Hollywood can wait

Americans are frustrated with the gridlocked two-party system. Is the answer Warren Beatty?

Published August 13, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Though the calendar says August, it is springtime for American politics. It is the season for flirtation and wild innuendo -- where Jerry Springer plays footsie with Ohio Democrats, Donald Trump allows his name to be floated in Reform Party circles, Hillary Rodham Clinton is ready to square off against Rudy Giuliani in the mother of all nasty campaign battles and even President Clinton is rumored to covet a U.S. Senate seat.

But nothing beats this: Warren Beatty, presidential candidate.

According to friends, and an interview he gave the New York Times, Beatty is apparently seriously considering a run for president of the United States. The story was quickly seized by the media, who took a brief time out from riveting gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Iowa straw poll to entertain the rumor.

"It's kind of an awkward thing," Beatty told the Times. "I don't think anybody should be in a position of having to say, 'Please don't say things like this to me.' I want to be very respectful of the people who have made the suggestion to me." He acknowledged having conversations with Jesse Jackson advisors, and said if he ran, it would be as a Democrat, a Reform Party member or an independent.

It doesn't seem as crazy as it once might have, now that a man who used to wear a feather boa and grapple with sweaty men in tights is the chief executive of Minnesota. But the most intriguing aspect of the Beatty rumors may be the way the idea was apparently hatched.

The trial balloon for the liberal Beatty was first floated by none other than conservative (for lack of a better word) Arianna Huffington in her Aug. 9 syndicated column. Huffington told Salon News that the idea of a Beatty run began at a dinner where she, Beatty and Atlantic Monthly writer Ted Halstead were sitting at the same table, discussing Halstead's current cover story in the Atlantic on Gen X politics.

"We started talking about change and how people are actually talking about [issues that are not on the political agenda], but how hard it is to break through," she explained. "It turned into a discussion of how do you bring about change in a system that is so full of static and a lot of people are saying these things?"

These "things," Huffington says, have to do with the growing divide between haves and have-nots in America. Though Bill Bradley and Al Gore make passing references to poverty on the stump, and George W. Bush riffs on "prosperity with a purpose" and "compassionate conservatism," there is no true champion of the American poor among the presidential candidates.

Enter candidate Bulworth. In her column, Huffington noted that Norman Lear was enamored of the California senator Beatty played in last year's movie -- the burned out corporate sellout who found salvation in populism and Halle Berry. "I don't see out there in either party, on the left or the right, anybody representing the bulk of the American people," Lear said. "The closest I've seen is Bulworth." It was a short leap from Bulworth to the man who played him, Beatty, who's spent 35 years allied with the Democratic Party but no makes no secret of his disillusionment.

"There is a certain knowledge going into this that people will laugh at it," said Lear, the television producer and philanthropist (who is also a member of the Salon.com board of directors). "He would never think of the possibility of his making it. Being elected would not be what it's about. It's really a question of could he help to push Gore and Bradley, the only two running in the center, could he push them a little to the left, where the heart is."

Beatty's promise of millionaire populism comes as many Christian conservatives are threatening to bolt the Republican Party. Desperate for a winner, the Republican political and financial establishment has invested early and often in Bush, even while it waits to find out just what he stands for. In his early stump speeches, Bush has mentioned the need to help America's disenfranchised, which makes his appeal different from the tough-love approach embraced by most Republican presidential candidates.

Beatty's potential candidacy is another example of a tectonic shift in American politics. "I think there is a political realignment going on underneath the surface that the media is really not covering," Huffington said. "Just as they missed Jesse Ventura completely, I think the media are about to miss some of what's happening in 2000." Ross Perot opened the eyes of the political establishment to the large mass of disaffected voters when he captured almost 20 percent of the vote in 1992, Huffington noted. "Until the world realized his tray table was not in the upright and locked position, he sounded very authentic," she said.

"There is a manifestation of something larger happening. You need to look at the turnout going down. There are some very disturbing symptoms of something that again the two main parties are ignoring."

But is the answer to that something really Bulworth?

Beatty has been fairly high profile in his search for another political option. The lifelong Democrat recently attended an informal lunch hosted by Warner Bros. vice president Terry Semel on behalf of Bush. Bush remembered he introduced himself to Beatty and said, "I'm George W."

"I'm Bulworth," Beatty replied.

But Beatty's run is more than just a delusional muddling of fantasy with real life, according to Lear. Beatty first became active in politics during the presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy. "Kennedy was becoming the kind of populist I think a lot of people are hungry for now before he was cut down," said Lear. Since then, Beatty has been involved in the campaigns of 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern and the 1988 campaign of former Sen. Gary Hart. "He's been a robust citizen through all these years." Lear said.

Still, his friends concede that Beatty's flirtation with politics comes from the big sucking sound on the left of the political spectrum "One is pressed to find a true populist vote who could get any media attention," Lear said. "Nobody can name that person with those sensibilities that would get arrested in the media. Who will they pay attention to? Well, Warren Beatty."

Beatty may gain some political traction with the people who are most drawn to his movies -- baby boomers. "As boomers become the dominant political force, the attitudes of that generation are going to become reflected in voting behavior," said California Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow, who ran the failed 1998 California gubernatorial candidacy of Democratic millionaire Al Checchi. "Boomers like choices. "

Yet Sragow thinks those who think Americans desperate for change will stampede the Beatty bandwagon will be disappointed. For all their whining, California voters, at least, demonstrated last November that they are by and large satisfied with the status quo. "We had a guy run for governor, Gray Davis, who ran on his résumé of government experience. That would have gotten him killed four years earlier," says Sragow, whou thought incorrectly that Checchi's lack of a political résumé -- and his personal millions -- would lure disaffected voters.

Still, Sragow left open the possibility that a real run by Beatty could change the political equation, if not the agenda. Sragow pointed to Perot's run in 1992, which helped focus the debate on deficit reduction. "Timing is everything," he said. "If the right person with the right message came along, could he galvanize liberals and have-nots? It's certainly possible."

Perot built the Reform Party with his charisma and his wallet, though he was rebuffed by the party rank and file in last month's convention in Michigan. But his legacy remains. While the Reform Party struggles to find its identity, it is still a viable congregation of the politically disaffected that must now be considered as part of the American political equation. Could Warren Beatty do for the left what Ross Perot did for the center?

Bill Moyers may have put it best: "It took an actor to dramatize for conservatives the ideas that changed politics in the early '80s," he told Huffington. "Perhaps another actor can help all Americans see how private money is overwhelming public life. If Warren can speak the truth to power on the stump as well as he did in 'Bulworth,' he can change politics, too."

And as Huffington says: "Is the thought of Beatty for president any more surreal than the reality of Denny Hastert for speaker?"

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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