In liberal Hollywood, Republicans have formed one of the industry’s most influential (and most discreet) political organizations.
The California Sunday Magazine | May 19, 2016
DAVE BERG WAS invited to Friends of Abe during a commercial break on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Berg was a producer on the show, and one of his many duties included keeping Leno’s guests company between segments — making small talk, coaching them through their appearance, asking if there was anything they wanted Leno to mention. During a taping in 2007, Berg sat down next to the actress Patricia Heaton, who was promoting a new sitcom. Before he could say anything, Heaton leaned over and said in a playfully conspiratorial tone, “I hear you’re a conservative.”
Berg felt his face flush. A trim, sandy-haired native of Chicago who’d run CNBC’s Los Angeles bureau before landing at The Tonight Show, Berg went to great lengths to keep his political views to himself. “How did you know?” he asked. Heaton wouldn’t say but told him about a group starting up where he could speak freely. “We’re going to have a meeting at my house,” she said. “Would you like to come?”
Buddy Sosthand was unwinding at a bar in Albuquerque after a day of stunt work when the discussion turned to the 2004 presidential election. Sosthand told a fellow stuntman he had supported Bush. “I can’t believe you, as a black person, would vote for George W. Bush,” the other man said. Their argument became so heated that the two nearly had to be separated.
After Sosthand had cooled off, an actor named Chris Ashworth approached him. “Were you saying what I thought you were saying?” Ashworth whispered. Sosthand asked why Ashworth’s voice was so low. “You got to watch yourself,” replied Ashworth, who mentioned something about an industry group called Friends of Abe that he might want to join.
Clint Howard, a longtime character actor, found himself seated next to stand-up comedian Tom Dreesen on a flight back to Los Angeles from a charity golf tournament several years ago. The two men began to talk politics, and Dreesen asked if Howard had heard of Friends of Abe. Howard, the younger brother of director Ron Howard, said he had always wanted to become a member but didn’t have an in. Dreesen gave him the phone number of actor Gary Sinise and told him to call. Not long after, Howard rang up Sinise. “I was waiting for you, brother,” Sinise said.
Howard told me this story recently over tostadas and Coronas at an old Mexican joint tucked among the studio lots of Burbank. Even in the dimly lit dining room, I recognized him right away. He’s that guy from that movie, the face you recognize but can’t for the life of you remember from where. (In Howard’s case, it’s probably Apollo 13 or The Waterboy.) Bald on top, Howard has grown out what hair remains into gray ringlets that wouldn’t be out of place at a Renaissance Fair. His wife hates it, he told me, but the wacky-guy look — his words — has led to steady work playing characters with names like Creepy Rodney and Drug Dan.
There are many misconceptions about Friends of Abe, Howard explained. The group doesn’t endorse candidates or raise money for campaigns. It doesn’t get out the vote. There’s no party line. Within the group are libertarians, evangelical Christians, Donald Trump supporters, Donald Trump opponents, moderate Republicans, gay Republicans, atheist Republicans, Tea Partyers, and military veterans. Yeah, a lot of people get the wrong idea about the group because it’s a secret society, he said, but more than anything, Friends of Abe is a safe haven and a fellowship — sometimes even a therapy session — for conservatives in show business.
Secret society. Safe haven. Fellowship. Therapy session. Whenever I talked to Friends of Abe members, I heard this kind of language again and again, and there’s no question the group is all of these things. It’s also a place for members to find work, swap ideas for a project, even meet a romantic partner. But what these descriptions overlook is that Friends of Abe — a group few people in or out of Hollywood have heard of — has become one of the most influential political organizations in the entertainment industry. What began in 2004 as a regular lunch among Sinise, Dreesen, and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Hanoi Hilton) has grown to nearly 2,500 members, including Clint Eastwood, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Jon Voight, Jerry Bruckheimer, Dennis Miller, Robert Duvall, and Tom Selleck.
Over the years, Friends of Abe has become an essential stop on the Republican Party circuit. Nearly every Republican candidate for president in the past decade has spoken at the group’s monthly gatherings. Donald Trump considered Friends of Abe so important that one of his earliest events after he announced he was running for president was a speech before the group. Ted Cruz turned to members for help shooting commercials, writing lines for speeches and debates, and obtaining celebrity endorsements. Although the group does not support individual candidates — until recently, it was a 501(c)(3)-designated charity — members have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republicans running for office.
This past January, Howard spent three days in Iowa campaigning for Cruz. “I did phone banking,” he told me, as the waiter brought our food. “I checked out the campaign bus — it was just like a writers’ room — and I attended some rallies. What Cruz believes in, what he stands for — he’s my guy.”
Is it hard to be a conservative in Hollywood? I asked. “It’s a money business,” he said. “The people who have most of the power and most of the control, they’re liberals. I would never tell a young actor who’s conservative to come out of the closet. It would put their career at risk. Imagine the industry that you love and make a living in has gotten to the point where you have to hold your tongue every day. That’s awful.”
We finished our lunch and stepped out into the blinding afternoon light to say our goodbyes. That evening, as I read through my notes, I realized that Howard had avoided saying the words Friends of Abe throughout our two-hour lunch. He had kept to protocol. “The first rule of Friends of Abe,” members are told at their induction meeting, “is don’t talk about Friends of Abe.”
IN THE SPRING OF 2004, Lionel Chetwynd appeared on comedian Dennis Miller’s short-lived talk show to promote a TV movie he had written about Dwight Eisenhower. Backstage, Chetwynd bumped into Gary Sinise, best known for his roles as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump and Detective Mac Taylor on CSI: NY. Sinise was there to discuss the nonprofit he’d started that provided school supplies to Iraqi students. Chetwynd said he admired Sinise’s charitable work, but when he broached the subject of politics, Sinise flinched. Chetwynd figured the actor was probably a Democrat and left it at that.
About a week later, Chetwynd noticed Sinise eating by himself at a deli not far from the studio where CSI was shot. Chetwynd asked if he could sit down. The two made for an odd pair: Sinise, 49 years old, square-jawed and taciturn, a founder of Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre, and Chetwynd, in his mid-60s, rotund and owlish, a champion debater who studied at Oxford and often speaks so fast it’s easy to miss every third word he says. The conversation drifted to the Iraq War, the direction of the country. Chetwynd was a rarity in Hollywood — an unapologetic public defender of George W. Bush. Sinise shifted uneasily as he ate, but the more the two talked, the more he opened up, eventually revealing that he, too, admired the president.
Sinise was like a lot of conservatives in the entertainment industry: He kept his politics to himself. That began to change after 9/11. The events that day, he later wrote on his foundation’s website, “forced me to rethink everything. What do I really believe? How do I want to raise my kids? What kind of example do I want to set for them? What can I do to give back to this great country I love?” He signed on to the first USO tour of Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Later, he put together the Lt. Dan Band, with himself on bass, which performs for troops and their families around the world.
The two men met again for lunch, and this time Sinise brought along Tom Dreesen, a fellow Chicagoan who was a longtime opening act for Frank Sinatra and a frequent guest host on the Late Show with David Letterman. Dreesen pointed out how he and Sinise kibitzed loudly about the Bears or the Cubs, but whenever the conversation switched to politics, they reflexively dropped their voices. Being Republican in Hollywood had been difficult for as long as they could remember — even during the Reagan years. But they could not think of a time when it had been this bad, when self-censorship was so prevalent, when so many conservatives were in hiding.
“There must be more of us,” Sinise said. They issued one another a challenge: Think of one conservative you know and bring that person to the next lunch. That was how it began. Over the next few months, Sinise called Voight, Grammer, and Heaton, and the lunch group multiplied from three people to six, six to twelve, dozens to hundreds, growing until bigger venues were needed. Heaton hosted an early event in the backyard of her Beverly Hills home, and Grammer invited folks to his place in Malibu.
As the group took off, Sinise and Chetwynd still hadn’t figured out its mission. The pivotal moment came when the two were talking in Sinise’s trailer one day. Chetwynd pushed for an aggressive tack. Friends of Abe needs to be a vehicle for fighting liberal bias in the industry, he argued. In the early 1990s, Chetwynd, along with right-wing activist David Horowitz, had launched the Wednesday Morning Club. “Our objective was to create a two-party town,” he says. “We would measure success by every time there was a public debate and we got on the stage as equals to liberals.” The club attracted high-profile guests to its events — including then-Governor George W. Bush — but its influence was never more than marginal.
Sinise took the opposite approach. Instead of outshouting the other side, he said, Friends of Abe should operate discreetly and focus on bringing in new members and building a community of like-minded people. Don’t give conservatives a spear, he argued, give them a seat. Once conservatives were in a room together, they would find strength in numbers. “Truthfully, I’ve always won this argument, and we’ve always ended up failing,” Chetwynd recalls telling Sinise. “Let’s try your way and see if it makes a difference.”
The group’s emphasis on secrecy wasn’t just a strategic decision. It reflected Sinise’s personality. Friends say he’s exceedingly private and, by nature, cautious. He doesn’t host glitzy fundraisers at his home. He rarely agrees to be interviewed about politics. (He turned down repeated requests to speak for this story.) Republican operatives have courted him for statewide office and even the White House — a former John McCain adviser wrote in 2009 that Sinise had been discussed as the party’s “savior” — and every time he has dismissed the idea. As recently as three years ago, he deflected a question about Friends of Abe by asking, “Friends of who?” This about a group to which he has given close to $1 million.
Sinise’s approach recognized something basic about how Hollywood works. More than most businesses, it runs on relationships, on whom you know. Graduates from Columbia’s film school arrive in town every year with a stack of reels and spec scripts, and as they begin the years-long climb, they hire one another for projects and tell one another about jobs. Six equally good actors audition for a role on a TV series; the one who gets the part has an agent who’s known the casting director for decades. Liberals had many organizations they could be part of — the ACLU, the Liberty Hill Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council — and an endless stream of benefit dinners and campaign fundraisers where they could network, mixing business and politics. As one liberal screenwriter told me, “These events are happening almost every week. Although they’re not hiring halls, they do create a sense of community. And because of that, it’s not hard for those who attend to feel that, ‘Hey, we’re the people who matter in this town.’”
Conservatives in Hollywood didn’t have their own ecosystem until Friends of Abe. The group, whose motto is “Liberty Loves Company,” now packs restaurants and hotel ballrooms for speeches from figures like Karl Rove, John Boehner, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. Members could find work on Abe’s List, a members-only jobs board, and gather every month for drinks at Barney’s Beanery in Westwood. And every summer there is a gala, usually at the 2,000-acre ranch owned by Dole Food CEO David Murdock or at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where more than 1,000 people show up. Chetwynd recalls his astonishment at the size and range of the crowd at the first gala — actors and producers, gaffers and cameramen, screenwriters and editors, discovering a common bond even though many had worked side by side for years. “I remember saying to Gary that night, ‘It’s happening.’”
BY THE MID-2000s, Prius-driving, juice-cleansing, MSNBC-watching Hollywood liberals had become such a type that even other liberals were skewering them. In a 2007 column for Los Angeles magazine, the culture critic John Powers described his host at a dinner party, a movie producer, mock-asking his guests before they’d even sat down, “Can we all just agree that George W. Bush is the worst president in the history of the republic?”
Friends of Abe was a direct reaction to the George W. Bush era — or, more precisely, a reaction to liberals’ contempt for Bush. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who was a pure product of Hollywood, or Bill Clinton, who tirelessly cultivated his ties to the entertainment industry (as president, he visited Los Angeles more than any other city except for New York), Bush had few connections to show business, and he brought out the worst in its liberals. There was the producer who marched on set and announced to the crew, “I’ve had a very bad day. I need to find a Republican I can fire”; the actress at a table reading on the day after Bush’s re-election who told everyone about how she’d stuck her head out the car window that morning and screamed, “Can someone please assassinate this man?”; the guy who wore a FUCK BUSH T-shirt to a black-tie studio gala.
Conservatives were not just lesser; they were invisible, and they did whatever they could to stay that way. One actor told me he would make fake phone calls to his wife to avoid political conversations with colleagues on set. Another actress said she’d “play the dumb card,” pretending she knew nothing about politics or current events. In the depths of the Bush years, conservatives in the industry were reduced to a punchline. “There aren’t that many of us here,” went the joke, “but the good news is that one in three Hollywood Republicans goes on to become president.”
Hollywood is a famously brutal place to work. So many talented people are competing for so few spots; rejection — and the insecurity that comes with it — is the norm. It’s not just actresses who see their careers evaporate at 35, replaced by the latest crop of ingénues living at the Oakwood Apartments. It’s also successful editors and screenwriters and producers who suddenly find that their phones have stopped ringing for no apparent reason. Their careers have dried up and they don’t know why — that’s what’s so difficult to bear. Conservatives in the industry face an additional question with no clear answer: Have their political views stifled their careers?
Within Friends of Abe, there’s a fierce debate over whether a blacklist exists. “Anyone who denies it is intentionally misleading you or clueless,” says actor F. Lee Reynolds. “There is actual blacklisting. It does happen,” says actress Mell Flynn. Neither Reynolds nor Flynn nor anyone else I spoke to could offer proof that conservatives have been deliberately excluded from jobs. Most members say that the bias is more subtle: People hire those they know and like and, typically, those are people who think and act as they do.
Whether a blacklist exists will likely never be proven, but the fact that many members are convinced that it does speaks to the psychological need that Friends of Abe has served to fill — and never more so than at the new-member lunches. Every month or so, a few dozen initiates and their sponsors gather in the private room of the Bistro Garden restaurant in Studio City and introduce themselves and say why they want to join. On one occasion, a line producer described being dropped from a project after she expressed pro-life views. On another, a stuntman talked about how his colleagues said American troops are murderers. Grown men and women break down in tears as they reveal what they’ve gone through — and express relief in letting it all out. “It’s people who don’t have a tribe,” says John Sullivan, a documentary producer and director, “and when they find out they have a tribe, they’re so happy.” “You unburden your soul and say, ‘I have this secret that I’m not allowed to share with anybody,’” says the comedian Evan Sayet.
If this description sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, that’s how Friends of Abe members talk about the lunches. The anonymity, the sponsors, the confiding, the emotional release, the lingo (“Hi, I’m John, and I’m a conservative”) come straight from AA. “They are very similar organizations,” says Rob Long, a former executive producer on Cheers and a columnist for National Review, “because it’s like, ‘Don’t talk about it. We don’t need any scrutiny here. We’re just here for fellowship.’ To this day, Friends of Abe is the only social group in Hollywood outside of AA where the budget classes mingle.”
The AA connection was there from the start, inspiring the group’s name. Tom Dreesen knew that AA members referred to one another as a “friend of Bill W.” — a nod to co-founder Bill Wilson — and that closeted men in Hollywood during the 1940s sought out one another by asking, “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” — a Wizard of Oz reference. “We’ve got to be a friend of somebody,” Dreesen recalls saying to Sinise and Chetwynd. Dreesen and Sinise had grown up in Illinois, so he suggested Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. “We’ll say, ‘Are you a friend of Abe?’ That way, if the liberals hear it, they’ll think that we’re talking about an agent from William Morris.”
As Jeremy Boreing, Friends of Abe’s executive director, puts it, “We’re basically named after gays in Hollywood and alcoholics nationwide.”
NO ONE CAN remember how Andrew Breitbart found his way to Friends of Abe, but one day there he was at a meeting, pounding away on his laptop. A driving force behind the Drudge Report, he had become one of the most well-known conservative provocateurs on the internet. In many ways, he served as Sinise’s opposite. Apart from a short stint after college as a studio gofer, he’d never worked in the industry. He was pugnacious and irreverent. He was also prone to grandiosity — the first time he ever logged onto the internet, he wrote, “I was reborn.” Soon after he joined Friends of Abe, he declared it was “the most beautiful and clean thing” to come out of Hollywood in years.
The co-founders of Friends of Abe had succeeded in creating a community more quickly than they had imagined, but they hadn’t changed the content of what Hollywood produced. Sinise was always skeptical that this should be a goal of the organization. Breitbart, though, believed that Friends of Abe could be more than a fellowship — that it could be a place where conservatives joined forces to produce movies and TV shows that run counter to Hollywood’s liberal consensus. Breitbart boiled this notion into a rallying cry. “Culture,” he liked to say, “is upstream from politics.” What happened on a soundstage or on a studio lot had greater influence on the direction of the country than what transpired in a hearing room on Capitol Hill — an idea that he drilled into the heads of everyone he knew in Friends of Abe, at once instilling them with a sense of greater purpose and flattering them with a sense of their own importance.
The group’s emphasis on secrecy wasn’t just a strategic decision. It reflected Sinise’s personality. Friends say he’s exceedingly private and, by nature, cautious. He doesn’t host glitzy fundraisers at his home.
Breitbart threw himself into the cause. He recruited new members, presided over luncheons, and built the group’s first website. When the founders rebuffed his idea to turn the site into a public platform for combating liberal prejudice within the business, Breitbart launched Big Hollywood in 2008. Written by industry friends, the site was a mix of pet peeves, thoughtful critiques, and rants — not unlike what could be heard at a Friends of Abe happy hour. Breitbart’s online operation soon grew from a single homepage to a network of websites. An early booster of the Tea Party, it drew millions of readers a month and turned Breitbart into a media star.
According to Dave Berg, the former Tonight Show producer, “In the story of Hollywood conservatives, Breitbart was like the Apostle Paul” — the messenger who carried the word to the outside world. And then he was gone. On the morning of March 1, 2012, Breitbart dropped dead of a heart attack while walking near his home. He was 43. Friends of Abe members gathered that evening at Barney’s Beanery in Westwood, the group’s de facto clubhouse, for an impromptu wake.
What Breitbart’s emphasis on culture missed is that, when Hollywood Republicans have run for office or groomed candidates for office, they have been more successful than Hollywood Democrats. There was MGM chief Louis B. Mayer who chaired the California Republican Party in the 1930s; actor George Murphy who served in the U.S. Senate in the 1960s; Arnold Schwarzenegger who governed California in the 2000s; and, of course, Ronald Reagan, the most significant conservative of the past 50 years. On the liberal side, there’s Minnesota Senator Al Franken, and that’s about it. Few progressive celebrity activists have matched Charlton Heston’s influence when he served as spokesperson and president of the National Rifle Association. (“How could you go against what Moses says?” a woman once asked a Los Angeles Times reporter.) “The Hollywood left has the political glitz,” historian Steven Ross writes in Hollywood Left and Right, “but the Hollywood right sought, won, and exercised electoral power.”
Nobody I spoke to believes that Friends of Abe has had much effect on what comes out of Hollywood — Breitbart’s other aim. Television shows like 24 and Homeland or movies like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper, each fundamentally conservative, each a hit, would have been made if the group had never existed. Network and studio executives bet on them because they were convinced they would make money, not because of their messages. They don’t need to be told that explicitly right-wing movies — or, for that matter, explicitly left-wing movies — rarely do well in the box office. They know most viewers don’t like overt politics in their entertainment.
Still, by most other measures, Friends of Abe has been a success. Recently, Lionel Chetwynd and I met for breakfast at Art’s Delicatessen in Studio City, an industry hangout, and talked about the group’s influence on the business that had employed him for 40 years. Chetwynd is thought of as the intellectual leader of Friends of Abe, and he’d been thinking a lot about the organization and its future.
We had spoken a few weeks earlier, when he had told me how Friends of Abe started. But now Chetwynd told me he’d left something out. During that key meeting in Sinise’s trailer, as they debated what the group would become, he stepped out for a walk with a producer friend. As the two talked, he began to see the wisdom of Sinise’s quiet approach. One day, he realized, there would come a point when Hollywood conservatives wouldn’t need Friends of Abe to meet people like themselves. They would be everywhere, and they’d know who they were. I later asked him, was that why he decided to break the first rule of Friends of Abe and talk to me? Yes, he said. It had been 12 years since the organization had been founded, and he could now imagine a future — it is close at hand — when Friends of Abe no longer has to operate in secret.