USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Barbra Streisand Campaigns Online

MALIBU, Calif. — In the weeks prior to the Nov. 3 General Elections, Barbra Streisand became deeply concerned that the scandal surrounding the president was "being used by the Republicans to divert attention away from important issues like a patients' bill of rights, environmental protections, and saving social security."

Her response, in addition to campaigning and fundraising for Democrats, was to erect a temporary Web site, and to overcome her legendary nervousness and enter an AOL chat room with tens of thousands of strangers.

Streisand's online campaign followed a long tradition of political activism by Hollywood celebrities, but was the first time that someone of her stature took to the Internet to convey a message that was so starkly political. On her Web site and during her election eve chat, Streisand's message was unambiguously clear: vote Democrat.

Live Preparations

On this Thursday before the elections, Streisand and her staff are diligently gathering and organizing materials to post on her temporary AOL Web site. The site is meant to advertise and accompany her Nov. 2 evening appearance on AOL Live, an enormous chat session that will bring the director/actress/singer/activist into virtual contact with tens of thousands of Americans of all political stripes.

Sifting through the literally hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, Op-Ed pieces and columns she has amassed in the past few months, Streisand selects a half dozen -- all either pro-Clinton or pro-Democrat -- that she feels best illustrate her arguments. She wants visitors to her site to be able to access those articles, she says.

Her staff mobilizes immediately, calling newspapers and writers around the country to secure reprint rights, contacting AOL's Web team to ensure the smooth transition of HTML files, and helping Streisand type an introduction to her near-exhaustive list of candidate endorsements.

Throughout the day, Streisand's mind is focused exclusively on her political mission.

"This election is not about President Clinton," she says during a lull in the mad rush that Internet publishing inevitably entails. "He's not even on the ballot. This election is about a real threat to the American people... It could result in nothing less than turning back the clock on half a century of social justice legislation.

"Even if this president lied about a sexual matter, so did Thomas Jefferson in 1802," she continues without missing a beat. "And I'm sure if FDR or Dwight Eisenhower or JFK were asked about their extramarital affairs, they would have lied or 'misled' us too. And this would have been for the greater good of the country. Bill Clinton didn't commit treason, bribery or any other high crime or misdemeanor. President Clinton did not endanger national security, as Nixon did. The concept of prosecuting a president over a personal issue that didn't affect public business is crazy. It's an obscene distortion of our judicial principles."

By 10 p.m., the Web pages are ready for uploading. The completed site contains an introduction from Streisand urging Americans to vote, a page listing the candidates she supports, the transcript of a speech introducing President Clinton that she gave at an Oct. 24 fundraising dinner for Barbara Boxer, and a list of links to relevant newspaper and magazine articles.

On Stage

Monday night arrives and the chat rooms set up for the AOL Live event fill with users: Democrats, Republicans and others who are just curious to know what Streisand has to say.

Chat room participants are divided into groups -- or rows -- of 16. Members of a given row can talk to each other and receive messages from "the stage," where a moderator, an emcee and Streisand will soon appear.

Participants send questions for Streisand to the moderator who then chooses a number from among them to pass along to her. Streisand's responses are broadcast to chat participants in all the rows.

About 9:00 p.m. EST, Streisand enters the AOL Live stage.

"Hi," she says to the crowd. "This feels like a performance. Only I don't have to dress up. I'm sitting here in my sweats and sneakers. I'm very glad to be here even though this is quite scary."

With the obligatory online introduction out of the way, Streisand gets down to business.

"In 1986, I was able to raise money and awareness by doing a concert for the Democrats," she says. "We didn't have time this year. So in order to make some sort of a difference, and encourage people to vote, I've taken to the Web. It's an incredible way to reach people at the same time."

She responds to questions about why she is a Democrat, why she is taking such a strong political stand, and what, in her view, the difference is between a Democrat and a Republican.

And then someone asks the inevitable: How can Streisand -- who has long been an advocate of truth in her life, art and politics -- support President Clinton, a liar?

"Because there are lies and there are lies," Streisand responds. "In my opinion, a lie about personal indiscretion is far less significant than a lie about illegal government operations, such as Bush with 'Iraq-gate' and Oliver North and President Reagan with Iran Contra. [Clinton] should never have been asked the question he was asked in the first place."

Another chat participant asks: "Is the country preoccupied with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal?"

Yes, says Streisand. "The President's sex life is none of our business… We should judge our Presidents by how effective they are at running the country. After spending more than $40 million investigating this President, they've come up with nothing to charge him with."

A handful of questions and a short diatribe by Streisand against the last-minute, $20 million Republican ad campaign about the presidential scandal follow, and then the chat session is over. Forty minutes spent with thousands of people in a virtual room can be exhausting.

Just before signing off, Streisand encourages the session participants to visit her Web site and to "please, please, whatever you do. Vote!"

With her part done, and her message still enshrined within the pages of her temporary Web site, all Streisand can do now is sit and wait -- like every other American.

Could she possibly have made a difference?

Streisand may never know for sure, but she believes in the law of small numbers. "Every vote matters," she says. "In the 1960 presidential election, 68,000,000 Americans turned out to vote, and John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by a mere 114,000 votes."

But perhaps the more interesting question is why Streisand chose the Internet, and not any of the old media, to impart her message.

"We considered going on talk shows, taking out ads in newspapers, but how could Barbra go on a show and tell people that she has 250 candidates that she wants you to vote for?" says Martin Erlichman, her manager. "There's no way all of that information could have been imparted on a talk show… We needed a medium that allowed for length and breadth of message… and the Internet seemed to fit the best."

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, Americans went to the polls, and for the first time since 1934, the president's party picked up seats in a midterm election. The results have been interpreted as a stunning victory for President Clinton, and as having led to the resignation of his prime adversary, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Did Streisand's online campaigning influence the elections' outcome? It certainly didn't hurt.

"I'm thrilled," Streisand says. "Instead of the loss of 10 to 40 seats, as predicted by the Republicans, we picked up five, and that was all because the people got out and voted."

She pauses, then sighs, "Of course, we still have to deal with this ridiculous impeachment inquiry."