My dinner with Bulworth

The Minnesota adman who helped Jesse Ventura become governor advises Warren Beatty on how he might claim the White House.

Topics: Democratic Party,

When Minnesota ad guru Bill Hillsman spotted a videocassette of the movie “Bulworth,” starring Warren Beatty, on sale for $9.99 recently, he bought it and took it home.

But before he got around to popping it in his VCR, he found himself playing a supporting role in the real-life version of the movie.

The day after he bought the tape, columnist Arianna Huffington telephoned Hillsman at his office at North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis to talk about “Bulworth” — or Beatty, rather — running for president on the Reform Party ticket.

Huffington was writing a column about the idea and she wanted Hillsman’s reaction, since he had masterminded the ad campaign for the nation’s only statewide Reform Party office holder, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

She asked Hillsman to help her get a quote from Ventura for the column. The Body was in the air, however, flying from St. Louis, where he was attending a meeting of the National Governors Association, to Chicago, where he was hyping his appearance in a World Wrestling Federation “SummerSlam” event.

So Huffington’s column of Aug. 10 hit the stands without a statement from Ventura, but she did have quotes from Beatty buddies like pollster Pat Caddell and former presidential candidate ex-Sen. Gary Hart.

“I have a notion,” Hart told Huffington, “that Warren could dramatize politics in a way that hack politicians never could. He entered the world of politics in ’68 with Bobby Kennedy’s campaign and that is the time he, like so many of us, wants to recapture.”

Huffington’s story got big play in the media, though most of the coverage treated the idea of a Beatty candidacy like a freakish curiosity. Washington insiders, naturally, pooh-poohed the idea.

Later that week, Huffington called Hillsman.

“Vow, zis ting is really taking off,” Huffington said in her most charming Greek accent. She asked Hillsman to fly to L.A. to dine with her and Beatty, and share his expertise about third-party politics, disenfranchised voters and campaign finance reform.

Accordingly, on Aug. 18 Hillsman hopped a flight to LAX, rented a car, and made his way to Huffington’s luxurious spread, where she was hosting a small dinner party.

But the guest of honor, Beatty, was a no-show. Instead, he called during dinner and apologized for not being there, explaining that he had laryngitis.



“Give me a call tomorrow morning, hopefully I’ll feel better then,” he told Hillsman. When Hillsman called the next morning from his hotel, Beatty was drinking green tea, which he was confident would do the trick, though it wasn’t working quite yet.

“Call me mid-afternoon,” Beatty said. “I think I’ll be feeling better by then.” So Hillsman called Beatty again mid-afternoon, as requested. Now Beatty sounded better. The green tea had worked.

“What are you doing for dinner tonight?” Beatty asked Hillsman.

“What do you want me to be doing for dinner tonight?” replied Hillsman, a big fan of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait.”

“Come on over to our house,” Beatty said. “It will be just me, Annette” — his wife, Annette Bening, Beatty’s co-star in 1991′s “Bugsy” and 1994′s “Love Affair” — “and the kids. We can just sit around and talk.”

Hillsman had expected that Beatty and “Annette and the kids” would be joined by advisors and such. But when he arrived at the Beatty-Bening Beverly Hills spread at around 7 that night, he saw that it really was just them and the kids — and a fairly modest home.

“Their house is really nothing spectacular,” Hillsman says. “I’ve been in nicer houses in Minnetonka.”

The whole evening was low-key, modest and homey, says Hillsman. They ordered Chinese. “It was like having dinner at a friend’s house, except the friends happen to be Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. We spent at least as much time talking about the kids as we did about his running for president.”

But running for president was Topic A, of course.

Over dinner, in the kitchen, in Beatty’s den, and upstairs playing with the kids, they talked. They bonded over liberal politics and green tea. (“I’ve been drinking green tea for years,” Hillsman confides.)

Hillsman told Beatty and Bening about the other campaigns he’d worked on. In addition to the ads he’d come up with for Ventura last year, Hillsman had also written funny, extremely effective ads for a number of other clients, most notably Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the raging liberal Carleton College professor who unseated a popular incumbent in 1990.

He showed Beatty and Bening his reel of campaign commercials. There was “Fast-Paced Paul,” from 1990, which featured underdog Wellstone speeding through his speech because he didn’t have enough money to pay for a longer commercial.

There were both Ventura spots: one featuring Ventura disrobed like Rodin’s “The Thinker,” with opera music in the background and a narrator offering the candidate’s bio; the other featuring the “Jesse Ventura action figure.”

“I don’t want your stupid money!” says the kid with the Jesse doll to the kid with the Evil Special Interest Man doll (a converted Ken doll.) “This bill wastes taxpayer money! Re-draft it!”

When the 6-minute tape was finished, Beatty told him he liked his work. Then he found out that Hillsman had brought his longer reel, too. He asked if he could see that one.

“You’ve already seen six minutes of it,” Hillsman said. Beatty didn’t care. He watched the whole 20 minutes of it, including the six minutes he’d already seen.

But the three did more than watch the tube. Beatty grilled the ad man “about the situation out there” for him as a potential candidate. He was interested, for example, in knowing about the dynamics of a multi-candidate race — like Ventura’s.

He wanted to know what the story was with what Hillsman calls “the lapsed electorate,” the disenfranchised 40 to 60 percent of the voting public that didn’t bother showing up at the voting booths each November. These were the ones who had been Ventura’s ticket to victory; Beatty wanted to know what was going on with these folks, particularly the younger men and women.

Last November, the national average voter turnout was 37 percent. The weekend before the election, Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe estimated that 53 percent of her state’s 3,483,000 voters would turn out.

Minnesota voter turnout ended up nearly hitting 61 percent — the highest in the country. With voters able to register to vote at the polls right before they wanted to vote — as opposed to months ahead of time — the disenfranchised could enfranchise themselves on the spot. And for every percentage point turnout that exceeded Growe’s prediction of 53 percent, the voters went disproportionately to
Ventura.

Hillsman told Beatty about his theory of the “big lie about polling.” Pollsters overestimate the number of people who identify themselves as members of either major party, Hillsman says. “A huge majority of people now tell you that they’re independents. But because pollsters are hired by politicians, usually those who belong to one of the two major political parties,” they skew the results so that those who, when pushed, might say that they “lean Democrat” or “lean Republican” are labeled — misleadingly — as Democrats or Republicans.

“Voters are way more non-partisan and independent than pollsters would have you believe,” Hillsman says. “And remember, those are just the ‘likely voters.’ Pollsters don’t even talk to someone out of the system or someone who only votes sporadically.”

All those independent, disenfranchised, potential voters, Hillsman says, are looking for a presidential candidate to vote for in 2000.

Could that be Beatty?

“I hope he runs,” Hillsman says. “He’s remarkably informed. He knows more about politics than I do, quite frankly. He knows about the nuts-and-bolts things I try intentionally not to get into — ’cause I find it distracting since it pulls me away from what normal people think about politics.”

Though Hillsman says he is only a so-so fan of “Bulworth,” because it is “a little too over the top,” he is far more approving of Bulworth the man. “Beatty knows why he wants to run. He knows what’s lacking out there. I’m absolutely positive nobody saw [the op-ed he wrote for the Aug. 23 New York Times] other than him and his wife before it went into print.”

He is a fan of Beatty’s first lady, too. Unlike the part she played in “The American President” — an idealistic liberal who reminded her pragmatic boyfriend/Leader of the Free World of his original lefty principles — Bening is the one who keeps her feet in the real world, according to Hillsman.

“She is a reality check for him. When he’s talking about things and he gets too idealistic or altruistic, she has a good way of bringing him back to reality. She makes sure he’s relating to daily life, or to other people’s daily lives or to their kids.”

Which may be the key to Beatty’s decision, Hillsman says: their kids.

“They’re concerned about the state of the country that their kids are growing up in,” Hillsman says. “That’s the motivating factor; that’s what’s pushing the two of them to seriously consider this.”

Beatty expressed deep disillusionment with the Democratic Party’s move rightward since the days when he stumped for Robert Kennedy and George McGovern.

“We don’t need a third political party,” Beatty said in a phrase that would find its way into his Times op-ed. “We need a second political party.”

“That was the best summation of the problem I’ve heard since Wellstone said he wanted to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” says Hillsman, a similarly disillusioned lefty. “In a sense, the Democrats have been co-opted, and have become this ‘Republican Lite.’ And it’s not just issues, but how you go about doing the business of politics and raising money.”

In addition to health care and other aid to the poor, campaign finance reform was clearly one of the core issues to Beatty. “Bradley and Gore are not going to talk about the issue,” Hillsman told Beatty. “Frankly, they need money.”

Hillsman, Beatty and Bening derided the nefarious influence of soft money in politics, and they all agreed it was just going to grow unless someone did something about it. They all agreed that there was little likelihood that any of the candidates in the race today — with the possible exception of Sen. John McCain — were likely to do anything about it.

Hillsman says that of the dozens of candidates he’s ever worked with, there are only two he’s met who he feels “are doing things 100 percent from the standpoint of performing a public service and not for any other reason.”

One was Tony Bouza — the former police chief for the Bronx, for New York Transit and for Minneapolis, and the presumed model for the fictional, super-ethical Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues.” Bouza ran for governor of Minnesota in 1994 but lost in the primary.

The other, Hillsman says, is Warren Beatty.

Of course, Hillsman is a political consultant searching for clients. He is a media maven and is not against giving interviews. And he is a middle-aged idealist longing for a candidate to believe in — and Beatty has seduced tougher sells than Hillsman.

But Hillsman says that Beatty means it. Some observers, even Beatty supporters, think his stirrings are just a gambit to push Gore or Bradley to the left, but Hillsman thinks they’re wrong. According to the ad man, this is one aspiring … well, one aspiring Bulworth.

Eventually, of course, Hillsman, Beatty and Bening got around to discussing “Bulworth,” and the theme that a Beatty run might share with Bulworth’s last campaign: “The whole notion of what happens when you tell people the truth.”

“In media,” Hillsman told Beatty, “most politicians have to spend so much because they have to spend $2 million just to rise above zero on the ‘truth meter.’” The public automatically distrusts anything they have to say, Hillsman argues. “But when you have a situation where a person says, ‘This person has nothing to lose by telling us the truth,’ well, that’s worth millions of dollars right there.”

It worked for Wellstone and Ventura, Hillsman says. It could work for Beatty, too.

“Look,” Hillsman said to the couple, “the only advice I have is that if you’re really going to do this, if you’re really going to run, you need to take as much time as you can to make the decision. And if, at the end, you decide that you want to do this, we’d be happy to help out.”

At around 11 p.m. that night, Hillsman thanked the couple for a lovely evening, got into his rental car, and was soon back in Minnesota. He hasn’t heard any decision from Beatty … yet.

“I actually think Arianna Huffington did a service to this country by bringing this up,” Hillsman says. “If nothing else, it might get a discussion going on some things that wouldn’t get talked about at all otherwise.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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