"Going Bulworth ": The First Time, and Now

"We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium."

- Senator Bulworth re-election TV ad

"If I'm not dead by Monday morning, I'm gonna stop payment on that check."

- Senator Jay Bulworth (portrayed by Warren Beatty)

"You got to be a spirit, not a ghost!"

- Rastaman (portrayed by Amiri Baraka as a homeless griot, or storyteller in the West African tradition)

Watching President Barack Obama in recent days, has anyone looked more like they want to go somewhere, anywhere? So why not "go Bulworth?"

Not a place, a state of mind, Obama's alternate state of mind, as it happens, revealed in last week's New York Times, which reports on Obama talking longingly of "going Bulworth" by freeing himself from the strictures of politics to say what he really thinks as the title character in Warren Beatty's 1998 film did.

Since then, Obama has only become more hemmed in by events, especially his triplets of crisis in the form of the Benghazi, IRS targeting, and AP phone records controversies.

Ironically, Obama's triplets of crisis can be characterized as mostly caused by focusing on the dictates of electioneering more than governing. And it's the dictates of electioneering -- which is to say, focusing on what seems convenient and less likely to rock the boat -- that Obama would want to free himself of by "going Bulworth" in the first place.

The coruscating candor of Bulworth is a favorite of the careful President Barack Obama.

Without recapping or reviewing the film, Bulworth simply implodes the conventions of conventional politics. (Inevitably, there are some spoilers ahead for those who have not seen the film.)

I got to know Beatty through the presidential campaigns of Gary Hart and the various campaigns of the Brown family, notably Jerry and Kathleen. Beatty's politics are sometimes to my left, except when they are to my right, but this is not that sort of story. (I say more about Beatty in noted film historian and critic Peter Biskind's interesting but flawed biography.)

By the mid-1990s, Beatty, a veteran of many campaigns from the 1960s on, was ready to make a statement film about the devolution of politics. Fox was obligated to make the film as part of the complex aftermath of Beatty's deal to make Dick Tracy. The alternative to making the film was simply to pay Beatty a great deal of money.

What became Bulworth was shrouded in secrecy after being originally cast in the press as a romance involving a depressed California senator whose spirits are revived by a younger woman.

Which it sort of is. If you squint your eyes in just a certain way, that is.

Beatty took great care in naming his character. Say "Bulworth" fast and loud. And his first and middle names, Jay Billington, conjure up the scent of money in an almost Gatsby-esque way, Beatty being something of an American classicist.

Indeed, Bulworth, the one-time liberal idealist, is obsessed with and dominated by money. Early scenes of the film depict rather crass fundraising and social plans ... "Yes, the senator would love to have drinks with the sultan in Beverly Hills." As the camera moves in and out of the senator's office, the viewer is constantly overhearing conversations about money.

Bulworth has thoroughly compromised himself to gain and maintain power, mouthing rhetoric and adopting stances he doesn't believe for a second, presenting himself as an exemplar of "family values" when he is anything but.

Indeed, the film opens with Bulworth in his Senate office, mementos of a more engaged past surrounding him, as he watches himself dutifully reciting hollow middle-of-the-road jabber in cynical TV ads. "We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium," the senator keeps intoning. (Then President Bill Clinton had promised repeatedly in his re-election campaign to "build a bridge to the 21st century.")

Bulworth, as we come to see, is suicidally depressed. He makes a corrupt deal to take care of his daughter's financial future and another to end his life in the manner of some of those whose pictures grace his office walls. Little does he know the irony to come on the latter score.

The film, which delights in exploding various shibboleths (albeit usually from the left) takes on race in America, media concentration and the nature of the news media, drugs, the health care industry, energy, and campaign finance among a host of issues.

It also has a classic scene in which Bulworth presumes to begin to wistfully lecture Halle Berry's character (who turns out to be the daughter of a Black Panther) about the relative demise of African American leadership only to have her turn around and explain to him that the decline of the post-World War II manufacturing base undermined the hopeful and energized population required to generate new leadership.

A point which I suspect did not go unnoticed by the younger Barack Obama -- then only a decade removed from his stint as a community organizer -- when he watched Bulworth 15 years ago.

After a nervous breakdown, or perhaps in the midst of his breakdown, depending upon your point of view, Bulworth emerges as a coruscating truth-teller, frequently in rapper mode. I wasn't a tremendous fan of rap music at the time, and Beatty's own rapping didn't necessarily improve things, but it made a crazy sort of sense for the movie.

Helping carry the film is an ace cast including co-star Halle Berry in one of her earlier roles and the great Don Cheadle as an insightful South LA "entrepreneur" as well as Oliver Platt playing Bulworth's very put-upon chief of staff, future West Wing star Josh Malina as another aide, Christine Baranski as the senator's time-challenged brittle spouse, poet Amiri Baraka as a telling Greek chorus figure (actually a griot in the West African tradition), Paul Sorvino as a helpful yet menacing insurance industry lobbyist, and, in one of his last roles, the great Jack Warden (Oscar-nominated for Beatty's earlier satire Shampoo as well as Heaven Can Wait) returning for a final Beatty picture as a key crony.

Like Shampoo, a film which sends up the late '60s, a description which does not begin to do it justice -- here's my essay on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Shampoo -- Bulworth has a lot on its mind. It doesn't always work. Its tonal shifts can be abrupt. You might disagree with its politics. But its fundamental point, about cutting through the culture of crap, remains, let us say, unfortunately timely.

Fox monarch Rupert Murdoch, who benefited tremendously from the very relaxation of laws against media concentration that was excoriated in Bulworth, was not an absolute fan of the film. It wasn't clear to me how much Fox executives knew about the film at any given time. Notoriously secretive Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has nothing on Beatty when it comes to compartmentalization.

Let's say that Fox did not give Bulworth a super-massive push. As the film was moving into release, I remember discussing TV ads with Beatty that might have boosted the film but which never ran.

Still, Bulworth was released by Fox and made an impact and garnered a lot of awards attention, including yet another Academy Award nomination for Beatty, who is near the top of the list when it comes to career Oscar nominations.

And there things sat, until a name you know got involved.

That would be Arianna Huffington, in her days as a mere albeit celebrity columnist, the days before becoming a global media mogul. I'd gotten to know her in 1994 when Jerry Brown's presidential campaign manager, Jodie Evans, introduced us, somewhat to my mystification.

Arianna, by then in a leftward transition, came up with the idea of getting Warren to run for the Democratic presidential nomination on the Bulworth platform. Being very energetic, she launched the idea in her column and put together a small group including then Nation writer/now USC professor Marc Cooper and ex-Democratic uber-strategist Pat Caddell, a very old Beatty friend from the George McGovern campaign, to help make it a reality.

Beatty played along. To a point. All this is of course its own story in itself, perhaps something for another time.

Suffice it to say that Warren Beatty for President was essentially an exploratory campaign for and mostly by columnists. Which gained some considerable traction.

After about 90 days of daily discussions, Beatty, having made some tentative moves -- including a very high-profile speech which garnered an enormous amount of media coverage -- was moved to pull back. As he is a very private, even rather shy, person for such a public figure, it was what I expected.

In the course of it, however, it became clear to all that, contrary to what many film-goers may have thought, Bulworth lives. In fact, a sequel, perhaps literary, was an option.

Enter Barack Obama, who seems to have his very own ideas about a Bulworth sequel, something with its own inherent irony. For Beatty, who became a friend of Bill Clinton, while certainly not an opponent does not appear to be as enthusiastic about Obama as many others in Hollywood have been.

Which makes Obama's attachment to Bulworth all the more striking.

Obama may not have known exactly what he was getting into when he first began his presidential quest. Going from state legislator to president in basically four years is a huge leap.

But he's a very smart guy and he certainly knows an enormous amount now.

Imagine what he could say if he decided on a course of candor, if he really did decide to "go Bulworth."

He's done a fabulous job of getting elected and re-elected. At the center of that may be his greatest achievement as president, i.e., crystallizing (and embodying) a new sense of American identity, different and more varied than before but consonant with many of the country's enduring values, not the least of which is its ongoing orientation toward the future.

In fact, Obama looks not unlike a future product of the program of "procreative racial deconstruction" advocated by the Bulworth character in the film.

My sense is that Obama, whom I've been supportive of since 2007, is something of a figure from the future, perhaps that Star Trek future that we've long known he relates to as the nation's first avowed Trekker president. America's first president of color arrived far sooner than I had expected, perhaps way too soon for a big chunk of the population.

Which is certainly part of the more than multi-faceted problem he's encountered.

Where will Obama be if his administration's conventional methods are not up to the task of cutting through controversies that are engendered, at least in part, by reliance on conventional methods? That's when things could get very interesting.

As the Rastaman put it at the end of Bulworth: "You got to be a spirit! You can't be no ghost."

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