LOS ANGELES -- It's a glittering day in Southern California, and hard by the sprawling complex of the Sony Pictures Entertainment studios and neatly groomed rows of modest bungalows, record executive Danny Goldberg is plotting the revolution.
Or at least his part of it.
Huddled with movie and television producer Robert Greenwald, Goldberg is in full brainstorming mode. Goldberg and Greenwald form two-thirds of RDV Books, a boutique publisher that specializes in liberal social commentary (the V is Victor Goldberg, Danny's father). While waiting for a conference call about their upcoming book, "Families for Peaceful Tomorrows," about the eponymous antiwar group founded by people who lost relatives on Sept. 11, 2001, they examine galley proofs of another upcoming project, a collection of the darkly confrontational political cartoons of Robbie Conal. They chat about Goldberg's introduction to the paperback edition of "It's a Free Country," an RDV collection of essays about civil liberties.
And they also talk about Goldberg's own book -- just published by Miramax -- called "Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit." Part rock-and-roll memoir, part political tract, it breezily recounts Goldberg's coming of age, as both pop music mogul and political gadfly. Perhaps only Goldberg could write a book in which the names Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain are dropped as blithely as Jimmy Carter, Tom Hayden, Nelson Mandela and Al Gore.
At its core, "Dispatches" is a broadside against Goldberg's allies on the progressive left, and more specifically the Democratic Party, for squandering what the author sees as a natural constituency among young voters. "I'm sick and tired of watching the ideas that I believe in lose political ground," he writes in his introduction. "A political ideology whose purpose is to help and empower ordinary people is often directed by leaders and strategists to whom the public is an alien beast and to whom young people seem to be, astonishingly, irrelevant."
While Goldberg jots notes on a piece of legal paper, Greenwald breaks the silence. "I went to my Barnes & Noble and saw the book prominently displayed," he says. "It was such a kick! There it was, right next to Ann Coulter!"
"I love hearing that," Goldberg says.
The Activist Insider
Danny Goldberg's name may not mean much to the people who watch Coulter's TV food fights, but he's well known among the cognoscenti of rock-and-roll and politics. For most of his life, he has worked in the record industry -- first as a clerk at Billboard magazine, eventually as a critic, then as a publicist for Led Zeppelin. He owned a small record company, then became the manager for a roster of artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks and Nirvana. He's done time with the bigs, as an executive with Atlantic and Mercury, and for the past four years he's owned his own label, Artemis, which has put out records by such venerated artists as Warren Zevon, Steve Earle and the Pretenders (not to mention newbies like Jesse Malin, Kittie and Baha Men, the last of which posed that timeless musical question, "Who Let the Dogs Out?").
But even longer than Goldberg's been perfecting his famed nose for hits, he has sharpened his political instincts, which started as a set of values instilled by his progressive-minded parents while they reared him and his brother and sister in Westchester County, N.Y. He was active in the antiwar movement in the 1960s and 1970s and co-produced the "No Nukes" concert and documentary. In more recent years, Goldberg's political passions have revolved mostly around civil liberties issues: He chaired the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Southern California for eight years. Since then he has been most visible going toe-to-toe with such lightning rods as William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman as they encouraged the entertainment industry to clean up its act. That was Goldberg on television two years ago, testifying at congressional hearings, discussing Eminem and "Erin Brockovich" with interlocutors including Sens. John McCain and Sam Brownback.
But more than a C-SPAN star, Goldberg over the years has become a prominent éminence grise in Democratic circles, serving as an ad hoc adviser to candidates and putting politicians together with celebrities -- and, perhaps more important, celebrities' money -- to create the invaluable synergy in which the pol gets some glamour and the star gets intellectual bona fides. But Goldberg, a Berkeley dropout, brought value added to the transaction. "He was a great help to me and a real friend and ambassador in the entertainment world," says former senator Gary Hart from his law office in Denver. "I always found him to be a very interesting mix of a seasoned entertainment executive and someone who understood and thought a lot about public policy and government. He has a great mind. He's just a fountain of ideas."
Losing the Kids
After a hurried lunch of salad in Greenwald's office, Goldberg has headed back to the Malibu beach house that's served as his family's summer retreat from New York for the past seven years. Dressed in frayed jeans, the bearded, barefoot Goldberg nurses a can of Tab while leading a visitor past pinball and Foosball machines set up for his 53rd birthday party the following weekend. Settling into a chair next to the pool, where he can keep an eye on his 9-year-old son, Max (12-year-old Katie is at theater camp), Goldberg dons a pair of prescription sunglasses while the family's black-and-white cat threads lazily between his ankles.
"I'd been thinking about it for a long, long time," he says of the decision to write "Dispatches From the Culture Wars." "After I would have some of these meetings with Gore or Lieberman, I would go home, take notes, and I'd just put them in a file, and I left them in the file for years. Then, as the 2000 [Democratic] convention was happening, I thought to myself, 'If I'm ever going to write a book about all these themes, now would be the time to do it, because a guy I'd had these encounters with was going to be the nominee of the Democrats and conceivably, at that time, could have been president."
For Democrats, the year 2000 will live in infamy for myriad reasons, but for Goldberg it was the year they lost the kids. Whereas in 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton garnered the votes of 18-to-24-year-olds by margins of 12 and 19 percent, respectively, Goldberg writes, by 2000 the advantage had disappeared. (Had the Democrats maintained their edge with young people, their victory would have been decisive.) He puts the blame squarely on Gore and Lieberman, accusing them of concentrating on Medicare, Social Security and prescription drugs at the expense of issues young people care about, and of using stiff, arcane, bureaucratic language ("Dingell-Norwood?!" he writes).
Goldberg also excoriates the two candidates, whom he met frequently on the campaign trail, for alienating young people by demonizing the video games, rap music and movies they love. His strongest language is reserved for current presidential candidate Lieberman. "Not only is he one of the most conservative Democrats with a national profile," Goldberg writes, "but his self-righteousness about religion and venom toward popular culture would make him a serious threat to a free and intellectually diverse American society if he were to gain more power." (Through a spokesman, Lieberman said that he hasn't read Goldberg's book but doesn't "feel it necessary to respond to the political analysis of a record producer. Suffice it to say he should not give up his day job.")
Of course, a record executive telling politicians to lighten up on corrosive pop culture is vulnerable to accusations that he's cynical, or at least self-serving. But Goldberg points out that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney barely addressed pop culture issues in the 2000 campaign (Lynne Cheney, an outspoken critic of Eminem, was conspicuously quieter on the subject once the campaign heated up). Bush warmly welcomed no less than Ozzy Osbourne to the White House correspondents' dinner last year, and the Media Marketing Accountability Act, which proposed that the FTC regulate movie advertising, had no Republican sponsors. The GOP is clearly winning the numbers game with young people: The College Republican National Committee has tripled the number of its campus chapters since 1999. "Ironically, the people who are culture-bashers keep claiming how pragmatic they are and how naive people like me are," Goldberg says, "but I don't think they're very pragmatic, given that they've lost the House, the Senate and the presidency."
Hart, for one, thinks his fellow Democrats should listen to Goldberg, not in spite of his being a record executive but precisely because that's what he is. "People in the public arena are always trying to figure out how to reach large sectors of our society who do not pay a lot of attention to politics," Hart says. "It was always a huge challenge of mine. I'd see how people get so turned on at concerts, and I'd always say, 'Why can't people get that excited about the country and the future?' That's why people should listen to him."
Some people are listening: Goldberg has been flogging his book all summer, jousting with Bill O'Reilly and Tim Russert, doing panels and store appearances, and most recently condensing the book's thesis for the Nation. "Dispatches From the Culture Wars" is being read with interest by those in what turns out to be a vast academic and nonprofit community dedicated to researching young people's voting habits. Most of those experts disagree with Goldberg about the importance of Gore and Lieberman's stances on pop culture in the 2000 race -- few young people paid attention to that debate, they say.
But most of them do agree with Goldberg that the Democrats made a shameful showing, considering their platform is in line with most young people's beliefs about such issues as environmental protection, gay rights, affirmative action, gun control and the role of government. In 1992, Bill Clinton was credited with energizing young voters by appearing on the Arsenio Hall show and MTV (where he would return in 1996 to answer the infamous "boxers or briefs" question), and of the demographic groups that voted him into office, Clinton did best with voters under 30.
But by 2000 young people were off the Democrats' radar screen. Hans Riemer, Washington director of Rock the Vote, a group dedicated to registering young voters, recalls, "I was lobbying the Gore campaign to take young voters seriously, and the word I was getting was that their focus groups told them to give up on it. They felt it was an unreachable bloc and they weren't going to focus on it. And in the meantime, the Democrats' overall strategy for young people had changed. [Instead of] talking to them, they were talking to their parents. So when they talked about education, it wasn't about your debt or your opportunities but wanting to give tax breaks to your parents so they can afford your education."
If politics is a marketplace of ideas, Goldberg's observations are startlingly true: At a time when everyone else is spending billions on 18-to-24-year-olds to persuade them to buy their sneakers-soda-cigarettes-hair gel, the Democrats seem not to covet the young people's brand loyalty. And they may be ignoring the franchise at their own peril: Last spring, Harvard University's Institute of Politics released a survey suggesting that college students are a potential political powerhouse that could conceivably swing the next presidential election. Although the study noted that only 32 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds vote (young people have been voting less and less since they got the vote in 1972), 86 percent of their college-age respondents said they would definitely or probably vote in 2004.
It's not that young people don't want to vote, it's that they're not properly engaged by the candidates and parties, says Institute director Dan Glickman. "I recall that one of the students called the last election the 'Lipitor election,' because everything voters were hearing was about prescription drugs for older people," says Glickman. "Politicians tend to believe that whereas you can really hone in your message for older people, with young people you're dealing with an unpredictable group of people who can turn on you." The result, student leaders say, is a vicious demographic tautology in which politicians ignore young voters, who respond by not voting, thus justifying politicians' decision to ignore them.
Both Democrats and Republicans say they're taking the lessons of the Harvard study to heart. The political directors of both parties vow more potent get-out-the-vote efforts with young people in 2004, as well as heightened communications campaigns on the Internet. Meanwhile, organizers and observers agree that former Vermont governor Howard Dean is capturing the hearts and minds of an impressive number of young supporters (he was the only candidate who showed up at the Young Democrats' recent convention in Buffalo) and through savvy use of the Internet, a juggernaut of grass-roots volunteers and an unpackaged, insurgent persona. But mostly, it seems, he's simply reaching out to them.
It's a strategy that Goldberg hopes won't be lost on the other eight Democratic candidates. "It's easy to say, 'They don't vote, forget about 'em, they're less moral than we are anyway,' " says Goldberg. "But the minute you shut the door and say, 'Forget about these young people,' you lose."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company