Hollywood silent on running mate who says 'Friends' is moral danger

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It is not a good idea to attack popular television shows when you are running for the White House. The last man to try was Vice-President Dan Quayle, whose criticism of Murphy Brown was one of the errors that led to him and George Bush Sr losing office in 1992.

It is not a good idea to attack popular television shows when you are running for the White House. The last man to try was Vice-President Dan Quayle, whose criticism of Murphy Brown was one of the errors that led to him and George Bush Sr losing office in 1992.

The Republicans have learnt their lesson, uttering barely a word against Hollywood in this campaign. It will be interesting to see if the Democrats follow suit, particularly as Al Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, is one of Capitol Hill's leading Hollywood-bashers.

Like Dan Quayle, Senator Lieberman has been railing for years about declining moral standards in the entertainment industry. Like Mr Quayle, he also has a television show he loves to hate: in his case the popular sitcom Friends, whose focus on flirtation, courtship and sexual innuendo, he believes, makes it unsuitable for prime-time family viewing.

Also like Mr Quayle, it appears he forms his opinions largely second-hand. "There's only so much I watch myself," he has admitted. "I flip the dials. I read some of the reports on content."

All of which suggests that the entertainment industry could be the Achilles heel of an otherwise well-regarded Democratic ticket. All of Mr Lieberman's gravitas, quiet intelligence and legislative experience - points Mr Quayle did not have on his side - might not count for much if voters sense that he wants to pull the plug on their favourite shows.

Hollywood, meanwhile, has reacted to Mr Lieberman's appointment with silence. Many studio heads and leading actors are big Democratic Party contributors, so they are not about to rock the boat by denouncing him. But their unease is not hard to fathom.

Last year, Mr Lieberman petitioned the studio heads to ditch the "toxic culture of violence and vulgarity surrounding our children". This year he urged the Federal Communications Commission to consider suspending or revoking broadcasting licences in the light of the "glorified violence" and "explicit sexual content" on the small screen.

He has issued warnings to the industry that it might have to be regulated if it cannot regulate itself. He was an enthusiastic proponent of the "v-chip", the home censorship device enabling parents to control their children's viewing habits. And he has teamed up with William Bennett, a Republican culture warrior much detested in Hollywood circles, to dish out "Silver Sewer" awards to the worst trash.

"There is a swelling sense in America that culture has become a threat to the well-being of kids and society," Mr Lieberman said recently.

Hollywood nevertheless has great respect for Mr Lieberman. Jack Valenti, the industry's chief lobbyist, said last week that he would be more than happy to debate the issues with someone he regarded as a friend and a man of "unquenchable integrity". The fact that he is a Jew probably does no harm, either.

The Lieberman factor certainly won't lose the Democrats many votes in Hollywood - the industry is overwhelmingly Democrat and has nowhere else to turn. Even when it comes to fund-raising it is unclear if he will make much of a negative impact, since Hollywood was already pretty luke warm about Al Gore.

Unlike President Clinton, whose ability to galvanise the Hollywood glitterati is legendary, Mr Gore has never caused a flutter among movie stars and studio moguls. He and his wife, Tipper, have their own cultural hates: their 1980s campaign to have warning labels posted on "explicit" rap music has never been entirely forgiven in the music business.

As a result, during this week's Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Mr Clinton may well grab much of the Hollywood limelight from his anointed successor, as he attends star-studded fund-raisers for his wife's Senate race and his own future presidential library.

While Mr Clinton has long thrived on Hollywood glitter, decadence and all (he was photographed with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner a few days ago), Mr Gore seeks a clean-cut image. Mr Lieberman was chosen, in part, to restore a post-Lewinsky sense of propriety to the Democrats. He'd be wise, though, to keep his thoughts about Friends to himself.

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