WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It's hard to pinpoint the moment whe things began spinning out of control on the celebrity front.
Was it when Michael Douglas eclipsed President Clinton at last weekend's White House Correspondents' Association dinner?
Was it when George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director, began dating Jennifer Grey, the actress who starred in the 1987 movie "Dirty Dancing"?
Maybe it was simply when Barbra Streisand became as familiar a figure on the political scene as John McLaughlin, the carnivorous talk-show host.
The Clinton White House is extravagantly star-struck, and Hollywood's liberal luminaries, sensing an opportunity to be taken seriously and savoring the compatible politics, are flocking to Washington. Hollywood moguls and stars are pushing to move beyond their traditional roles as campaign ornaments and cash machines and become more substantive players as advisers on communications, image and policy and as salesmen for Clinton administration programs.
Cabinet members and White House officials are giving the Hollywood big shots policy briefings and are asking their help in selling programs on health care, the environment and national service.
"The idea that these insulated and bubble-headed people should help make policy is ridiculous," said Leon Wieseltier, the cultural editor of the New Republic magazine. "Hollywood actors are even more out of touch than elected politicians. In Hollywood, politics is another way of dressing and talking."
But Mr. Wieseltier appreciates the similar qualities that link the worlds of politics and movies. "They're highly scripted, poorly directed and always over budget," he noted.
Washington and Hollywood have always been drawn to each other because of their common interest in performance and image and their complementary insecurities: The Hollywood elite wants to be seen as serious, and the Washington elite wants to be seen as glamorous.
But with the technological and talk-show revolution of the last campaign, politics has taken on even more of the techniques of popular culture and packaged entertainment. The Democratic National Convention and the Clinton inauguration were painstakingly produced by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the Hollywood sitcom czars who have also bought a beach-front estate outside Santa Barbara, Calif., that the Clintons, their longtime friends, can use as a Western retreat.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan entertained old Hollywood friends in the White House, veteran stars such as Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart. With George Bush, there were only rare glimpses of glitter: drop-bys by Bo Derek and Michael Jackson and the pumping-up appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But now there is a Democratic president whose nickname is Elvis and who likes Hollywood, a town that was slow to warm to him as a candidate but now seems to be in a stampede.
And having become more sophisticated politically, many in Hollywood's royalty now want the same sort of access that other valuable constituencies such as Wall Street have long enjoyed.
No access, no checks
"Celebrities don't want to just be called to write checks," said Margery Tabankin, the executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and the head of the Barbra Streisand Foundation.
"Nobody in Hollywood comes to the table thinking that they have the answers on Bosnia. Come on! But they do come as artists, pained by human suffering, who want to bring their creative skills to the process," said Ms. Tabankin.
She said Hollywood types were helping to develop marketing themes for administration programs and were committed to make personal appearances and public service announcements.
A couple of Clinton strategists, detecting in the polls some negative sentiment about Mr. Clinton's celebrity connections, have warned that the president and his bedazzled young aides should cool their romance with Hollywood because it gives a liberal and elitist cast to a White House that wants to appear centrist and populist.
Even some on the West Coast privately worry that Mr. Clinton might be too taken with what one calls "the siren song that is so alluring to politicians."
"Frankly," said this powerful member of the Hollywood set who is close to the Clintons, "he'd be very wise to keep us at arm's length."
At least one Clinton strategist was openly contemptuous of the idea of catering to Hollywood. When the White House invited a group of Hollywood people to a health-care briefing, James Carville, one of the briefers, lost his Southern-fried temper and lectured them in a profane manner that made it clear that he did not think their affluent lives had equipped them to devise a plan to sell health care to average, struggling Americans.
Gary David Goldberg, the producer and director of such television shows as "Family Ties" and "Brooklyn Bridge," stormed out and later told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Carville had acted like "Anthony Perkins playing Fidel Castro on acid."
Mr. Carville seems relatively unrepentant, saying only, "Do I use bad words from time to time? Yes. They started telling me how many degrees they had."
But every day there is a bit more tinsel draped on the White House.
On Thursday, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat for a photographic session with Kenny Rogers, the country singer who photographs stars on the side.
David Geffen, the producer and record-industry executive, and Michael Medavoy, the chairman of Tristar Pictures, call Thomas F. McLarty III, the White House chief of staff, to jawbone about the economy, and Mr. Geffen is looking for an apartment in Washington.
Judy Collins, the singer, the Thomasons and the Medavoys have all spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, and Liza Minelli is invited to stay over next month.
(Sending a letter to a fellow movie mogul on the stationery kept in the residence is now the ultimate bit of Hollywood one-upmanship.)
Last month, a Hollywood group that included Billy Crystal, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Sam Waterston and Lindsay Wagner checked out the Oval Office, met the president and vice president and got environmental briefings from Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, Carol M. Browner, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Timothy E. Wirth, the undersecretary of state for global affairs, and Katie McGinty, the White House director of environmental policy.
Markie Post, the star of the Thomason-produced television show "Hearts Afire," and Ivan Reitman, the director of "Dave," have both dropped by to watch the president deliver his Saturday radio address.
On a clear day in Washington, you can see Barbra Streisand forever. In the last few weeks, she has popped up as a guest at the annual Gridiron dinner, slept over in the Queen's Bedroom in the White House and attended the health-care briefing.
Her schedule last week was as ambitious as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's: A week ago, she went to the White House Correspondents' Dinner as a guest and chatted with Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Monday night, she had dinner with Attorney General Janet Reno at Citronelle, a Georgetown restaurant. On Tuesday, she met with female House members by day and went to a Democratic fund-raiser by night.
On Wednesday afternoon, she made phone calls from the study off the Oval Office and then dined at a Georgetown home with Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and a trio of senators, Bob Kerrey, Christopher J. Dodd and William S. Cohen.
Two people in the White House, at least, are not making any bones about being huge fans of Hollywood.
Mark Gearan, the deputy chief of staff, keeps a video camera in his desk so that he can ask stars to film messages to his 1-year-old daughter, Madeleine.
"I feel like a bad reporter for Variety lurking in the West Wing with my camcorder waiting to catch celebrities," he said.
And the president and the first lady recently took Paul Newman )) and Joanne Woodward to dinner at Galileo, a Washington
Mr. Clinton "grew up watching movies like 'The Hustler,' 'Hud' and 'A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' and he still gets genuinely blown away by spending time with some of these people," said the White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers. "There's still a lot of the kid from Hope, Ark., in him."