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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

Warren Beatty and Senator George McGovern in 1972

Sen. George McGovern (left) and Warren Beatty (right, with glasses) during McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign — Ron Galella/Getty Images

En español | For nearly 100 years, Hollywood stars and other celebrities have been taking on supporting — and sometimes starring — roles in politics. Some of them have left lasting marks on society, either through the causes they've advanced or the candidates they've supported. One even became president of the United States.

Here are the 20 most politically effective celebrities of all time, as selected by the editors of National Journal, a weekly magazine of politics and public affairs.

 

Warren Beatty

As power in the film industry shifted during the 1960s from the studios to the stars, Beat­ty helped to define the new opportunities available to Hollywood's brightest lights. Unsatisfied with appearing before the camera as a magnetic (if often veiled) leading man, he moved behind the scenes as a producer, director and writer.

Beatty engineered the same transition in politics. Although he campaigned some for causes and candidates through the early 1970s (especially for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972), the cerebral, guarded and self-contained Beatty quickly came to pursue his political passions offstage. "I felt that the advertising aspect of the participation made me feel silly," he said later.

See also: Why celebrities take to the political stage.

Instead, Beatty perfected a new role: the star as strategist. In McGovern's 1972 run, and then in the 1984 presidential bid of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado (whom he met while Hart served as McGovern's young campaign manager), Beatty exercised more influence at the upper reaches of a presidential campaign than any Hollywood figure before him.

For McGovern, Beatty did everything from organizing fundraising rock concerts to mounting a long-shot effort to persuade Hubert Humphrey to sign on as the nominee's running mate. With Hart, he was an all-purpose adviser who nudged the often wonky candidate (with mixed success) to shed the senatorial stiffness in his language and reveal more of his emotions to voters.

Hart's friendship with Beatty, then the most celebrated Hollywood Casanova of his age, stirred controversy, fairly or not, amid the questions about the state of Hart's marriage. Inside the campaign, however, even Hart's most hard-bitten advisers viewed the star as a positive, creative and oddly stabilizing influence on the tightly wound candidate.

Occasionally impractical (and sometimes inscrutable) in his advice, Beatty was never again as involved in a campaign and frequently felt alienated from a national Democratic Party that sought the center. But over his period of high-level engagement, he helped cement the idea that celebrities could do more in politics than adorn public rallies.

Next: Harry Belafonte >>

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