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