How Richard Dreyfuss Became A Radical Centrist
The Oscar winner blames the shrill tone of today’s politicians on the decline of American education and predicts the election of a President Trump would bring us closer to “the end of this country."
Actor Richard Dreyfuss and his son Harry Dreyfuss with Meghan Kelly on the Fox News Channel on Feb. 11 as the actor discussed his "listening trip" to Iowa and the reaction it caused
Richard Dreyfuss has spent the last decade making hundreds of appearances and speeches nationwide, preaching for the revival of civics education in American schools.
His goal is to ensure future generations appreciate the uniqueness of the American system of government. He calls our form of democracy an “enlightenment,” and points out the need for rational discourse in a free society, which allows for all points of view.
While his efforts and those of his foundation, The Dreyfuss Initiative, have made progress, the Academy Award winner is angry and frustrated that national politics are moving towards a hostile political banter.
He believes that the very meaning and existence of America as we have known it for 240 years is in danger, especially if Donald Trump is elected president.
“Donald Trump and those around him are bringing us closer to the end of this country,” warns Dreyfuss. “They will take major insteps to the bill of rights, homeland security and pass libel laws etc. They are going to favor one religion over another. And that’s bye, bye.”
“America means something in the world,” continues Dreyfuss. “It really does. It has meant something. And Trump is the first real threat to the meaning of America.”
He believes as a country we are turning towards disavowing our own laws and moral codes. “I stupidly thought it would take between 50 and 100 years and then we would be gone and finished in history,” says Dreyfuss. “I mean you can still be a country, but…you’re not the same country. And we are seeing the rise of those who would discard the bill or rights and the meaning of the bill or rights as fast as they can.”
A month ago, Dreyfuss became a lightning rod for political partisans and a hot topic on the 24/7 news cycle when he showed up in Iowa at a campaign rally for Senator Ted Cruz. Since celebrities usually trek to partisan events only to support candidates, it was assumed Dreyfuss endorsed Cruz – a shock considering his past support for progressive causes.
Dreyfuss’s son Ben, a 29-year-old editor at Mother Jones magazine, quickly told the media his father was just there to hear Cruz, not to endorse him. Dreyfuss himself said he was on a listening tour in Iowa to better understand as many candidates as possible so he could fairly judge each of them.
A day later Dreyfuss’s son Harry, a 25-year-old writer and director, published an essay online that characterized those who confused his father’s “curiosity” with support of the candidate as “The Dumb.”
His article first appeared on Medium, attracting 300,000 views, before the Huffington Post reprinted it, providing a much wider readership.
Harry had no contact with his father before he wrote and published the essay entitled, “It’s Stupid That My Actor Dad Is the One Who Has to Teach Us Not to Be Dumb.”
“I was really mad when I wrote that,” says Harry. “It was not just them doing it to my dad. It was the idea you might shame someone you don’t agree with just for listening to someone you don’t agree with. It is such a vile infection and it is clearly everywhere.”
This is not the first time Dreyfuss has confounded would-be admirers as well as detractors, and he revels in it. “There is something mischievous about him,” says a longtime friend.
Dreyfuss shrugs it off, explaining only that he doesn’t accept the labels others want to put on him. His passion for the government, politics, social issues, and civics is genuine, even if there is a Don Quixote quality to many of his goals.
Back in 1975, when Dreyfuss starred in Jaws, he was an activist “liberal Democrat.” Over the years, he has changed his views. When he voted for Obama in 2012, he tweeted that he was a “compassionate conservative” adding: “And the only compassionate conservative running is Obama.”
“He’s not called himself a liberal in 25 years,” says Donna Bojarsky, the public policy consultant who was Dreyfuss’s political point person for 17 years through 2007. “In speeches, he always calls himself a ‘radical centrist.’ His views don’t fall neatly into packages like a lot of our politics today.”
When asked, Dreyfuss says he is indeed “a Centrist.”
“I’m pre-partisan,” adds Dreyfuss. “I will not get into any discussion of partisan politics. It would weaken any attempt to bring back civics to students in America if I got nailed as partisan in any way – more than they already think I am.”
“I no longer have a liberal or conservative view,” says Dreyfuss. “I’m independent. I have no interest in getting into other people’s discussions of substantive issues that faze us because most of the time the people who bring it up don’t know what they’re talking about.”
His intent to stay away from partisan politics was put on hold when he got a call in January from Fox News’ pollster Frank Luntz (with whom he has been friends for over a decade even though Luntz is famously a Republican). Luntz interviews focus groups after presidential debates for Fox News, which is why he was stationed in Iowa for the primary.
As a form of networking, as he’s done in past years, Luntz invited Dreyfuss to join several other VIP guests on a bus trip through The Hawkeye state. It would be a listening tour of candidates on the eve of the nation’s first vote for a president in one of the most heated, divisive White House races of all time.
“I took him up on it in a second,” says Dreyfuss.
“There were a number of people I was taking on the trip,” recalls Luntz, who declined to name other participants. “There was a Hollywood writer-director with us. A couple CEO’s, a hotel CEO. An education CEO. People came in staggered times.”
Only days before Dreyfuss was to receive his best critical notices in years for his Emmy-quality performance on ABC’s Madoff miniseries, the actor spent three days going across Iowa. His wife, Svetlana “Stella” Dreyfuss, accompanied him.
“I went,” says Dreyfuss, “because I was invited to see up close the caucus. I had never had that opportunity and I went because I care about the politics of my country.
” “And I didn’t just attend a Cruz rally,” says Dreyfuss indignantly. “I attended a Rubio rally, a Carly Fiorina rally and I would have attended a Donald Trump rally had he had one. But he didn’t.”
“He’s always looking for the ‘but…’” says Luntz. “He’s looking for the full story, the full explanation. He’s not a raving liberal and he’s not a conservative. I look at him as somewhere in the middle.”
After the media frenzy over his visit, it was Luntz who helped point Dreyfuss to his appearances on Fox News (Feb. 11th with Meghan Kelly) and Fox Business (with Neal Cavuto on Feb. 18th).
“One day after my article came out, my dad got a call from Meghan’s people asking if he wanted to explain why he was there,” says Harry. “Their take, the Fox News take of things, was that he was being exiled by Hollywood, that it was only liberals who were upset with him being there.” “I think that angle was inflammatory,” adds Harry. “Really what I wanted to go on and talk about was that one mistake, that curiosity equals support.”
Pollster Frank Luntz of Luntz Global hosting a focus group on Fox News Channel
Dreyfuss did not go on any other networks. “Fox would want him more,” says Bojarsky. “It’s more of a novelty on Fox News, having a smart Jewish actor being a Democrat. What does CNN need that for? But for Fox News, that’s interesting.”
Dreyfuss has been all over the dial in past years. He tells the story of being interviewed on CNN in 2013 by Piers Morgan who is a strong advocate of gun control. The actor said that instead of thinking of the NRA (National Rifle Assn.) as the enemy, Americans should acknowledge them as experts on guns and draw on their expertise for solutions to end gun violence.
“He was so shocked,” says Dreyfuss, “that I was not a reflexive liberal anti-gun person, that he threw me off his show.”
Dreyfuss once caused a stir with a Nightline appearance about the Middle East, suggesting Israel talk to the PLO when it wasn’t a popular idea.
“His essential debate is to debate,” says Bojarsky. “It’s really what he loves. He has always flirted with left and right because he is interested in ideas. He was always interested in being able to understand the other side.”
“The ‘Dreyfi’ is firebrands,” says Harry, referring to his sister and brother as well as his father. “We will always have a strong opinion.”
Did Harry learn from his dad?
“I always knew what his core principles were even when we weren’t together,” says Harry. “He just strongly believes in thinking for yourself.”
Harry believes his father’s current frustration is with the way politics plays out and how the media covers it. “He just thinks a different process is better,” says Harry, “which is to take yourself away from any influence that makes you think you’re thinking for yourself when really you’re not. One of those things is declaring what party you are part of.”
Dreyfuss says his interest is in fostering “informed voters,” adding that, “being informed doesn’t mean just letting propaganda come into your ear.”
One thing Dreyfuss does not underestimate is the appeal to voters of Trump and Bernie Sanders - because both are seen as outside the usual DC insiders.
“There is a legitimate anger among the people,” explains Dreyfuss, “because their representative political parties, both Democrats and Republicans, have ignored the basics in terms of what they owe their supporters, which is economic improvement and a way of having a better life. For 30 years there has been a loss of the middle class and no improvement in wages or economic opportunity. Both political parties are guilty as hell and they are angry about it.”
The problem, laments Dreyfuss, is that in the process of “throwing the rascals out,” electing Trump would be the same as “letting the fox into the chicken coop.”
“Donald Trump doesn’t have any principles in his body,” declares Dreyfuss. “I know people very well who worked for Donald Trump in construction and electric things in his hotels and he would go bankrupt to avoid paying them.”
Dreyfuss uses a favorite analogy to explain how unqualified Trump is to be the nation’s chief executive. “We’re watching a man say, ‘I want to be a dentist,’ and then believing that makes him a dentist,” says Dreyfuss. “He doesn’t have to learn anything about dentistry. He just says ‘I want to be a dentist.’”
Dreyfuss finds fault with Hillary Clinton as well, accusing her of being too close to Wall Street, and that, “She’s not her husband. That’s a fault because her husband was able to speak spontaneously and she can’t.”
However, when he uses his favorite analogy, it is to say that Clinton, “went to dentistry school. If there is anyone who is qualified to put her certificate of dentistry on her wall, it is her. I may not like it. I would perhaps choose another dentist but if that’s the way we make decisions here, she is at least qualified.”
He didn’t think Marco Rubio was qualified to be a “dentist” either, but he takes Cruz more seriously.
“Of course, he (Cruz) scares me,” says Dreyfuss. “He was known as the brightest Supreme Court clerk ever, which tells me there have been some really poor clerks. He’s the single most disliked member of the Senate."
Dreyfuss talking to Ted Cruz after a Cruz campaign rally in Iowa on Jan. 30, 2016
“I will accept anybody,” adds Dreyfuss, “although I would hate to live under a Cruz administration. But he won’t get anything accomplished because people hate him and because he is going to carpet bomb the Middle East. He’s an idiot.”
He doesn’t think Bernie Sanders is an idiot but he doesn’t believe he can be elected either. However, Dreyfuss is impressed by the movement that has arisen in support of his ideas on health care, education and the gap between rich and poor.
“It’s very revealing that we are not as hostile to what is conjured up when we hear ‘socialist,’” says Dreyfuss. “We like 95 percent of what Bernie Sanders says. Of course, when you elect President Sanders and he institutes reform of the taxes and takes 65 percent of your check, you’re not going to like him that much.”
Dreyfuss saves his kindest words for Ohio Governor John Kasich. “He’s the only legitimate guy up there,” says Dreyfuss. “He just seems a little noodle-y because nobody in the media covered him. He has to say, ‘I did this’ and ‘I did that.’ In fact, he was a very good governor of Ohio… I’d accept him in a minute.”
When it is pointed out Kasich’s positions on most social issues differ with those Dreyfuss has supported, he sloughs that off. “I don’t have to believe in everything my president does,” says Dreyfuss. “I never have. The president has to establish a tone and a sense of rational common sense, and I can believe in some of his legislative ideas and not all.”
“My dad might disagree,” says Harry, “but he is still a pretty astonishingly liberal person. But he is better off saying he is ‘pre-partisan’ because that’s the truth….We should all think about the issue before asking what does our party think?”
“Even if he is a centrist he’s not a Republican,” says Bojarsky. “That doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in both sides. He is a major civil libertarian. He obviously believes in the power of government but he deeply laments that people don’t have faith in government.”
For Dreyfuss, the root causes of the lack of civility and current state of politics, including candidates’ willingness to spin and deceive voters, is the lack of an American civics education for our youth.
“It speaks to the present disaster called public education,” says Dreyfuss. “If we educated our children properly they could choose to be Democratic, Republican, liberal or conservative, to their hearts content, as long as they understood what the basic agreement was.”
Then Dreyfuss adds sadly: “And they don’t know what I’m talking about.”
CORRECTION - 3/26/16 at 10:50 a.m. pst - The name of Donna Bojarsky was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this article.