For the first time perhaps since Ronald Reagan, an honest-to-goodness, real live Hollywood celebrity is at work inside the White House. But as soon as he arrived from the West Coast, the Obama administration promptly put Kalpen Modi under wraps.
Modi — better known as Kal Penn to fans of the television medical drama “House” and the raunchy stoner “Harold and Kumar” movies — now toils in obscurity inside the warrenlike Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The bureaucrat formerly known as Penn is now the associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, a job that requires him to do two things: run public outreach, with a focus on young people, the arts world and Asian-Americans; and be inconspicuous.
“I expect to be treated just like any other staff member,” he said during a conference call on his first day of work, July 6, in what the White House described as a one-time-only opportunity to interview the former star. The call was cut off after 17 minutes (Modi had a meeting to attend), but not before he revealed these juicy tidbits: He brushed his teeth that morning just like everybody else does, took the bus to work and was “deeply honored to be here.”
Modi’s somewhat uneasy transition from L.A. celebrity to D.C. nobody provides a glimpse into the larger picture of the conflicted relationship between Hollywood and Washington in the age of Obama. After eight years of generally icy feelings toward President George W. Bush, the entertainment industry is once again wrapping its arms around the nation’s capital in a warm embrace.
But the Obama White House is careful not to look as if it is hugging back.
President Barack Obama makes no secret that he has entertainment industry friends; Oprah Winfrey remains a close supporter, Barbra Streisand raised millions for his campaign, Bruce Springsteen rocked the town on inauguration weekend. As president, Obama has made aggressive use of the White House as a platform to promote cultural events, hosting concerts featuring artists as varied as Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett and, just recently, the bluegrass-country star Alison Krauss.
But in the six months since taking office, Obama has also entertained a quiet behind-the-scenes parade of movie stars and other celebrities, who may traipse through the West Wing and Oval Office unannounced during the work week. They include Pierce Brosnan, Reese Witherspoon, Ben Stiller, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jon Bon Jovi, to name just a few.
Some slip in just for tours. Witherspoon, with her co-star Paul Rudd and her boyfriend, Jake Gyllenhaal, dropped in on Obama and Vice President Joe Biden when she and Rudd were here filming a movie.
Others come with an agenda.
Brosnan met with Obama administration officials in May to talk about his favorite cause, saving the whales. DiCaprio spent 10 minutes with Obama in the Oval Office a couple of months ago to talk about the environment. Clooney weighed in on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Bon Jovi, who has been active with United We Serve, Obama’s initiative to promote volunteerism, had lunch in the White House mess not long ago with David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser; later, the president dropped in to say hello.
The meetings have happened quietly with good reason: At a time when ordinary Americans are struggling through the darkest economy since the Great Depression, and the president is confronting epic problems like health care and the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Obama can ill afford to be seen cavorting with Hollywood types.
“Hollywood is not the political asset, especially in the middle of the country, that people might think it is,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America, the movie industry’s trade organization. “If you use it correctly, Hollywood can be very helpful in fundraising. But it can also be a liability.”
Some longtime Washingtonians take umbrage at this kind of celebrity diplomacy. Obama and his wife, Michelle, have declared the White House “the people’s house.” So why is it, their critics wonder, that the doors of the people’s house seem to open more easily to certain kinds of people than others?
“Why does the opinion of a movie star matter, except insofar as he or she is a citizen?” asks Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, adding, “There is something a little risible about these people being invited to the White House for their perfectly conventional views on, say, climate change.”
Bill Clinton, with his thirst for the limelight while president, seemed to crave attention from Hollywood; he once slipped away from an international summit meeting for a late-night drink with the actors Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone.
Bush seemed indifferent. As Wieseltier said, “For Bush, Hollywood was the Soviet Union, only better-looking.”
Obama, by contrast, clearly enjoys associating with stars. But with his cool, detached reserve, he does not seem to need them, which may be one reason they find him so attractive.
“What makes Obama intriguing is that he’s the biggest celebrity in the world — he’s bigger than any of them,” said Ron Brownstein, political director of Atlantic Media and the author of “The Power and the Glitter,” a 1991 book about the Hollywood-Washington nexus. “You don’t get the sense that Obama is stargazing. If anything, you feel like it’s the other way around.”
That may have been the dynamic that propelled Modi to swap his lucrative acting career for a midlevel White House job. In 2007, he signed on with the Obama campaign as a volunteer, going door to door and making phone calls; eventually he joined candidate Obama’s arts policy committee. Friends say that Modi, 32, who is Indian-American, has a deep interest in policy and in promoting Asian-Americans in the arts.
In April, four months after Obama came into office, the deal was sealed; his television character, a medical diagnostician, committed suicide. In the West Wing, his new colleagues seem impressed, if a little amused.
“He’s probably the only guy in the Office of Public Engagement,” Axelrod said, “who has a publicist.”