Bulworth or just bull?

Warren Beatty delivers a coquettish speech in Beverly Hills.

Topics: Democratic Party, California,

Was it just a La-La-Land fantasy, the kind that blurs the
lines between reality and fiction for those few minutes after you stumble
into the street from a dark movie theater? At the Americans for Democratic
Action awards ceremony Wednesday night, Warren Beatty effectively told us we’d been duped by our own screaming desires for a presidential candidate
like J. Billington Bulworth.

Beatty gave no final word on his political ambitions. But the legendary
seducer insisted that this time, he’s not guilty of flirting. Rather, he claimed, during the seven weeks since the buzz about his presidential potential first began,
the rumors have swirled around him — set in motion by late-night dinner musings at the Los Angeles home of Arianna Huffington, and more late-night schmoozing at Beatty’s home last month with Bill Hillsman, who helped transform Jesse Ventura into an electable commodity. There was little more than that.

“I like making movies and I want to go on making them,” is as far as Beatty got to putting a stop to the rumors that he might run for the White House — adding that his current career offered him the “improbable pursuit of women half my age.”

But he didn’t take himself out of the game completely. Instead, Beatty appeared to carve out for himself the role of Greek chorus and official liberal pest to the
Democratic Party, laying into the administration and the two current
candidates, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, for having effectively abandoned the party’s original mission.

As if explaining his role, he told the audience of about 1,000 film-industry
and political types that “you gotta keep talking, you gotta keep the spirit.” Otherwise, he said, Democrats risk having the party become bloated from overeating big campaign money — “the primary cancer in this sick system,” he said. “Getting the money to win makes decent politicians do indecent things.”

Beatty’s Hollywood friends have been reacting skeptically to Beatty’s trial balloon for weeks. But by Wednesday night, when Beatty arrived at the Beverly Hilton flanked by his wife, Annette Bening, and agent, Pat Kingsley, the lobby was jammed with reporters from as far away as Spain, France and Japan. “It’s like ‘The Blair Witch Project,’” said Dustin Hoffman (a self-proclaimed “longtime Bradley
supporter”) to a forest of microphones, thrust across a velvet rope. “Once it was put on the Internet, they didn’t have to do any media.”

Beatty was there for an event that has been largely ignored by the media for years: the presentation of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, from the Southern California chapter of the ADA, a progressive political organization founded by that first lady.

Beatty’s old friends were there to offer unofficial endorsements of this year’s award winner. “He’s got great charisma and he’s an enchanting person to talk to,” said Faye Dunaway, the Bonnie to Beatty’s Clyde. Jack Nicholson barked out: “I’m here to show support for the pro.”

But Beatty did not give the crowd what they had hoped for. Relishing his
biggest platform since the South Central church podium in “Bulworth,” Beatty said, “I have this great luxury of not having a career as a politician, so I can say what I want to say.”

And so he did, during a 45-minute fiery speech that was part manifesto, part rant at the betrayal of the Democratic Party, delivered from a stage where he has collected a few of his five Golden Globe awards.

None of the ideas were original, and few offered concrete solutions. But
after months of candidates who carefully avoid any offense to anyone, Beatty’s rapid-fire barrage, his gloves-off massacre of Clinton’s social policies, had the thrill of a Hollywood car chase.

“One in three children are living in poverty” in Los Angeles, he said. “The strong economy has had no or little effect on hunger and homelessness. There were 56 percent more layoffs in 1998 than in the year before. Four Northwestern states show that half the new jobs don’t pay livable wages. The disparity of wealth between rich and poor has never been higher,” he said. “We have a party that shoves these things under the rug and says: ‘Most things are going right for America.’”

After 30 years of political activism, Beatty has plenty to say, and it is worth hearing almost all of it. He longs for a previous age when the
Democrats were interested in “changing public opinions, rather than following them.” Without that attitude, he said, we would not have had Medicare, the minimum wage, or laws on voting rights.

But can Beatty keep this up? Without entering the race, he risks being
quickly drowned out by the cacophony of campaign speeches, daily poll-taking and pundit chatter. The media machine will move on. Most of those who had flown to Los Angeles this week for the appearances from all the major candidates were set to leave town by Thursday morning. And there was a visible slump in the oxygen level in the Beverly Hilton ballroom as it become clear Beatty would not announce his candidacy.

Yet, if Beatty keeps talking, he could “kick the tires” of the Democratic candidates, said television producer Norman Lear: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Bradley and Gore would love to see these tires kicked, because they cannot do it themselves.”

Beatty seems ready for more kicking. After all, he said, “I still have my day job.”

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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