Insular star still has issues he'd like to discuss

Warren Beatty has been known to kick off a speech now and then with a dose of wisdom he gleaned from a friend’s father:

“The greatest gift God can give a man is to enjoy the sound of his own voice,” he’ll tell audiences. “And the second greatest gift is to get somebody else to listen to it.”

It’s a line that earns laughs — and in a way it’s a wry acknowledgment of the sometimes powerful, sometimes tenuous mixture of celebrity and politics.

Few other Hollywood figures have been so associated with matters of public policy, and few can be credited with coaxing the creative community to new levels of engagement with the process.

Beatty’s activism differs from those attracting headlines in today’s entertainment zeitgeist: He isn’t identified with one particular cause, like the genocide in Darfur or the rebuilding of New Orleans. He’s not a campaign bundler, calling on friends and contacts to back a particular candidate. Nor is he among the many Hollywood figures who have, with much fanfare, announced their endorsement of a candidate, presidential or otherwise.

Instead, like much of his work on the screen, his political life is a bit more nuanced.

Rising above the pejorative

“The influence of the artistic community is important,” Beatty tells Variety. “When you’re in that community and people expect to hear your political view, you have to treat the process with respect, because I think a lot of the public can, quite understandably, resent attention being drawn to political matters by what is invariably called a ‘celebrity.'”

He adds later: “If someone expresses their feelings in an intelligent way that’s a good thing. For a number of years, I have felt I should do it on an issues basis rather than an ad hominem basis. My own particular political activism has been related to that: ballot propositions or the need for universal health care or, most specifically, the matter of public financing of elections.”

His engagement dates back to the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who, Beatty has said, influenced him to become active in politics and to never “minimize the political value of the access that the artist or entertainer has.” (In a speech, Beatty once noted that he turned down Kennedy’s request that he play him in “PT 109,” informing the president that the script didn’t hold up. Kennedy later told him, “Boy! Were you right about that movie!”)

Beatty’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, he has said, infused his politics with “new energy” and led to his campaigning with Robert Kennedy in 1968. In the tumult of that year, he got to know South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, a staunch antiwar liberal who would wage a spirited and ultimately successful campaign for the Democratic nomination four years later, against much of what had been the party establishment.

Unlike previous Hollywood figures, however, Beatty took a much more hands-on role in the campaign, becoming an adviser and strategist on such things as public relations and the media. Among other things, he organized a series of rock concerts that, in turn, brought a raft of musicians and other actors into the process.

When Colorado Sen. Gary Hart ran for president in 1984, Beatty, as recounted in Ron Brownstein’s book “The Power and the Glitter,” played the role of “counselor and confidant to the candidate.” That continued into 1987, during Hart’s second aborted run for the White House.

“His strength was helping politicians understand the need to dramatize and simplify what you are trying to say,” Hart recalls. “I found his suggestions very helpful, particualrly as they related to communications on television.”

Progressive liberalism

During the 1990s, Beatty was particularly outspoken on campaign finance reform, health care and poverty, and critical of some Democratic party leaders for all but ignoring them. In the fall of 1999, there even was speculation that he would run for president, perhaps as an independent, but he instead used the attention to call for Democratic contenders Al Gore and Bill Bradley to take bolder positions on these issues.

“Although the present Democratic administration deserves sympathy for having to cope with heartless Republican Congresses,” he told students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that November, “when we hear the litany of the past seven years of centrism and triangulation cosmeticized and spun back to the public as ‘progressive,’ once again it’s time to dissent.”

But even as the public accepted the idea of actors springboarding into political careers, Beatty never ran for office, which might have something to do with the acute scrutiny he’d be subjected to, as well as the kind of candor that is sacrificed in the process. In a way, his Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth (“Bulworth,” 1998) fulfills the fantasy, perhaps Beatty’s own, of the liberal politician who says exactly what’s on his mind without regard to the consequences.

“I think politicians must now follow public opinion more than before, because it’s a given to them,” he says. “In the old days, you didn’t know what public opinion was between Thursday and Friday. Now you know between Thursday morning and Thursday afternoon. It doesn’t utilize the deeper intelligence that these generous people have who are willing to serve. It’s insulting to them. And I’ve never been generous enough to submit myself to that process.”

Ironically, one of Beatty’s greatest triumphs in the political sphere came in opposition to an actor who did make the jump: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Beatty in 2005 was a chief opponent of Schwarzenegger’s plans to remake the state power structure through a series of ballot initiatives. Beatty and wife Annette Bening campaigned throughout the state to defeat the four measures, accusing the governor of “union busting” and “getting tough with schoolteachers” while exercising “dictatorial power on the budget.”

“A Schwarzenegger Republican is a Bush Republican who says he is a Schwarzenegger Republican,” Beatty told the California Nurses Assn. that year.

All four initiatives failed, delivering Schwarzenegger a stinging rebuke. He soon tacked to the political center, perhaps saving his re-election hopes in 2006. And, after adopting centrist positions on the environment and health care, Beatty made note of it.

“I asked Arnold to become a Democrat, and he did what I said,” Beatty quipped at the 2007 Golden Globe Awards. Beatty likes Schwarzenegger personally, and recently said, “I’d just like to help him as much as I can.”

Beatty’s effort in 2005 underscored his unique approach to legislative matters, and it continues to set him apart from the Hollywood herd.

“I’m not negative about going to Africa and bringing attention to problems there,” he says, “but since I do have access to power here, I’m more interested in what can be done at the root of the problem, (which is) our own apathy.

“… I think the most effective way of using your energy is to use your own persuasive capacity,” he adds.

He continues to press for finance reform, and says that the rise of the Internet as a tool for raising massive amounts of smaller contributions is a “good positive development,” albeit not the same as public financing.

More recently, Beatty has been conspicuously absent from a historic presidential race in which many celebrities and the industry’s power elite have played very public roles stumping for contenders and lavishing donations on their campaigns.

He is friendly, he says, with Barack Obama and John McCain as well as Hillary Clinton. “I have respect for all three,” he says, “and I’m probably a little further to the left than any of them would be willing to say.

“Through the years, I have been fairly consistent in what I feel about where things need to go. These people have been making their cases, and I don’t think endorsements by famous people mean an awful lot. If a famous person can bring something to the clarification of an issue, (then) that can be valuable — if they do it clearly. That’s pretty much how I spend my political capital:
saying what I feel on a particular issue, if asked.”

As the winds of war escalated in 2002, Beatty was not shy about his opposition, even as some entertainers took heat for opposing the president when post-9/11 patriotism was at a fever pitch. Before delivering a speech at a dinner for Jesse Jackson in October 2002, he met with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who asserted before the invasion that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

“The Democrats did not stand up and block it,” he says of the resolution to authorize the war, “and certainly the Republicans didn’t. There were a number of Democrats who voted against it; Kennedy was one of them. But there were also Republicans, of whom McCain was one, who said, ‘You can’t go in there with 250,000 troops, you’ve got to go in there with 500,000 troops.’ So did (retired four-star Gen. Norman) Schwarzkopf. So did (Army chief of staff Eric) Shinseki. So did (retired four-star Gen. Anthony) Zinni, all these people.”

In the run-up to the current war in Iraq, which he calls “the biggest foreign policy mistake this country has ever made,” Beatty did not take to the streets in protest as some actors did. He talked to those he knew in Congress and, when he felt the time was right, spoke out publicly.

“I try to address myself to issues, and take things a day at a time and see where people go,” he says. “I have never varied from the fact that I’m a liberal Democrat. You know, there is an old adage in politics that sometimes a liberal can get a conservative’s job done better than a conservative and vice versa.

“… I don’t think the country has to be quite as divided on a number of things as it is. I also think that you have to go day by day and see just where you can make a contribution that would be helpful, and do it at a helpful time.”

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