MURPHY BROWN" leads Hollywood's counterattack tonight against Vice President Dan Quayle and the Republicans in what has become one of the hot-button issues of the 1992 campaign -"family values."
Ms. Brown, a fictional TV reporter played by Candice Bergen, first came under fire from Mr. Quayle last spring for "mocking the importance of fathers." In the show, Brown became pregnant and bore a child out of wedlock.
In a one-hour season premiere tonight on CBS, Brown's life "is radically changed by the two new men in her life, baby Brown and Vice President Dan Quayle," the network explains. All this is just make-believe, of course. Brown isn't real, nor is her baby. But in this Age of Television, when flickering images have a powerful influence on everything from political ideology to social mores, the Hollywood vs. Washington fracas has become very tangible. Conservatives, alarmed by Hollywood's lax moral standards , argue that the movie capital is leading America down a path to social collapse by legitimizing infidelity, licentiousness, nudity, violence, greed, and materialism.
Michael Novak, a theologian and scholar, says that, for some traditionalists, "the focus of evil in our society is the entertainment industry." Witch hunt charged
Hollywood accuses its critics of mounting a witch hunt that could end in censorship. They compare the current climate to the 1950s, when some Washington politicians attacked Hollywood as a hotbed of communist sympathizers.
As if to stick its thumb in the vice president's eye, Hollywood nominated "Murphy Brown" for nine Emmy awards and, last month, named Bergen "the outstanding lead actress in a comedy series." This is one comedy that doesn't make most Republican leaders laugh. Many of them, from Quayle to former United States Secretary of Education William Bennett, to former presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, see the "cultural elites" of Hollywood and the media as a threat to basic American values, and ultimately to America's role in the world.
They say that a nation of broken homes, impoverished children, poor study habits, corrupted schools, and crime-infested neighborhoods will be no match in the 21st Century for economic challengers like Japan and Germany. Hollywood is making things worse, they claim. Troubling issue
Hollywood's glitterati may scoff, but analysts say the GOP has touched an issue troubling millions of Americans.
Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says of the decline of moral values: "This is an issue that is haunting this society." He speaks of America's new "moral poverty," and offers this explanation: "The power over public values is now in Hollywood."
Dr. Bennett calls this an issue "of almost overwhelming importance" to America's future.
What is this war? Wattenberg says it involves "a constellation of issues" that "have been around our politics for a long, long, long, long time."
Some conservatives feel uncomfortable calling them "family values." They prefer "social issues," or "traditional values," or "republican virtues." They are essentially qualities that a free people need to be self-governing, such as honesty, fidelity, and self-discipline.
Wattenberg says that, in recent political campaigns, family values were discussed with "buzz words" and "buzz phrases," such as "crime, race, values, busing, drugs, disruption, quotas, welfare, pornography, patriotism, draft-dodging, dependency, permissiveness, capital punishment, disparagement of America, personal sexual history, alternative lifestyles, [and] out-of-wedlock births."
Karlyn Keene, editor of American Enterprise magazine, says surveys show that about 65 percent of the American people are concerned about the decline in values - a level of concern that often outpaces economic worries. In this battleground of social issues, Republicans have the upper hand, Ms. Keene says. She says voters feel the GOP best represents family values.
For example, three-fourths of Americans, including 78 percent of young people, are said to believe that homosexuality is always wrong. Only 18 percent of the population, including 22 percent of young adults, believe marijuana use should be legalized. Both of these are major changes from the 1970s. Extramarital sex is condemned by three-fourths of Americans, and even more by young adults. Last major struggle
Novak says the social arena is the last major political struggle remaining in the 20th Century. The great issues confronting America and the world during this 100 years have been:
* Is democracy better than dictatorship? Freedom won that battle.
* Are free markets better than state planning? Free enterprise won.
* What moral criteria need to be promoted to sustain and strengthen a free society?
That final battle now is being fought, Novak says.