‘Battle for the Soul’ Q&A: How Hollywood Played A Role In Joe Biden’s Campaign And The 2020 Election Narrative
When Joe Biden jumped into the race for the presidency in 2008, he was quickly upstaged by the rivalry between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“The problem is, for me right now, I haven’t been around for 20 years,” he told Variety during a fundraising swing through Hollywood in May, 2007. “I haven’t asked for anything in 20 years, and I am coming into this at a moment when the klieg lights are on, and and instead of seeing Batman and Superman up there, it is Hillary and Barack. So it is going to take a little time.”
It did take time, and as Edward-Isaac Dovere details in his book about the 2020 presidential campaign, Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns To Defeat Trump, Biden wasn’t so much the superhero to save the day but the candidate who met the moment. Dovere’s book, the juiciest of all 2020 election narratives so far, benefits from the way it shapes the unexpected twists and turns for all the Democratic campaigns, revealing much more about how Biden’s campaign went from nearly finished to all-but-certain nominee in a matter of just about a week. Then, it shows how with the pandemic, forcing shutdowns across the country, Biden’s message of healing, of a return to normal, was just the tonic Americans wanted after the daily chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency.
From the start, it was a far different campaign than Biden imagined. As Dovere writes, Biden envisioned a grand Philadelphia kickoff event, against the backdrop of the Rocky statue and with Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga singing, but the campaign ended up staging something smaller, apparently fearful that the media fixation would be on crowds, or lack thereof.
As Biden tried to win over the entertainment industry donor base, it felt as if he would get upstaged again, either to Kamala Harris, who had her own set of connections, or Pete Buttigieg, who won over those looking for the next big star. It was a scenario that played out in other donor circles, as Biden’s campaign came close to running out of money, turning it around as he became the presumptive nominee and the focus turned to beating Trump. The campaign capitalized on the move to virtual fundraising, as grassroots audiences could chip in to watch mini-concerts and cast reunions.
Deadline spoke to Dovere about his book, what it says about Hollywood and the Democrats, and the outlook for 2022.
DEADLINE: I think a lot of people would be surprised by Biden’s relationship with Lady Gaga.
DOVERE: They got to know each other because of the work that Biden was doing, starting as Vice President, about campus sexual assault, and she got involved with that. And struck up a little bit of a connection. They are not best friends, but I think most people would be surprised that Lady Gaga and Joe Biden have a working friendship at all. It’s one of the many ways that you see Democratic politics and and Hollywood intersecting here, in ways that got more and more important during the Trump years, as both Democrats and a lot of celebrities became more impassioned about getting involved in different ways.
DEADLINE: She campaigned for him in Pennsylvania the night before the election, but Biden even wanted her to appear at his kickoff announcement rally.
DOVERE: It was going to be in Philadelphia on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and he was gently talked out of it because there was a little bit of a concern early on of trying to do a big rally, whether people would show up for him, and sure enough you see in the early stages of this campaign, there was some trouble in getting people to show up. The rally that they ended up having the kickoff was was in Philadelphia, it wasn’t on the steps, and Springsteen and Gaga, neither of them were there. But there was also a continuing outreach to her to get her involved. And sure enough, it was important to Biden and that she was with him the night before the election. She comes to Pittsburgh, and plays at this concert… Gaga plays a number of songs, and Biden is enough of a fan that he is mouthing along the words to Shallow backstage and holding on to Jill Biden and really connecting in that way…. [After her set] she was jumping up and down dancing, that kind of joyous dancing waiting for him to show up, and then watched standing on stage the entire speech that Biden gave.
DEADLINE: Was there a concern on the campaign about the use of celebrities? After all, Hillary Clinton held a pre-election concern in Philadelphia, too.
DOVERE: There was not a concern. I think that what you saw was the Biden campaign, especially, leaning into the idea of making the 2020 election feel like a collective statement that was bigger than politics. There were some well known names in the entertainment industry who were with Trump, but there really were not many. Most of them were not what I think most people would consider 2020 A list folks. .. And I think it speaks to how it feels so recent, the 2020 campaign, and already starting to be part of history, but remember how intense this feeling was, and how intense the four-year moment was for everybody, and how much we were connecting to it and in all sorts of ways in our lives.
DEADLINE: How do you think using celebrity worked for Biden but may not have for Hillary Clinton.
DOVERE: I don’t know that it worked against Clinton in ’16. It didn’t work as much for her as it worked for Biden. I remember at the Democratic Convention in 2016, there was a video that they had made of a bunch of famous people singing Fight Song, and it was a really cool video, and it did a lot to it give a feeling that supporting Hillary Clinton was cool, which was not a sense that most of the campaign was giving off. And they played it at the convention, maybe one other time after that, and then it kind of disappeared. It was a very different approach than what Biden did… It’s Joe Biden. He’s not the cultural figure that Barack Obama was in 2008, even though he had done things like a cameo on Parks and Rec and things like that, a video for the Correspondents Dinner one year with Julia Louis Dreyfus… It was taking him and turning him into something bigger than a presidential campaign, in a way that I think was really important in making people feel connected to this, not just like Republicans versus Democrats, or even Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, but visions of America that were different, how people saw themselves.
DEADLINE: Earlier in the book you talk about the 2018 March for Our Lives, and the involvement of George Clooney in getting that rally going after the Parkland shootings. Why was that so important to include? It’s in the chapter called The Spark.
DOVERE: Just to have those kids go from the [Parkland] shooting in February to at the end of March, in that short amount of time, to mount an event that was that large and that significant, as a reporter you think, ‘This is really impressive, how could it be?’ Then I started to backtrack and found out more and more. And then part of what it was was a window into how Barack Obama was seen as being detached from what was going on but actually he was more involved than anybody thought. And then it was, how did this piece come together? Clooney has a track record of getting more done politically than most celebrities do. He was sitting at home, watching CNN, watching the kids in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and thinking, ‘This is nuts. These kids are really interesting.’ As it happens, Barack Obama was watching it, and having a similar thought. I think most people were who were not Oscar winners are former presidents in the United States. What’s different for Clooney is that when he’s watching Anderson Cooper on TV, he decides to contact Anderson Cooper, who connected him to the kids that way. Often people in politics and people in entertainment look for immediate gratification or recognition for the work that they’re doing. Clooney did not. He was really operating in this very instrumental, completely behind the scenes way. Nothing was known about what he was doing with March for Our Lives other than that he was a supporter of it. There is this whole stream of things that was going on, that were powering what was happening, that people didn’t know about.
DEADLINE: How much do you think it was a blow to the Biden campaign that he didn’t enter the race and then just kind of automatically Hollywood donors coalesced around him. They ended up going for others like Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, or other big donors just sat the primary out.
DOVERE: One of his one of Biden’s aides referred to him as an underdog front runner. That was the feeling that Biden had getting into the race. He was leading the polls pretty much at every point of the race, but there was, until he won in South Carolina and really until his unexpected romp on Super Tuesday, this sense that it wasn’t going to work out for him. That is one of the things that I think makes the story of what happened so interesting. In the broadest sense, you go okay, so the former vice president United States was leading in the polls all along and then ended up with the nomination, and he was leading in the polls against Trump and he ends up being elected president. So like in the basic level, that doesn’t seem like much of a story, but actually there was a lot of drama, and a lot of things that were going wrong and a lot of stress that was going on for Biden through all the time and the people who work for him. There’s a running theme for Biden, certainly, until he becomes president, of feeling like he’s not being taken seriously enough. He complains at one point in the book that he’s not getting the ‘A team’ of aides. There’s always that sense of, ‘Why aren’t people showing up?’ And if you go back to that vision of what the kickoff concert would be, that it had to be broken to him that yeah, Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have 20,000 fans cheering for you.
DEADLINE: Spinning forward to election night. You get the sense that there was obviously a sense of relief at the Biden campaign, but also kind of disappointment that this wasn’t this wasn’t a blowout. I mean you talked that night to Chris Coons, who was surprised that Trump was doing so well.
DOVERE: I think that there was a feeling that a lot of people had that there would be this massive movement against Donald Trump. On the one hand there was. Biden won by 7 million votes. But people had an idea that the margin would be bigger, and also that the down ballot races would be more in favor of Democrats, a lot of Democrats in the Senate. … And they weren’t expecting that there would be as many losses in the House. And so there was this measured sense of, ‘Well it looks like Trump is going to lose, but we’re not exactly sure yet. And it would have been nicer to have the fireworks go off on election night.’ On top of that, even if Biden wins, the Democratic the blue wave that people have been hoping would be there just wasn’t in that way.
At one point in the book I write that so much of this played out like a dime store novel. All of this goes on, then there is that Saturday where the race is called at 11 in the morning and everybody is cheering and going crazy. Then there is Georgia Senate races being what they were, and the Democrats are the majority. But then the day after it’s a riot. By the time that people got to the Inauguration, because of Covid, the Mall that is had to just be covered in American flags and not people. It’s weird, because of the riots there were fences all around. Honestly, if I had set out to write that all of these circumstances coming in as a novel, it wouldn’t have worked out. I can’t imagine a fiction editor would have been like, ‘Yeah, this all works.’
DEADLINE: Now that we are more than five months into the Biden administration, how do you see the Biden – Kamala Harris relationship playing out?
DOVERE: By all accounts, it’s going well, and they like each other. She likes him, and he likes her, and he’s given her a lot to be involved in. He’s given her a lot of tough assignments. She’s putting a lot of effort into making the relationship work. They both are. Importantly on the day of the [Derek] Chauvin verdict, when they both spoke, she spoke first in that moment, obviously because there’s a lot of symbolic symbolic value to having the first Black Vice President. … He didn’t need to give her that spot, but he did.
DEADLINE: Looking forward to 2022. Are the Democrats screwed? You look at the numbers, and just by redistricting it seems like Republicans would be able to win back the House.
DOVERE: I think you’re right that historical trends are against them, obviously… But I think a lot is in the air. If the pandemic continues to get under control, and continues to feel like a faded memory by summer and then the fall of next year, then that is obviously much better for Biden. If he can make the case that we got the Coronavirus under control, the economy’s getting better, there isn’t a spike in variants or things like that … then that’s obviously much better news for the Democrats than otherwise. You can pretty much see a very powerful Republican message rolling out if a year from now, we’re back to living with masks on all the time and back in our homes. There are other things that are going to be part of that mix, and some of them will probably fall into the inevitable unpredictable category. We never knew that the pandemic will be part of the 2020 race, so who knows what might be coming. And then there are issues you’re seeing pop up about how people feel about some of the socialist language being used by the Democratic Party — Is it fair? Does it stick? And things like crime as an issue, which has been starting to bubble up, does that become something that is more a part of the political conversation in a way that is helpful for Republicans than it has been so far? Then mixed up with all this is, what kind of a factor is Donald Trump? And what kind of a factor is the recoil that a lot of people have been having to the anti-democratic turn that a lot of members of the Republican Party have taken, and a reluctance to distance themselves from Trump.
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