washington] needs to just not speak in public. Period." Washington, whose career was on the line, did the only thing he could do: He apologized and entered rehab for "emotional problems."
It was this act that finally caused the emerging political story about bigoted political figures to merge with the now-solid Hollywood script about bigoted celebrities being capable, through rehab, of seeing the light. In February, political columnist Ann Coulter mocked the Hollywood narrative in front of 6,000 conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. "I was going to have a few comments about John Edwards, but you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot,'" she told the audience.
Once again, the reaction was swift and furious, and not just from the left -- young writers on the right who had grown embarrassed by conservative bigotry also voiced their dismay. Several newspapers dropped Coulter's column, as did one major conservative organization, and advertisers fled from her Web site. Within a week, even conservative stalwarts at GOPUSA were suggesting that she would benefit from "some professional help" herself, and columnist Cliff Kinkaid dubbed her insult "the political equivalent of Britney Spears shaving the hair off her head." When CPAC offered a six–DVD set of conference highlights in April, Coulter's entire performance had been left on the cutting-room floor.
What began last summer as an effort by Hollywood liberals to defend their community's values against actors who didn't realize that bigotry is only acceptable when it is expressed by a character has morphed into an unstoppable pan-media narrative about fighting bigotry among the rich and famous, be they celebrated actors or despised political celebrities.
In retrospect, the outrage Don Imus provoked when he nastily mocked the Rutgers women's basketball team for being "nappy-headed hos" appears only too predictable: The rules had been changing since the previous July; Imus, as both an entertainer and someone who kept a foot in the political realm, ought to have noticed this. Instead, his comments sparked outrage and condemnation in both Hollywood and Hollywood for Ugly People, with attacks coming from celebrities (Oprah Winfrey, Al Roker) and political figures (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton) alike. Panicked advertisers fled as traditional civil-rights organizations put pressure on Imus' employers to fire him. And Imus soon discovered that all the apologies in the world -- even to Al Sharpton, even on his radio show -- couldn't put his reputation back together again. He was going to have to retreat from the public stage for a time. Imus was dropped, first from his TV spot with MSNBC and then from his $10 million radio gig with CBS.
And so the latest episode in the serial drama came to a satisfying conclusion, tied up with a neat little bow and a reaffirmation of Hollywood Values.