Bulworth or Ishtar

Written by David Corn on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Warren Beatty
is waiting for a callback. Two weeks ago, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington
asked Beatty if he might consider reprising his most recent cinematic role–in
which he played a senator who becomes so fed up with the money-tainted political
system that he begins rapping the truth–but this time in real life. Beatty’s
film Bulworth promoted his belief that federal government is in hock to corporate
special interests and can’t, consequently, address such major problems
as inadequate health care, dramatic income inequity in a booming economy, and
environmental despoliation. He told Huffington that he was disappointed with
the Democratic Party–whose candidates he’s been assisting for decades–and
that there was a need for a populist, tell-the-people-the-truth voice in this
presidential election. “There has to be someone better [than me],”
he said. “There has to be someone else. But something has to be done.”

reported his remarks and tossed out the notion of a President Bulworth, played
by Beatty. Thus was born the Beatty for President boomlet.

was flooded with e-mails from people who wanted to contribute. Beatty started
talking to progressive policy advocates and politicos. He was contacted by representatives
of the Reform Party. Within days, he was at nine percent in a poll of Democratic
primary voters, 11 percent in a survey of general election voters. Maureen Dowd
dissed the idea, asserting he was too much of a control freak to submit himself
to the chaos of a campaign. Alec Baldwin, another potential thespian-pol, thumbed
his nose at Beatty: “I would think if he’s really serious, he’d
go for something else first.”

Libs across
the country weighed the pros and cons. Here’s a guy who could draw the
spotlight to the institutional corruption that perverts our democracy. But:
What would it say about the left if it can only put forward as a leader a pretty-boy
actor? Is a rich Hollywood poohbah the best advocate for a minimum wage increase?
Still: Isn’t it better to have any voice in the national discourse afforded
by a presidential campaign? Yet: Would a Beatty campaign end up being more about
Beatty than Beatty’s issues? And what’s on the table? Would he run
as a Democrat or independent? Might he try for the Reform Party nomination?

Hey, it’s
August–political reporters have to write and jabber about something other
than George W. Bush and cocaine. I covered W-and-coke weeks ago and am glad
to see it become so prominent a matter that it’s now referred to as “The

To date,
this presidential race has not yielded much of a national debate on the basics.
Who’s asking why one-fifth of all American children are living in poverty
at a time of economic prosperity? Why 43 million Americans do not have health
insurance? Why we allow insurance bureaucrats to run the health care system?
Or who controls the power in Washington? Gore vs. Bradley is the policy equivalent
of Coke vs. Pepsi. The Republican intellectual contest has been smothered by
Bush’s Texas-sized bankroll. No one is swinging as hard at the political
system as Beatty-as-Bulworth did. And what’s more preposterous–a magazine
publisher running for president or an actor-producer-director-writer doing the
same? If Steve Forbes can be regarded seriously, there’s room for Beatty.
And unlike Bush or Forbes, Beatty is a self-made success, not a daddy’s

The media
may fixate more on Beatty’s celebrity than his cause, but at least they
won’t have to chase after the secrets of his personal life. If he greenlights
this project, Beatty’ll be guaranteed a chance to share his ideas with
the public: on Larry King Live; on the Today show; on Nightline;
on Rosie. On BET, MTV, NPR, PBS. What producer or booker won’t want
him as a guest? He’ll get a platform. Then people will either call his
800 number, send money, check out his website, or they won’t.

An interesting
question is where Beatty will mount his challenge, should he throw his Dick
Tracy fedora into the ring. Would he try to shake up the Democratic primary?
Several people talking to him say that seems to be his inclination. “He
goes all the way back to the Kennedys,” says one of Beatty’s political
advisers. “Asking him to step away from that is pretty damn tough.”

But if Beatty’s
message is Bulworth’s message (in the movie, Bulworth tells a reporter,
“Republicans, Democrats, what’s the difference? It’s a club.
Why don’t we just have a drink?”) then he shouldn’t bother with
the Democrats. Why try to work inside a party that’s part of the problem,
especially if that entails going up against a sitting vice president? “The
fundamental message of Bulworth is what Warren believes,” says his pal
Pat Caddell, a political consultant-turned-producer. “It’s that politics
is irrelevant to people’s lives and won’t be fixed from the inside.
It has to be someone from the outside.” Beatty, he reports, has been shifting
his view from that of a liberal Democrat to that of an outraged outsider: “He
has gotten more and more upset in recent years. He sees that the system cannot
correct itself.” If things are that rotten, why waste time trying to save
a worthless party from its own vice president?

To effectively
challenge the two halves of a corrupt political duopoly, it might be best for
Beatty to remain free of both. Toward that end, there is a vehicle he can use–or
hijack: the Reform Party. Ross Perot’s creation is mostly an empty shell
with a mixed pedigree, but it does offer a maverick presidential candidate one
strong benefit: $12 million. Because the party’s candidate–Perot–scored
more than five percent in the last presidential contest, the party’s nominee
in 2000 is entitled to about $12 million in federal funds (the GOP and Democratic
nominees will receive much more) plus a convention allotment, which would go
a long way toward funding a protest, get-out-the-message campaign. And while
Beatty’s liberal politics do not mesh with those of most Reform Party members
(Perot’s the ultimate square) his core issue–money-and-politics–is
the party’s core issue. Beatty and some RPers might find common cause in
their skepticism toward NAFTA and other corporate-friendly trade pacts.

At the moment,
there’s a scuffle going on in the party between Perotistas and Minnesota
Gov. Jesse Ventura’s posse. Beatty would not want to jump into the middle
of that. But although he and Ventura are hardly soulmates (though both are actors),
Beatty has something to offer the Body. Ventura needs a Reform Party nominee
who can bag more than five percent of the vote so the party can qualify for
federal support in 2004. The Body has said he intends to keep his promise to
Minnesotans and not seek the presidency in 2000, but he must be contemplating
options for the next go-round. He might be willing to lend the party to Beatty
for a campaign that puts money-and-politics at center stage and has a chance
of meeting the five-percent threshold.

Perot is
not likely to countenance such a step and might be more keen on Pat Buchanan,
who refuses to rule out a bid for the Reform Party nomination should his Republican
efforts founder. Would Beatty want to engage in the spectacle of a Reform Party
primary battle against Buchanan? There’s a price for saving one’s
country that no man should be expected to pay. Ventura has said repeatedly he
is not in favor of nominating Buchanan, noting that the Reform Party does not
cotton to Buchanan’s far-right social views. But Ventura probably also
realizes that if Buchanan is granted temporary rights to the Reform Party, he
might not hand it back to Ventura after the election. One can easily imagine
a sectarian Buchanan putsch that, Bolshevik-style, takes over the party. Pitchfork
Pat does have brigades enough to make an attempt at a Body slam.

Does Mr.
Shampoo want to venture into this sort of rat’s nest, or even hobnob with
the Brylcreem crowd of the Reform Party? Probably not. But it’s worth considering.
He could also go independent and adopt the Jerry Brown model. With his 800 number
and $100 contribution limit, the former California governor/renegade Democrat
raised $11 million during his 1992 anti-Big Money presidential bid. As an independent,
Beatty could be expected to have similar fundraising success. (Even as he preaches
against the evils of money in the political system, he is going to need cash–but
clean cash–to finance his effort.) By running for the Reform Party nomination
or as an independent, Beatty would provide his campaign with an internal consistency.
If he is going to kick some butt, he may as well kick all the way.

Party officials in Washington are “wigged out” about a possible Beatty
candidacy, according to one Capitol Hill Democrat, who reports that party officials
are trying to woo Beatty with a House seat. Be our nominee against Republican
Rep. Mary Bono, the Democrats have suggested to Beatty. But that’s slightly
demeaning: He’d have to campaign in Palm Springs and against the widow
of Sonny Bono. Where’s the grandeur in that? How does that refashion politics
as we know it? At this stage, the Democrats don’t consider Beatty a threat
to Gore, but they fret that a Beatty campaign might steal away some of the top
liberal moneybags of L.A. Television producer Norman Lear, for one, has said,
“I don’t see out there in either party, on the left or the right,
anybody representing the bulk of the American people. The closest I’ve
seen is Bulworth.”

Beatty representing
America’s bulk? He’s been reluctant to make such a claim. Some who
know him are warning those intrigued by a Beatty candidacy that he can be diffident
and indecisive. “He can’t make up his mind about who to have dinner
with,” says one L.A. liberal politico who’s worked with him. “I
don’t think he can maintain the rigors of campaigning. Yes, very few people
can get attention for these issues. Wouldn’t it be fun? Well, for a month.
Then reality would hit.” Stanley Scheinbaum, the millionaire dean of L.A.
liberalism and a Beatty friend, told The Washington Post, “What
can I say [about a Beatty/Bulworth run]? He’s a star. It serves his purpose.
He’s very serious, but I also think he’s having fun.” Scheinbaum
guessed that Beatty, in the end, will not shout, “Action!” Beatty,
he says, is “taking advantage of the podium.” But in the past week,
I’ve spoken with others who have talked with Beatty since this bubble materialized,
and they’ve been impressed with his intelligence, depth, command of political
issues and apparent sincerity.

As of this
writing, Beatty hasn’t revealed any timetable for a decision. He’s
told confidantes that he intends to pen a few op-eds as he mulls away. In part,
he’s assessing the reaction to the trial balloon Huffington let loose.
“He doesn’t need to be a sacrificial lamb,” Caddell says. “He’s
waiting to see if other people come forward who want to join in. If so, then
it’s not just he’s crazy, but they’re all crazy.” In other
words, there’s sanity in numbers.

A Beatty
campaign could be an humiliating flameout, but recall how Ross Perot, a madman,
made the budget deficit the number-one issue on the national agenda by running
for president in 1992. Might Beatty do likewise for money-and-politics? Probably
not, but no one else is willing to give it an all-out try. (Consumer advocate
Ralph Nader, a veteran critic of the special interest lock on Washington, is
thinking about running as a part-time candidate for the Green Party.) Many of
the pundits and gatekeepers will cry that any serious treatment of a Beatty
candidacy only further trivializes politics and signals one more triumph of
the culture of celebrity. True, but when the political system is so far gone–Bush
is the GOP leader because a handful of Texas millionaires raised $37 million
for him; Forbes is in the race because he inherited hundreds of millions; Buchanan
is a contender because he scowls at people like me on television; and too much
of Washington is controlled by a small gaggle of political funders and corporate
lobbyists–why worry about a lack of respectability? I’d like to see
what would happen if Bulworth jumped off the screen and took his rap to voters,
not just viewers. It couldn’t be any more embarrassing than Ishtar.