Ballot Box


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.–John McCain’s speech at the Reagan Library was well-attended by national political reporters–more than he had seen since Monday, when he made his official announcement in New Hampshire. But the journalists hadn’t flown out to Los Angeles just to see McCain. They were in town hoping for an announcement that will be far bigger news if it ever occurs–that of Warren Beatty’s candidacy. At a benefit dinner for the Southern California branch of Americans for Democratic Action, Beatty was scheduled to tease a massive international press corps about the possibility of running–I mean receive the Eleanor Roosevelt Award and deliver a speech. Anyhow, it sounded like too glam an event to pass up, so I ditched McCain–about whom more tomorrow.

The Beatty event, held in a huge ballroom in the Beverly Hilton Hotel, was sort of like the White House Correspondents Dinner but with the actors and political reporters kept apart. We caught only distant glimpses of Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman. Also in attendance were Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner, Larry Flynt, and Faye Dunaway. Courtney Love teetered in and out on preposterous stiletto heels, flaunting a strategically situated rip in her blouse (which was pretty much see-through anyhow).

Events like this remind you of what limousine liberalism was like, circa 1972. When I arrived, the warm-up program was already underway. Lila Garrett, the president of the organization, was saying something about how NATO was not a defensive alliance but a structure of oppression. “Keeping up a permanent war economy requires a permanent war,” she noted. Garrett calls the bombing in defense of Bosnia and Kosovo a “78-day reign of terror.”

Elsewhere in the country, Bill Bradley represents a more liberal alternative to Al Gore. Here, Bradley is viewed as just another centrist sell-out. Hollywood liberals still nurse a grudge against him for voting in favor of aid to the Contras in the 1980s. Sure, Bradley is for extending health-care coverage to the uninsured to the tune of $65 billion a year–but he’s not for a single-payer system. Sure, he’s for campaign-finance reform–but not for full public financing of all federal elections. This explains the Hollywood enthusiasm for Beatty, and Beatty’s interest in the race.

The event began with an elaborate tribute film, which might run verbatim as a Republican attack ad against the Democratic Party one day. It had clips of Barbra Streisand, Willie Brown, Sean Penn, Barry Diller, Paul Wellstone, Goldie Hawn, George McGovern, Dustin Hoffman, Arianna Huffington, and Jesse Jackson and others, praising and joking about Beatty, interspersed with clips from Reds and Bonnie and Clyde. Michael Ovitz appeared in a Bulworth outfit of wraparound shades and a black knit cap. Roseanne called Beatty a “fine piece of ass” and threatened to run against him for president. Rob Reiner offered to be Beatty’s running mate. The only really truly funny bit was Garry Shandling’s cameo. “Listen, if you run and get elected make sure you get your name above the title of the country–Warren Beatty in the United States of America,” he said. The most astonishing bit, to me at least, was the wrap-up by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. With a schmaltzy violin score in the background, Schlesinger called on Beatty to “keep up the debate and save our party’s soul.”

As a performance, Beatty’s address was overlong and uneven. Parts of it were relatively clever, such as the peroration in which he offered advice to an imaginary “drum majorette” who felt she had something to contribute to the American political debate. This was a nice metaphor for his own flirtation with a campaign. Some of Beatty’s jokes weren’t bad. “I’ve been on a listening tour of my house for the past six weeks,” he said. Another good one was his question about the Bradley-Gore race: “What’s this insurgency of a centrist against a centrist all about?”

But most of the speech had an Ishtar-like quality. Beatty’s hemming-and-hawing style of delivery gets tiresome pretty quickly (“I want to thank the Americans for Democratic, uh, Action”), as do his repetitive screeds about the special interests, the corporations, and the plutocrats. You do have to marvel at the ability of Prada-clad celebrities to sit at a $500-a-plate dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel and decry overpaid CEOs and rich people in general as if they were an alien species. Beatty referred to his critics as “those moneyed, honeyed voices of ridicule.”

Beatty’s speech was delivered too late in the evening to receive extensive coverage in the papers today. But if you watched it on C-Span, you did learn what his political views are. Like most of those in the room, he is a wooly-mammoth liberal, pining for the days of Hubert H. Humphrey. Beatty said he was accepting the award as “an old-time, unrepentant, unreconstructed, tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.” That about covers it. He also said he thinks the domestic policies of Lyndon B. Johnson were all good programs that didn’t get a fair shake because of the Vietnam War. Beatty is annoyed that the Democratic Party has become, in his view, a copycat GOP. “We don’t need a third party,” he said. “We need a second party.” He wants to recognize Cuba, pass single-payer health-care insurance, install public financing of elections, and spend more money on every social problem ever discovered. Beatty did not mention anything about being pro-life, which Matt Drudge claims he is since becoming a father. That’s about the only thing he could have said that would have got him booed by this crowd.

It is certainly true, as Beatty says, that there is no one currently in the presidential race who represents an orthodox liberal position. Where Beatty is mistaken and perhaps a bit delusional is in attributing the failure of his ideas to corporate power and corruption. He described our political system as “a slow-motion coup d’etat of big money interests over the public interest.” This is the same paranoid view he articulated, much more wittily, in Bulworth. The movie never really took off. Based on last night’s indications, neither will the campaign.