The 2000 presidential election promises to be the biggest fiasco since 1920, when monied interests foisted Warren G. Harding off upon a distracted public. It seems unlikely that the campaign will rise above the level of Jay Leno jokes about George W. Bush’s 40-year-long misspent youth and Al Gore’s charisma deficit. Meanwhile the party of money (American money, Chinese money, tobacco money...who cares?) will laugh all the way to the Swiss bank.
In 1972, Nixon campaign representatives received suitcases of corporate cash under cover of darkness. And when the dust settled two years later, people went to jail as a result. Nobody will go to jail in the 2000 election. These days the six-figure corporate gifts are "soft money," delivered in broad daylight, by certified check. The two leading Republican candidates, Bush and Forbes, have decided to play outside of the Watergate-era campaign finance system. Gore has raised more money, from God knows where, than any Democrat in history. And all that cash will fuel a Coke vs. Pepsi TV-ad war in which sticky questions about real wages, trade deficits, or global warming will never arise.
All of this is why, in the broiling, brain-damaging heat of August, the idea of actor-filmmaker Warren Beatty running for president could seem like a good idea. The Beatty boomlet began as a rumor and inflated after an interview in The New York Times, in which the actor cleverly failed to rule anything out. In fact, he sounded like a rich, angry, old lefty with nothing to lose, on the brink of a wild fling. He talked about the crime of campaign financing and pointedly noted that he was no political novice, having been active in electoral politics, on behalf of other people, for more than 35 years. By the time you read this we’ll probably know what he decided.
The media mostly covered Beatty’s musings as an entertainment story. A Reuters report even combined the Beatty story with another one in which talk show sleazemaster Jerry Springer decided not to run for the Senate. That’s underestimating Warren Beatty, but that’s mostly Beatty’s own fault. He trivialized himself through more than 30 years of widely publicized sexual adventures. Beatty’s misspent youth outlasted even George W.’s and everybody knows it. But Beatty is also a victim of the media’s inability to tell the difference between an artist and a mere celebrity.
UNLIKE Ronald Reagan or Sonny Bono, to pick a couple of random examples, Beatty’s cultural accomplishments are serious and significant. From Bonnie and Clyde to Bulworth, he’s made important films that wrestle with the big American questions about money and power and class and race. Shampoo delivered both an elegy and an exposT about the failure of counterculture dreams. And Reds put the whole conflicted epic of the American Left up on the big screen.
Reporters seem to forget that Beatty is not just a pretty face. Aside from dabbling in politics, he’s been as much a producer and director as an actor. And his Hollywood career has been as much about accumulating and deploying power as about striking poses. The process of getting a three-hour bio-pic about a Communist writer (Reds) financed, filmed, and marketed in the corporate jungle of Hollywood was probably good practice for trying to steer a public campaign financing bill through the best Congress money can buy. Beatty’s election is unlikely for at least a dozen obvious reasons, but if it did happen, Beatty could do the job of an American president. His film work shows that he has a vision for this country, an ability to collaborate, connive, and weasel, and he looks good on camera.
The mainstream media are also underestimating the potential for a political revolt in turn-of-the-century America. At the end of the last century, America was coming unhinged. A cast of mediocrities rotated in and out of the White House. Two of them were assassinated in as many decades. The Hearst newspaper chain cooked up a war in Cuba. Financial markets gyrated wildly. The whole public sphere was dominated by unchecked and rampaging concentrations of private wealth. It was a wild ride.
But looking back from this perch, the scandal-ridden politics and cultural upheaval of the last Gay ‘90s seem downright deliberative and sedate. We’re coming unhinged again, and this time we’re all armed, and it’s all on live TV. In this context, anything could happen.
Of course, the menu of political choices was wider 100 years ago. The party of money had not yet finished pushing America’s democratic vision to the margins. In those days blessed Eugene Debs, union leader and founder of the American Socialist Party, strode the land. And he was a serious choice on the presidential ballot. Those days are long gone. Warren Beatty would be the first to tell you that he’s no Eugene Debs. Neither is Paul Wellstone or Jesse Jackson or Ralph Nader, or even John Sweeney. But it’s time for some radical democrat or another to throw a brick through the TV-screen glass of American politics, before Pat Buchanan does it for us.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.