In 1981, Ed Asner had things going his way.
Not only had the popular actor picked up several Emmy awards for his portrayal of crusty newspaper editor Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but Asner also had been swept into office as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) on the promise of helping merge with two sister unions: the Screen Extras Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
But Asner made a rookie leader’s mistake that opponents of the merger used to scuttle the alliance. He failed to realize that when he spoke in public, he was presumed to be speaking as president of the guild, not for himself.
When Asner called a news conference to announce his $25,000 humanitarian gift to communist rebels fighting in El Salvador, merger opponents painted the event as evidence that Asner and fellow SAG “liberals” were taking the guild too far to the left, even to the point of supporting anti-American interests around the world.
Even though the actor stressed that the gift was from him, not the guild, merger opponents won the battle for public opinion, equating a vote for the merger with a vote for communist sympathizers. The merger proposal failed to pass and still is a point of contention among SAG leaders today.
The lesson: Leave no doubt in anyone’s mind whom you represent.
— Adapted from The Politics of Glamour, David Prindle, University of Wisconsin Press.