SEPT. 10, 2001 — IN STYLE AND TONE, the presidency of Warren Beatty during its initial months has been more reminiscent of John F. Kennedy than of Ronald Reagan, the last superstar to occupy the White House.
That’s the consensus among the Washington press corps, which has already applied the “Camelot II” label to the Beatty Administration after barely nine months in office.
Banishing his Hollywood stereotype as the Priapic Prince, President Beatty has been the epitome of the family man in the White House, bouncing his three children on his knee and preaching family values. And not since the days of Jackie Kennedy has a first lady wielded the photogenic clout of Annette Bening.
If Camelot II has sprung any leaks, they stem principally from an intransigent Congress and an occasionally bewildered Cabinet. Despite a narrow Democratic majority, Congress has been resistant to the president’s two key initiatives — campaign finance reform and narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
Frustrated by maneuvers of political opponents, President Beatty decided to draw on his movie experience, submitting a complex proposal to finance his programs from a percentage of the gross receipts of the nation’s 500 largest corporations. The president became a millionaire thanks to his gross participations in his movies, of course.
Despite its popular appeal, the proposal for a corporate surtax drew a sharp rebuke from Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress. “It’s a Hollywood fantasy — a gross giveaway,” charged Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who already has assumed a major voice in her party.
“The Clintons have always been closet Republicans,” replied the president.
ASIDE FROM CONGRESSIONAL opposition, the president has had tough sledding within his own Cabinet, some members charging that his rhetoric is passionate, but vague.”His delivery is great, it’s just that we can’t always follow his logic,” explained secretary of commerce Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Appointees have tried hard to adjust to the president’s style. Though Cabinet meetings are scheduled to start at 9 a.m., for example, members now routinely show up two hours later, when President Beatty usually arrives.
Churlish reporters have pointed out several other ways in which appointees seem to be imitating the president. Administration officials, even down to lowly aides, have recruited their own press attaches and speech writers. Squads of hair and make-up stylists are always in readiness throughout the White House for touchups and afternoon comb-outs. Several opulent Winnebagos have appeared in the parking lot on standby for key officials between public appearances. Consultants on lighting magically materialize at “impromptu” press briefings to advise spokesmen about their best angles.
“The place is getting very Hollywood,” observes Cokie Roberts. “No one in this administration will even tell you the time without consulting their writers for a sound bite.”
PRESIDENT BEATTY HAS REINFORCED this impression through his new policy of appointing a “director” to help administer major government programs. “Most government initiatives lose their energy and sense of direction,” he points out. “That’s what directors are for.”
Appointment of the new “bureaucratic auteurs,” as the press has labeled them, triggered several public quarrels. The secretary of the Interior, for example, has charged that Jim Cameron, the new “director” in charge of renovating the national parks, has replicated his performance on “Titanic” by soaring well over budget.
Despite these setbacks, the Beatty administration has sustained superb approval ratings with the public. These stem from the president’s charm as well as the first lady’s refreshingly combative behavior with the press.
For example, when the press played up the fact that, at a recent White House ball, Annette Bening spent hours dancing with Michael Douglas, the ambassador to Spain, she was brutally candid the following day. “I grew accustomed to dancing with Michael when we filmed ‘An American President,’ ” she said. “He’s a better dancer than Warren. I also am beginning to think that his administration was better scripted than Warren’s. I’ve told Warren several times, we need a new rewrite crew. Also some reshoots. I hope he’ll start listening to me.”