Run Warren run

A Beatty campaign could force both parties to admit their addiction to special-interest money

By David Talbot
September 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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He has yet to make a formal announcement, or even an informal one, but the pundits are already zinging Warren Beatty about his possible presidential candidacy. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd doubts that he'll run for president because the aging screen idol can't control his lighting on the campaign trail. (She forgets how the Michael Deavers of the world can arrange the most flattering photo ops for their clients.) Slate's David Plotz calls Beatty's politics "a muddle." (Though a campaign dedicated to "freeing democracy" from "the vulgar and obscene" spectacle of ceaseless fund-raising, achieving "universal health care" and helping out the 35 million poor Americans left behind by the bubble economy sounds like the most solid platform on today's fuzzy presidential trail.)

In fact, it's Beatty's very unmuddled call for complete public financing of all federal campaigns that has cut through the fog in this otherwise snooze-inducing political season, as the wholly owned and operated mainstream candidates vie to maintain our thoroughly corporatized political status quo. With the exception of maverick GOP candidate John McCain, and some vague rumblings from Bill Bradley, no serious presidential contender has yet acknowledged the threat to democracy posed by the unbridled influence of special-interest campaign contributors.


We've already seen how the money chase has tainted front-runners Al Gore and George W. Bush, with Chinese government funds pouring into the Clinton-Gore coffers and Texas funeral industry dollars allegedly burying Gov. Bush's top mortuary watchdog. The Bush campaign is so flush with contributions from adoring fat cats that he has blithely waved off federal matching funds, which come with spending limits attached. To match this wretched excess, the Democratic Party has announced it will amass an arsenal of $200 million in soft money, a daunting task that, in the jaundiced words of pollster and Beatty ally Pat Caddell, will force party officials to
not just rent out the Lincoln bedroom but sell off "wings of the White House."

It comes as little surprise that Bush and Gore have not placed campaign finance reform at the heart of their races. As Beatty has commented, our two major political parties have become little more than "accounting firms." The political system is "so corrupted, we don't need a third party, we need a second party," he declared.

Clearly it will take a political outsider to force the issue. McCain is making a noble effort in this regard, but Beatty's splashy entrance into the race would not only give the issue of campaign reform a dramatic boost, but also shine a spotlight on the growing wealth gap in America -- "the disparity of prosperity," as Beatty calls it. The persistence of poverty, especially among children, in the midst of an unparalleled economic boom is an obscenity rivaled only by the campaign finance scandal.


Even the Washington Post, the voice of Beltway conventional wisdom, editorialized this week that it might take a "far from perfect" political figure like Beatty to chase the moneychangers from the temple of democracy. If Washington doesn't shake itself loose from special interests, then "somebody from somewhere" in this wild-card season of Jesse Venturas "may one day grab the issue" from the political establishment, the Post solemnly warned.

Beatty is the man for the moment. He should drop his coy antics and jump into the race. "Why not now?" he teased in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. "Stay tuned. We'll be back after this message." This kind of flirting might have worked when he was a younger heartthrob. But it ill befits a 62-year-old man whose serious, 35-year commitment to political activism should culminate in a Bulworth-like, truth-telling crusade for the White House.

In its third century, American democracy is an enervated institution, overrun by lawyers, lobbyists and spin doctors and far too removed from the daily concerns of most citizens. A wealthy movie star may seem an unlikely candidate to help unhook the republic from its soft-money fix. But the rest of the cast on today's political stage is an uninspiring lot (again, with the possible exception of McCain), and a benumbed torpor has already settled over the electorate as it listlessly contemplates the unfolding 2000 presidential drama. As long as the campaign is dominated by off-the-rack gray suits like Bush and Gore, none of the lightning-rod issues that Beatty feels passionately about will take center stage in the national debate. He could be the one to light a spark in this otherwise somnolent election year.


Yes, Beatty must prove he's more than just a reflection-gazing Narcissus. But the public will be open to persuasion. Two decades ago, another actor with a glamorous smile and a deep sense of political mission convinced the nation that his time had come. Today's disaffected electorate might be equally receptive to Beatty's reform message.

Even corporate America, from whose coffers most soft money gushes, might
take a benign view of a Beatty campaign. Recently, the elite Committee for
Economic Development, made up of Fortune 500 executives from corporations
like GM and Xerox, has begun lobbying for campaign reform, clashing in the
process with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP's aggressive bagman, who
badly wants to maintain the huge fund-raising edge enjoyed by Republicans.
"The business community is saying: We're tired of being hit up and shaken
down," a fed-up Charles Kolb, president of the prestigious committee, told
the New York Times. "Politics ought to be about something besides hitting
up companies for more and more money."


Will he be rejected as too liberal by American voters? Perhaps. But the issues he is championing can cut across party lines, and if he runs his campaign properly, Beatty can have strong appeal to the country's growing base of independent-minded voters. He could just as easily run as the Reform Party candidate as a Democrat. Campaign 2000 could shape up as the year of the maverick.

At this point in his career, nothing that awaits Beatty on the lots of Warners or Paramount could equal the challenge of a presidential race, with the upstart candidate seizing the opportunity to lower his lance against the growing specter of American "plutocracy." Commit yourself, Warren. It will be the role of a lifetime.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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