Beatty Weighs Role of Presidential Candidate
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 1999; Page A1
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 28 When future historians mine the past, looking for that exact moment that the Beatty presidency began to take form and substance, they will need to return to a summer's evening at the Brentwood home of columnist Arianna Huffington and the exchange that took place over the catered plates.
The dozen participants, even the hostess, do not recall exactly what was served. They think halibut. But what they do remember was that the lovely and talented actress Annette Bening turned to young Ted Halstead, the guest of honor, and suggested that the director of the New America Foundation, based in Dupont Circle, enter politics. Halstead, who was being feted for his August cover story in Atlantic Monthly, on the civic disconnect felt by Generation X, demurred. But he did offer a suggestion.
"We were talking about the lack of ideas, about the lack of leadership in the current campaigns," Halstead remembers. "And I said something like, well, there is somebody at this table who played the part in the movies, and who has a lifetime commitment to politics," and a lot of ideas.
And that person is and was Warren Beatty.
For the remainder of the evening, the dinner guests engaged in animated, serious, but lighthearted debate about the plausibility, necessity and wisdom of a run for the White House by the veteran Hollywood actor and director.
A few weeks later, in a syndicated column on Aug. 10, Huffington in essence outed Beatty, released a balloon that the actor who played Bulworth -- the movie senator gone bonkers and then truth-teller -- run for the highest office in the land.
Preposterous? Perhaps. Impossible? Whatever.
"It's not something I floated," said the actor in a brief telephone conversation. "But it is something I'm thinking about. That's all I'm doing. Thinking about it."
Beatty would like to say more. But "it's too early," he said. "I'm careful." Maybe soon. Indeed, in late September, when he will be awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt award at a Beverly Hills hotel by the liberal-leaning Americans for Democratic Action, and he will give a speech. Then we may know more.
But what is clear is that Warren Beatty is seriously considering entering the fray.
Consider this: In a poll released this week by the Field Institute, measuring the preferences of registered and likely voters in California for the next president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush got 44 percent, Vice President Gore matched him with 44 percent, and Beatty got 8 percent. (Interestingly, only about 1 percent of Democratic voters picked Beatty, leading pollster Mark DiCamillo to infer that he is at present "not credible.")
It is, perhaps more than anyone, Huffington who is nudging along the actor, famous for his movies as well as his past love life and zealously guarding his privacy.
Her motivation? She feels that America has become "two nations," and that even though Beatty's politics may be far to the left of her own brand of evolving compassionate conservatism, at least he is willing to talk about the corruption of money and politics, and the abandonment of the have-nots.
Beatty has spoken with former organizers for Jesse L. Jackson and with people interested in campaign reform. Huffington also put him in contact recently with Bill Hillsman, the media manager of the successful bids by Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (Reform). Hillsman flew out to Los Angeles a week ago and met with Beatty and his wife, Bening, at their Beverly Hills mansion.
What did they discuss?
"We talked a lot about what I call the lapsed electorate, the 40 or 50 or 60 percent of Americans who do not vote, who never show up in the polls," Hillsman says.
As Hillsman measured it, "I'm certain that he is serious about this. He is not a gadfly, this is not a stunt. He doesn't need to do this." He had the impression that Bening -- whom he described as "frighteningly intelligent and completely informed" -- was more enthusiastic than her husband, and that one of the couple's driving concerns was "really questioning what kind of country their kids are going to grow up in."
The ad man added: "In all the years I've done this work, there are only two people [who] I can honestly say were doing it just for public service, and Mr. Beatty would be one of them."
The other being Jesse Ventura? No. The other was Tony Bouza, who lost a bid for Minnesota governor in 1994. Getting down to brass tacks, which he did not do with the possible candidate, Hillsman guessed he could run a very competent campaign for a candidate like Beatty with around $20 million, if Gore and Bush both spent around $60 million over the next months.
An emerging theme in the infancy of a possible run by Beatty, according to the actor's own work and writings, and what his old and new friends and advisers are saying, is this: that the major candidates are too cautious, too bland, too centrist, too boring -- and that they will never address two of Beatty's primary concerns.
Those are a complete overhaul of the way American politicians pay for their campaigns (Beatty is for public funding) and an aggressive attempt to help all citizens who live without health insurance, good-paying jobs and decent homes and are disconnected from civic life.
These germs of ideas appeared in an opinion piece by Beatty that ran last Sunday in the New York Times and ended with the tease: "Stay tuned. We'll be back after this message."
But to get a full feeling for Beatty's politics, one need go no further than his pet project of last year, "Bulworth," which follows the crack-up of Jay Billington Bulworth, imaginary Democratic senator from California, who at the film's opening finally realizes he cannot continue to blather about "standing at the door of new millennium" and believing in "a hand up, not a handout," and immerses himself in black urban life and begins to speak his version of the truth.
That version of truth? That fat cats run the world and buy politicians. That black voters are used as props and taken for granted. That Hollywood is a soulless, smug place that makes bad movies and lots of money. That socialized medicine is a good idea and that socialism should not be a dirty word. And that most political discourse consists of "a bunch of rich guys," meaning pundits, asking another bunch of "rich guys," meaning politicians, inane questions that don't really matter.
Bulworth, in the film that Beatty also wrote and directed, also postulates that the salvation of America lies in everybody having sex with everybody else to produce a new generation of Americans of amalgamated race and ethnicity -- a sort of reproductive melting pot.
After Huffington's column ran earlier this month suggesting a Beatty candidacy, other pundits around the country seized on the idea, but most focused on celebrity culture and little jokes about how Beatty would make President Clinton look like a monk. Beatty is famous for his past love life -- after all, he dated Madonna -- but what they didn't seem to get was that, unlike the president, Beatty was dating. He was single. No harm, no foul.
Anyway, Huffington says she was buried under a wave of positive e-mail. She forwarded some of the messages to Beatty.
In her column, Huffington quotes Jimmy Carter's old pollster, Pat Caddell, saying that a Beatty run for the White House would have to limit itself, beyond the candidate's fortunes, to $100 contributions. Huffington got dozens of e-mails asking: Where do I send my check?
In the telephone conversation with Beatty, the Post reporter offered that a run for the White House would be anything but boring. "That's true," Beatty said. But he said it with kind of a sigh.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company