Warren Beatty is flirting again -- this time with politics. He recently addressed a convention of nurses. In the spring, it was college students. His target: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
In other times, this joust -- between Bulworth and the Terminator -- could be written off as just two aging Hollywood titans sparring over social policy. But as California moves toward an election year, Democrats are buzzing about Beatty's broadsides because their party has yet to find an exciting, recognizable candidate to challenge Schwarzenegger in November 2006. Polls show the governor lagging with an approval rating a little over 30 percent. But neither of the two declared Democrats, state Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides, has electrified the electorate.
The Democratic Party's problems here mirror its troubles nationwide, said Dick Rosengarten, co-publisher of California Political Week, a nonpartisan newsletter.
"Could Phil Angelides or Steve Westly have gotten that same kind of coverage making the same speech?" he asked about Beatty's address last Thursday in Oakland. "The answer is, hell, no. The one thing they lack is charisma."
In his speech to the California Nurses Association, Beatty accused Schwarzenegger of governing "by show, by spin, by cosmetics, and photo ops, fake events, fake issues and fake crowds and backdrops." The crowd of 500 union delegates interrupted him throughout, chanting "Run, Warren, Run" as Beatty peppered his remarks with gags about nurses, enemas and Schwarzenegger's physique. As if the evening didn't already have enough star power, Beatty's wife, Annette Bening, joined him, as did actor and director Sean Penn.
The nurses union has been at the forefront of a boisterous anti-Schwarzenegger campaign after the governor declared open season on all public employee unions because of their influence over the Democratic-controlled legislature and their aversion to changing their pensions. Nurses hound him. On Tuesday, the organization posted an eBay sales page offering Schwarzenegger for "sale," saying it gave "regular people the chance to compete with wealthy individuals and big corporations to own the world's best known celebrity politician."
Schwarzenegger told the Associated Press he thought Beatty, 68, was "silly" and suggested the actor was jealous.
"We don't care that much about Warren Beatty," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson, "and based on his ticket sales from the past generation, I doubt anyone else does either." Ron Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director, has called Beatty a "crackpot." A Field Poll in June showed that 24 percent of California voters backed a Beatty candidacy, while 53 percent were opposed and 23 percent had no opinion.
Beatty used most of his address to lambaste the GOP governor's ballot initiatives in the Nov. 8 special election. Schwarzenegger is backing measures to limit the power of the Democrat-controlled legislature and politicking by powerful public employee unions. Beatty labeled as "fascist" one measure that would give the governor the power to slash the budget without the approval of the legislature.
At the end of his speech, Beatty was coy when asked if he was planning to challenge the governor.
"I don't want to run for governor. But I don't think anyone should put public service out the question, because that's not what a good citizen does. I think people have an obligation to say that they think," he told San Francisco 's KGO-TV.
Peter Bart, the editor in chief of Variety, said there was "something delicious about Warren Beatty, a well-known womanizer, making his debut in front of a bunch of nurses."
But he did not appear bullish about the potential of a Beatty candidacy. For one, Bart said, Beatty is famous among Hollywood's cognoscenti for not being able to make up his mind. "He is very canny and very cautious and famous for circling around movie projects endlessly," Bart said. "He's not one of the more productive people." Beatty is also an avowed liberal with a problematic past -- think "Reds" (an ode to an American communist) meets "Bulworth" (about a suicidal politician) with a dollop of "Shampoo" (about a promiscuous hairdresser).
Another name wafting through Hollywood's ether is that of actor-director Rob Reiner.
Reiner is no political lightweight. In 1998, he masterminded a ballot initiative that raised cigarette taxes by 50 cents a pack to fund a $1-billion-a-year early childhood development program in the state. But, like Beatty, Reiner's past may also be his weakness. Despite a sterling career as a director ("When Harry Met Sally" and "This Is Spinal Tap"), he just can't quite shed his TV role as Meathead -- the goofy antiwar grad student in television's "All in the Family." In a February poll, California Democrats showed more support for Reiner than Westly or Angelides.
"The broader question," Bart asked, "is this: Is being a good movie star good preparation for politics?" Everyone points to Ronald Reagan, but his political involvement, union work and association with General Electric Co. gave him added experience.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, the Democrat who sponsored a bill allowing same-sex marriages that Schwarzenegger vetoed, thinks Schwarzenegger's administration has ended, for now, the dream that actors can do it better.
"From the media perspective, the idea of star versus star is very exciting," he said. "But it's possible that what Californians have learned through this failed Schwarzenegger experiment is that to run the sixth-largest economy in the world, and a nation-state of 36 million people, star quality alone does not fit the job description."
Leno has endorsed Treasurer Angelides.