The Washington Post

If Obama did ‘go Bulworth,’ what would he say?

Amid intrusions like trawling the phone records of reporters and the donor lists of conservative groups, many Americans see President Obama’s power as over-the-top, and his desire for more as bottomless.

Warren Beatty in his 1998 movie ‘Bulworth.’ (20th Century Fox)

Obama himself has a different view, of course, and like presidents before him, has been known to complain about the limits imposed by political adversaries. Unable to so much as push through modest gun-control legislation, he feels so constrained that he even fantasizes, according to a Thursday New York Times story, about “going Bulworth.”

For those who missed “Bulworth,” Warren Beatty’s satirical, smart and widely mocked 1998 movie, which I loved for daring to be dorky, it’s about a hollow, bored faker of a public servant. California Sen. Jay Bulworth is a third-way Democrat and first-rate fundraiser who means nothing that tumbles out of his mouth. Until, that is, having given up on life entirely, he finds his inner Bobby Kennedy by hanging out in the ‘hood.

After hiring a hit on his own life, he goes on a drunken but highly educational spree. And before the credits roll, Bulworth has started rapping, fallen for Halle Berry and shocked his donors by finally tellin’ it like it is to the Hollywood hacks and insurance lobbyists who own him. Boom.

He also rips off his mask to reveal … a black man, oh. When it came out, a Post reviewer noted that “Beatty’s character even comes across as a quasi-Christ figure, shepherding the societal lepers and outcasts to salvation.”

As the Times modestly concludes, “the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama’s desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him.” Former adviser David Axelrod, who is familiar with the president’s cinematic temptation, suggests that all presidents yearn to speak freely.

“Probably every president says that from time to time,” Axelrod says in the piece. “It’s probably cathartic just to say it. But the reality is that while you want to be truthful, you want to be straightforward, you also want to be practical about whatever you’re saying.”

Obama is cautious by nature, so I don’t imagine we’re going to be treated to any raps that speak truth to the man — even if, sorry sir, but you are the man.

Still, if he did “go Bulworth,” I’d like to know what truth that would be. Would he address extreme poverty, maybe, as so many of my friends actually believed he would in a second term?

“I’d like to see him talk about the poor — or heck, the environment,” said Catholic University’s Steve Schneck, co-chair of Catholics for Obama in ’12, who hoped for more than the “occasional flashes” he feels we’ve been treated to on that front.

“And he’s done very little for the African American community that went all out for him twice.” Schneck feels sure the community organizer whose idealism got even Washington’s hopes up when he first arrived in the Senate is still in there somewhere, “but he’s kept those passions bottled up and out of sight.”

Is the truth he’s longing to tell really about policy, though, or politics? Would he lay out the path forward, or grouse about the partisan obstacles in his way? Talk about our moral imperatives, or Darrell Issa?

In “Bulworth,” Beatty sheds his white skin, so would Obama perhaps mention race, a topic he’s rarely referenced since Harvard’s Skip Gates got arrested “breaking into” his own home in Cambridge in 2009?

In “Bulworth,” a passive public expects to be lied to, and it gets the corrupt government it settles for, so maybe he’d say what he thinks about the voters who saddled him with the vexation of a Republican House of Representatives?

“The whole reason I got involved in politics,” he told us at Thursday’s news conference, “is because I believe so deeply in that democracy and that process.” But unfortunately, I don’t know what issue is dearest to his heart, or what he would sing out about if unshackled from what Axelrod nicely calls the imperative to “be practical about whatever you’re saying.”

Nor, assuming that neither rap nor Ms. Berry would be part of the presentation, do I know what’s stopping him. If he’s half as hemmed in as he seems to feel, why not let us in on the secret?

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.


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