Run, Warren, Run!

Steven Hayward

September 1, 1999

The initial sensation over the idea of Warren Beatty running for president set the liberals amongst the Chattering Class into paroxysms of joy. Here at last is our chance to get revenge for Ronald Reagan! Not only is Beatty an attractive movie star (at least if he doesn’t wear the same hairdo he had in Shampoo), but he tells it like it is!

While the initial media sensation has subsided, don’t be surprised if a Beatty candidacy comes into being, and if it does that his candidacy will be a serious matter. While Beatty is no mere show-business dilettante when it comes to national politics, his candidacy would reveal much about the condition of American politics. He will surely bomb, but not because he is a political novice or unserious about politics.

The idea of a Beatty candidacy is no mere lark in the Age of Jesse Ventura. Beatty has been involved in Democratic presidential politics going back to 1968, and played an influential role as a full-fledged member of the inner circle in both the McGovern campaign in 1972 and the Gary Hart campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Way back in 1974 a Democratic Party poll found Beatty to be the top Democratic prospect to succeed Ronald Reagan as governor of California, and in 1976 the Hubert Humphrey campaign considered asking Beatty to run in several primaries as a surrogate for Humphrey.

By all accounts Beatty has a serious interest in public policy issues, and the campaigns he worked with always took his ideas seriously. (He even helped write one Gary Hart speech in the 1984 campaign.) And unlike most Hollywood stars who merely dabble in politics but who want to share the public stage with the candidate, Beatty usually played a self-effacing, behind the scenes role—another mark of a serious person. But amidst these roles, observers detected in Beatty an urge to be a candidate himself.

“He may someday seek office,” reporter Ronald Brownstein wrote of Beatty in his 1990 book The Power and the Glitter, “but it would be a striking deviation from five decades of behavior for Beatty to subject himself to so much public scrutiny in a situation over which he could exert so little control.” What a difference a decade makes; in the Age of Clinton, Beatty’s playboy past would seem to be no handicap; besides, he is a happily married father now.

Compared to Ronald Reagan, not to mention Jesse Ventura, Beatty would seem on paper to be a superior candidate. The expectation is that Beatty would bring to a presidential campaign the same kind of iconoclastic, plain-speaking candor that he brought to his character in Bulworth. Candor is what seems to be in most short supply in American politics. In the case of Reagan and Ventura, it is their candor about what they think that is the source of their greatest appeal to the public.

But candor is precisely what will scuttle a Beatty candidacy. Beatty is a liberal in a post-liberal era, contemplating a run because neither Vice President Al Gore nor Senator Bill Bradley is willing to stand up candidly for the old time religion of Democratic Party liberalism. Beatty is unlikely to trim and prevaricate like most politicians. “Warren’s style,” Gary Hart once said, “has always been to come off the wall with crazy things.” He’d likely blast special interests, call for defense cuts, public financing of elections, higher taxes on business, decriminalization of drugs, more civil rights laws.

What Beatty and voters would learn from such a direct approach is that we only want candor when the candidate agrees with most of us. Ventura’s candor is popular because it accords with the views of a majority of the public that is underserved by most politicians. That’s what the word “populist” means underneath: Tell us what we want to hear. If candidate Beatty runs and offends key voting blocks, it will help the rest of us see why “conventional” politicians campaign the way they do, and it will make the supposedly “lightweight” Reagan look a good deal more canny in retrospect.
Beatty’s candor is comparable to Newt Gingrich, whose relentless candor was a large source of his unpopularity.

Beatty knows this, which is why at the end of the day he probably won’t run. Ten years ago he told Ronald Brownstein that “The movie actor has the freedom to say what he wants to say and he will not lose the ‘election’ if 49 percent of the electorate agrees with him. The politician is held to … a different standard.” In other words, politicians may all be actors, but not all actors are cut out to be politicians.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.