Celebrities add sparkle to race

Politics: Show-biz personalities who talk of runs for president contribute by at least tickling public interest.

October 01, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At a Beverly Hills ceremony this week honoring die-hard liberal Warren Beatty, director Rob Reiner warmed up the crowd by announcing that he would like to be picked as the actor's vice president. Television's Roseanne Barr explained why she would run against the screen star. Actress Goldie Hawn testified to his character. And comedian Gary Shandling called him cute.

Their talk was all a tease, of course.

And, ultimately, so too might be Beatty's quest for the presidency.

But for now, at least, Beatty's White House flirtation is getting semi-serious treatment. National news outlets are asking, "Will he or won't he?"

Beatty advisers are directing reporters to his movie "Bulworth" for a primer on his political beliefs.

Even the candidates are taking notice.

Gore campaign official Marla Romash said yesterday that she would like to meet Beatty, though she sounded more like an overheated fan than a political strategist.

What makes the talk about Beatty more unusual is that it is one of a series of speculative celebrity campaigns emerging this year.

Under the headline "America Needs a President Like Me," business tycoon and gossip-page regular Donald Trump told readers of the Wall Street Journal that he would like to take on, among other things, the "striped-pants set" of Washington.

Shepherd, Winfrey, Ventura

Actress Cybill Shepherd has dispatched her political adviser to talk about the potential candidacy she announced on Oprah Winfrey's show.

(Winfrey is a favorite candidate of some Reform Party members, who also want Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former pro wrestler, to run.)

Celebrity has long mingled with politics; Ronald Reagan is evidence of that. But Reagan had served two terms as California governor, while most of these big-name presidential hopefuls never ran for a thing.

What would bring stars with no political experience to join this race?

Perhaps it is the nation's disillusionment with government, or its fascination with celebrity, or the entertainment value of its politics, or the publicity power of its entertainers. Whatever the reason, the next president could need an agent.

"It's all about show business," said Roger Stone, a political adviser to Trump, explaining why he believes the presidential campaign can benefit from famous faces.

"Politics and entertainment have merged into one -- this is about bringing excitement and charisma to the presidential campaign."

All about image

Some political theoreticians cringe at the idea of celebrities running without a lick of experience and wonder whether they are attention-seekers who like to dress up and play politics. The consequences, the experts warn, could be an election based as much on image as the People's Choice Awards are.

"A celebrity campaign just runs on image," said Warren Mark, who teaches government at Georgetown University. "It risks being detached from the thick process of public judgment. Celebrities have very evocative images, and the normal processes of judging character no longer hold."

Some hardened political veterans sound resigned, even open, to the idea of a superstar candidacy.

"The politicians don't have very much to say anyway," said Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy and a Beatty friend.

"I think political activism is coming from places where people are more naive, and Hollywood is one of them. And that can be a good thing."

Beatty has most support

More than any other celebrity candidate, Beatty has generated mainstream support, after friend and conservative commentator Arianna Huffington floated the idea of his candidacy in a column.

She had become smitten with the actor's views after watching "Bulworth," in which Beatty plays a fictional candidate who speaks his mind and insults the big contributors paying for his campaign.

Beatty's possible candidacy has won the backing of some Washington interest groups and attracted informal political advisers. Deeply critical of the Democrats he labels "Clinton Republicans," Beatty is positioning himself as a renegade voice of liberalism and government reform.

A Beatty run could quickly get into life imitating art imitating Beatty. Asked about the actor's position on health care, Mankiewicz responded, "Did you see `Bulworth?' "

At an awards dinner for the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action on Wednesday night, Beatty had a chance to elaborate on his off-screen views. He touched on government reform, social justice and international trade.

Nothing but coy hint

As for his political plans, he yielded nothing but a coy hint.

"When you start hearing those moneyed, honeyed voices of ridicule and reaction, let them call you coy, let them call you flirtatious," he said, presumably to himself. "But keep talking."

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