The great seducer flirts with voters of America

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The Independent Online
YOU COULD say the presidency is a role Warren Beatty has been rehearsing all his life. In his last movie, Bulworth, he played a jive- talking senator who decides to tell it like it is in a bid for the White House. For years, he has hung about influential political operators and never fails to attend Hollywood fund-raising dinners. He is even married to an actress, Annette Bening, who once played an aspiring first lady in The American President.

In this media-saturated era, in which the crucial art of politics is to look convincing in the part, what is to stop him crossing the line from fiction to reality? Even without a single day's elective experience, he has several key qualifications to his name. He fosters instant name recognition. He is good-looking. He is smart, charismatic and a good talker. True, he has an infamous past as a skirt-chaser, but unlike Bill Clinton, with his taste in big-haired trailer-park mistresses, he can honestly say he has slept with some of the most beautiful women in the world.

So can he be serious? The answer is probably both yes and no.

On the one hand, he has made no secret of his disappointment with the front-running Democratic candidates, Bill Bradley and Vice-President Al Gore. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party could use a high-profile candidate now that Rev Jesse Jackson appears to have given up the presidential game for good. And he certainly knows all the right people - not only congressmen and senators but also seasoned operators such as Bill Carrick, the real-life political consultant who designed the fictional Bulworth's advertising campaign for him, and Bill Wardlaw, the millionaire Los Angeles businessman who is an acknowledged behind-the-scenes kingmaker in Californian politics.

On the other hand, a Beatty bid for the presidency just seems too fantastic. "Oh give me a break," was the first reaction of Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst who knows him well. "This is just another indication of how the line between leadership and celebrity is blurred in this country."

It is not clear at this stage who Mr Beatty's backers would be, or even which party he would stand for. One friend pushing his candidacy told the New York Times yesterday he could run either as a Democrat, or as an independent, or even as the nominee of Ross Perot's Reform Party.

The last actor to bid for the White House, Ronald Reagan, raised similar eyebrows, but he had been groomed for the part for years and served eight years as governor of California. Even Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler who stunned the political world by getting elected governor of Minnesota on a Reform Party ticket last November, had some elective experience as a small-town mayor.

If Mr Beatty isn't serious, then why is he allowing the speculation to spread? One reason could be straight publicity - something that Hollywood figures always crave. One Hollywood acquaintance suggested yesterday that he had been feeling upstaged by his wife recently and wanted to take back some of the limelight.

Another possible reason could be to play a practical joke on the American people to wake them up to their susceptibility to the power of celebrity. During his film career, Mr Beatty has shown himself capable of the most extraordinary Machiavellian machinations: when the legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael rubbished his 1978 comedy Heaven Can Wait, he invited her out to Hollywood as a producer, delighted in watching her flounder and sent her back to her old job five months later thoroughly humiliated.

Washington and Hollywood: A Love story

ON TOP OF spawning a president of its own, Ronald Reagan, and small-time politicians from Clint Eastwood to Sonny Bono, Hollywood has grown ever closer to the political process in recent years.

Politicians are more image-conscious and big entertainment conglomerates have sought political favours in a rapidly changing media environment. Bill Clinton made Hollywood one of the cornerstones of his 1992 campaign and made a virtual clean sweep of industry campaign contributions in 1996. He has returned the favour in numerous ways, for example lavishing millions of dollars in federal aid on the beach resort of Malibu, after the houses of several supporters were destroyed by fires in 1993. With eyes now turned to November 2000, Vice-President Al Gore leads the Hollywood fund-raising race so far but has had to share the spoils with both his Democratic challenger Bill Bradley and the frontrunning Republican, George W. Bush. Several Clinton fans, such as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, have been more reticent about Mr Gore, partly because of his lack of charisma and partly because of his harsh attacks on Hollywood in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting, for which violent films and video games took much of the blame.

Among the celebrities yet to declare allegiance is Warren Beatty, who attended fundraisers for all three candidates. Some industry figures have written cheques to more than one candidate, such as Disney supremo Michael Eisner (Bradley and Bush)and outgoing Warner Bros chairman Terry Semel, who hosted the Bush fundraiser but also contributed to the Bradley campaign.

Andrew Gumbel

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