Run, Warren, run? The latest made-for-buzz wrinkle in the 2000 presidential campaign is that actor Warren Beatty is considering a rewrite that would put him into the action. In the slow news days of August, the Beatty boomlet sparked a flurry of media stories. As he explained it to one progressive activist, for years political writers had approached Beatty, who has long been active in Democratic politics, and asked if he was interested in running for office. He always said no. But recently when columnist Arianna Huffington–a former Newt-booster who now bewails our Big Money-dominated system that ignores the poor–asked Beatty if he had a desire to run for office, he didn’t wave her off. The co-writer, director and star of Bulworth–a senator who has a breakdown and tells the truth, in rap, about the corrupting influence of money in politics–decried the current presidential choices and the pervasive corruption of politics. “Something has to be done,” he told Huffington. The implication: He was thinking about campaigning for President.
There are two ways of looking at a Beatty candidacy. Let’s take the political vérité approach. A Beatty campaign could be the stuff of profound mockery. The left’s last hope is a Hollywood star? Would this be a media stunt or a real campaign? According to one person who has discussed the race with him, Beatty is leaning toward a media-dependent campaign and is intrigued by opportunities presented by the Internet and the proliferation of cable channels and new media. “My worry,” says one LA politico who has worked with Beatty, “is that he could marginalize the issues of campaign finance reform and poverty. He’ll be seen as an out-of-touch, egotistical guy who just wants to speak his mind.”
But consider a wider angle. If politics has become absurd, why not confront it as absurd? Life imitating Bulworth imitating life. He recently told a friend that his campaign could be the Blair Witch Project of American politics. Call this fighting the politics of celebrity with a celebrity of politics–the character as candidate who, à la Bulworth, will let ‘er rip with a critique of the money-driven ways of Washington. And why not Beatty? Four of the top five finishers in the GOP Iowa straw poll were never elected to anything. Unlike George W. Bush and Steve Forbes, Beatty made his money on his own, without relying on a family name. All the GOP wannabes are claiming the Reagan mantle. Beatty’s a better actor. If the system is broke, perhaps a famous citizen–one who can draw notice–can wag a finger at the hounds. “He would be a real and present danger to the established order, and they’re not going to be nice about it,” says Pat Caddell, a consultant turned producer and a friend of Beatty’s. “He would be an outsider saying the system cannot be fixed from the inside.” True, Ralph Nader–the most famous assailant of special interest politics–has expressed an interest in waging another presidential campaign as a Green candidate, possibly a more serious one than his token 1996 effort. And Bill Bradley has certainly criticized the undue influence of money in politics. But Beatty may be able to offer a fierce delivery of an edgy message and a high profile that commands attention.
Would a Beatty campaign pressure other candidates–and the media–to address his critique of a system gone sour? “It’s easy to make fun of the guy,” says Robert Borosage, a progressive leader who spoke with Beatty about a campaign. “But he’s clearly concerned about a presidential race where there’s no energy and progressives don’t seem to have a champion in the field. He can get a lot of attention. He’s trying to figure if he can use that in a productive way.” There’s another possibility: In a celebrity culture, Beatty’s celebrity could overshadow the issues of his campaign.
Beatty is “nowhere near a decision,” says a political adviser. Those who have brainstormed with him say he hasn’t put his mind to the nitty-gritty: a campaign infrastructure, a delegate strategy. It’s not even clear if he’s considering running as an independent or for the Democratic or Reform party. The Reform Party has called him. (“I’ve always been a Democrat and I guess I’ll always be a Democrat, until I get a better idea,” he told The Nation this past spring in a forum–see www.thenation.com.) One consideration, says Caddell, is whether other progressives come forward and support the project: “Warren wants to see what the response is [before making a decision], to see if there’s a candidacy there and not just a candidate.” Would he take positions on issues other than Big Money? In Bulworth, he rapped about the need for universal healthcare, strong environmental regulations and the income gap.
But so far there’s no script. Which means there’s nothing to review, yet.