Apropos of yet another “will-he-or-won’t-he” media psychodrama starring Warren Beatty as a possible candidate, this time for the 2006 California governor’s race, I’m reminded of that dreadful 1995 movie, The American President. One line summarizes the Warren situation, uttered by Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd, while accusing a vocal critic of playing to the cameras: “This is a time for serious men, Bob, and your 15 minutes are up.”
That’s why I wince every time Beatty pontificates from the sidelines of American politics, no matter if it’s preening from the commencement podium of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, as he did May 21, or stammering on the telephone to the oh-so-gullible Los Angeles Times four days later. Because again and again, the discussion descends from the steak of what he’s saying to merely the sizzle of whether he’s going to run. The problem is that, when the press coverage dies down and Beatty retreats again to his Mulholland Drive mansion, it’s left to the serious progressives to clean up the mess from his endless sideshow.
Don’t get me wrong: Anyone who has anything bad to say about our illegitimate governor is a friend of mine. This special-interest-beholden greedmeister, girlie-man-calling machomeister and sexually-harassing fibmeister needs to go down, and go down big come re-election time. So when I saw that Beatty’s keynote address was well thought-out, I was intrigued enough to think about writing a column sorta praising him for saying rather eloquently what had been unspoken publicly in Hollywood until then.
But I didn’t, because something nagged at me that this was another Beatty grab for attention disguised as a gab about terminating the Governator. Tipping it all off was Berkeley’s own coverage of the graying has-been actor’s speech, noting that in attendance were multiple news crews drawn by rumors that Warren would declare his intent to replace Schwarzenegger. Also troubling was the line in his Arnold slam: “. . . although I don’t want to run for governor, I would do one hell of a lot better job than he’s done.” With Warren, it’s inevitably all about me, myself and I. Never “us.”
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So I hung back to watch which Beatty would emerge after the brief flurry of media attention caused by his strong stance. Warren the Democratic Dynamo we’ve waited two decades to see resurface? Warren the Committed Reformer we’ve seen snatches of but little more? Warren the Independent Dilettante we’ve learned to live with in recent years? The answer came when Beatty grabbed headlines for himself, and not his cause.
First, he gave an interview to the LAT’s I’m-fawning-as-fast-as-I-can Calendar writer Rachel Abramowitz, who portrayed Warren as the Next Big Liberal Hope, even though those of us who actually follow the progressive movement with more than just a fleeting glance know he’s anything but. C’mon, if Beatty had wanted serious coverage of his views on California’s sorry state of governance, he would have agreed to speak only to the LAT’s Sacramento reporters who cover Schwarzenegger full-time.
Warren scheduled lunch with Steve Lopez on Monday, after the LAT columnist suspended his usual cynicism and wrote kindly about Beatty. It was canceled at the last minute by Lopez because Beatty wouldn’t speak on the record. “You may have missed the subtle cynicism in my take on the possibility of Dick Tracy taking on the Terminator,” Lopez e-mailed me when I told him I intended to rap his knuckles for falling for Warren. “I want Beatty, Rob Reiner and lots of other celebrities to run. Does Tom Selleck live here? This is the only way to get Californians interested in representative government. It doesn’t matter if the celebs are crackpots, or if they make empty promises like Arnold did. The more the better, at least for columnists. And what self-respecting man wouldn’t rather have Annette Bening as first lady than Maria Shriver?”
I had to e-mail back a response: “Just remember that, when your children ask you, ‘Daddy, what did you do during the war?,’ you can respond, ‘I was having lunch with Warren Beatty.’ And you can quote me on that.”
Yes, it sounds overly melodramatic, but there is a war on, figuratively and literally. The Hollywood anti–Iraq invasion group, Artists United To Win Without War, spoke up against the pre-emptive strike, yet Beatty never joined. The Republican Party has long been out-fund-raising the Democratic Party, but Beatty gave his earliest political donations in 2000 to Ralph Nader. The Supreme Court is ruling on abortion rights, but Beatty is suing to make another Dick Tracy movie. Michael Moore is reinventing the political documentary, but Beatty is making mindless fluff. The power-mad Rove-Frist-DeLay axis of evil is destroying the Constitution and our system of checks and balances, but Beatty has spent hours on the telephone with right-wing blowhard Bill O’Reilly, and weekends in the company of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain. Hollywood liberals are up a creek without a paddle, but Beatty is basking in his own glory on the beach with a sun reflector.
Mea culpa, there was a time when I, too, was wowed by Beatty’s wattage. I was writing a book, and Warren would call me frequently at 11 p.m. to talk about The Biz. He voiced what I thought were bizarre opinions, like how the press shouldn’t report on what movies cost, or why talent agencies were the replacements for actor unions. But I listened nevertheless, because it was Warren Beatty, for chrissakes. So many reporters have been seduced by that mellifluous voice, but none can say what I can: that I told a boyfriend who was on the phone proposing marriage that I’d call him back because Warren Beatty was on the other line. That I did that still horrifies me.
Back when Schwarzenegger first declared his recall candidacy, I predicted that the post-millennium rarity of Republican Party leaders and pundits around the country rushing to embrace a show-biz celebrity running for office had huge ramifications for coming elections, because it re-enfranchised liberal actor activists who had been Bush-bullied to shut up, sit out, or at least realize their stumping could be a PR nightmare. I support Hollywood’s right to have a political opinion, to make it public and, if possible, to pull a Reagan. It’s not Warren’s words that annoy me; it’s Warren’s act that has worn thin with me.
He’s the wrong man sending the right message, so no wonder pundits like Lopez poke fun at Hollywood political polemics. Serious times like these call for serious people, not just serious media attention. Beatty could have followed up his Berkeley speech by using all that press coverage to personally spearhead a massive fund-raising effort on behalf of California’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate (whoever that will be). Given Schwarzenegger’s lust for campaign money, travels around the country scooping up cash from corporate bigwigs in the most craven way possible and, according to Arnoldwatch.org, product placements in his TV spots for brands that have donated to his coffers, Hollywood must mix its fame with its fortune on behalf of Arnold’s opponent.
Taking a leadership role in liberal Hollywood requires more stamina than Beatty has ever been able to muster, as well as more courage. Just ask members of the new generation of actor-activists like Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who are putting themselves and their careers on the line almost daily, yet show no signs of slowing down. Not since the aborted campaign of Gary Hart has Beatty campaigned hard and heartily for a Democrat. During the 2002 midterm elections, Robert Redford, Rob Reiner and Alec Baldwin shook hands, raised money and talked politics in states with neck-and-neck U.S. Senate races from South Carolina to Minnesota to Colorado, and suffered professional consequences as a result. And what was Warren doing at the time? Rationalizing to The New York Times why he was all but mute: “I have found I need to be much more careful of what I say because, when those opinions go against the grain, then one is subjected to all kinds of ad hominem attacks.”
Back to The American President, which co-starred Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening. Interesting that the movie’s makers wanted Robert Redford for the title role, then settled for Michael Douglas. Warren wasn’t a serious contender. That’s precisely the problem.
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