|LIGHTS, CAMERA, POLITICS?|
September 29, 1999
Washington and Hollywood have been buzzing with rumors of a Warren Beatty presidential candidacy. After a background report, movie producer Gerald Rafshoon and The NewsHour's regular historians discuss the rise of celebrity candidates.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on celebrities and politics we turn to three NewsHour regulars: Presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them is motion picture producer Gerald Rafshoon, the former media adviser and White House communications director for President Jimmy Carter. He's currently working on a movie about politics and Hollywood.
|Washington meets Hollywood|
MARGARET WARNER: Gerry Rafshoon, you're out there. Is the hype over this Beatty boomlet really as big as it appears back here?
GERALD RAFSHOON: Oh, I think it is. I had a very surreal moment last night when I went to a Beverly Hills/West Hollywood restaurant and at the next table we had George Stephanopoulos from ABC and Dee Dee Myer from Vanity Fair and Todd Purdum from the New York Times and Richard Burke from the New York Times and Dan Balz of the Washington Post, and, you know, if it wasn't for the good food I would have thought I was in Iowa and New Hampshire at the presidential campaign. They're all out here, and they're all going to be here tonight to see what happens when Warren makes his speech.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, Doris, this isn't really new, is it, celebrities drawn to politics and vice versa?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it's certainly true that in the past people who were famous were drawn to politics, but I think it was different. It was their renown for great achievements like generals or like Glenn for his space achievement. Now I think the definition of celebrity is sort of being well known for being well known or somehow being talked about a lot. And the reason those people I think enter politics today or are allowed to enter politics is we've gone from a professional system where the bosses would choose the nominees, and they mostly want one of their own, unless they had one of these famous generals hanging around. Whereas, now it's the people, it's the primaries, and television has a huge impact, so somebody who's good on television, who talks well, who walks well, who's marketable, who has fund-raising capacities in this world of conversation we've entered to, that celebrity, has the platform. And I think they've got an advantage today they didn't have in the past.
MARGARET WARNER: Is the advantage greater today, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, sure. Of course. I mean, I just love this boomlet you talked about for Beatty. I'm so excited by this, and Gerry describing that -- what a great country, what a great age, the media age. There it is -- it's all that red light -- go for the camera -- of course.
MARGARET WARNER: And, we in the press go for it, go for the glitz --
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh - the moth and the flame -- hover around --
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Historians too.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, yes. Name recognition, the face recognition, fame and money.
MARGARET WARNER: Gerry.
GERALD RAFSHOON: This is most exciting part of this campaign so far -- people are listening -- people are paying attention. I don't know what Warren Beatty is going to do, but he certainly is speaking seriously about some issues that are close to him.
|A reflection of post-Cold War America|
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, how much is this too -- a reflection that the end of the Cold War - we may be looking for something different in politics --
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We've got a much lower threshold for who can be considered plausibly as the president. Think about Ross Perot in 1992. For a period from about March of 1992 into the summer, if there had been a national election between Perot and George Bush, the elder, and Bill Clinton, Perot would have been elected president. That probably wouldn't have happened during the Cold War, because people would have said that someone with the idiosyncrasies of a Perot and the lack of foreign policy experience would be dangerous in a time in which you've got great issues of war and peace.
But the other thing is that in a way we've sort of booby trapped ourselves. At the beginning of the 1970's, we as a country established a nominating process where money is so important, name identification, plus, we front-loaded these primaries that not only have you allowed a celebrity to sort of zoom in, get a lot of support, and possibly of walk away with the nomination, but in a way you've almost made that very likely.
MARGARET WARNER: So it says more, Haynes, about our culture --
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: -- as well as our politics - says a lot about our culture - as well as our politics.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. It's a cultural phenomenon. I mean, the idea that an actor would be president was not seriously taken until Ronald Reagan made the gap -- and it really -- if you think about that, actors have wonderful careers and talent and so forth and they have all these abilities -- but they're not seen as serious philosopher kings of the country -- and Reagan changed that in a way -- John Kennedy changed, when he came into the television age, the celebrity -- it is about the culture, and also our short attention span.
MARGARET WARNER: Gerry Rafshoon, you're an image maker, both politically and in movies. Is there a big hurdle that a celebrity has to get over? How hard is it to get over that hurdle, to be taken plausibly as a candidate?
GERALD RAFSHOON: Well, we've always in campaigns said the first big hurdle is getting -- to the -- going over the plausibility threshold. And in the case of somebody like Warren Beatty, who has been involved for 30 years in politics, has worked in campaigns, I'm not sure that his plausibility threshold is any harder to hurdle than, say, Pat Buchanan's, who is really known -- his fame has come not from having worked in the White House -- but having been on "Crossfire" and other television appearances. Why would anybody not take Warren Beatty seriously, who is also a businessman, producing $50 million pictures on budget and on schedule, and Steve Forbes, you know, who is a businessman who inherited a business from his father? I think the end of the Cold War makes it easier for Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, who was a White House staffer, and has an ideological constituency, so I don't think that, you know, we can discount and say that Warren Beatty is any less plausible than those people.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Doris, historically, who -- which kind of candidate -- obviously Ronald Reagan made the leap from actor to a plausible governor's candidate. What does it take?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think it takes once they get out there and they present themselves an ability to talk with a depth of conviction, to convince people that you are prepared. I mean, what the celebrity provides, it's almost like it's a platform or a threshold that gets you in there, but your real legitimacy will depend on how you conduct yourself. And I think what was said is right. I mean, Beatty's had a lifelong commitment to politics. It's not like he's suddenly floating in after "Bulworth" -- and saying, oh, this was sort of fun, I think I'll run for president. But you'll see, if he does do it, how he conducts himself, and that will determine his legitimacy. In the recent past it was mostly people starting out at the governor's level or the senator level, and I think that gave Reagan a legitimacy when he ran for president; he wasn't just Actor Reagan; he was Governor Reagan. Glenn was Senator Glenn running, not just Astronaut Glenn. Nowadays, it seems everything's speeded up in this process, so they don't even bother going to that lower level -- just run for President.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Michael, what do you think makes politicos and the press as fascinated though by celebrity candidates? I mean, there's no dearth of candidates out there, and yet, as Gerry Rafshoon just pointed out, you know, it was front page in the New York Times today about Warren Beatty and he hasn't said a word publicly.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. I think part of it, Margaret, is that I think even Warren Beatty doesn't expect to become president if he runs. And if you look at "Bulworth" and some of the other roles he's played, what he admires is a candidate who can actually have the freedom to speak the truth, and when you can run with a national platform without expecting to have to have to do the kind of things that it sometimes takes to become president, that's something that's very liberating, and I think that's one reason why we're excited about that this year, because this has not so far been a tremendously spontaneous campaign. Sorry to bring a news item to you.
|Frustration with the two-party system|
MARGARET WARNER: So, Haynes, that does raise the question, why are the celebrities fascinated by this?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, they want the camera, they want the attention of the country, and they may have something to say very important to the country. I mean, I take it quite seriously; there's no reason why an actor can't also be a fine politician anymore than a journalist might be a president. You know, there's a possibility there too. But I'm serious -- this is a time when we're anti-politics, and I think it's very important; the people are disappointed in the political leaders that have come out of the two-party system traditionally, and that's why they're going to a Jesse Ventura, we can laugh about the wrestler -- and the body blocks and so forth -- and so on - and the boa coming around his neck that we saw on that screen -- but this says something about the country. They are looking for something that they think is authentic and that speaks to a different kind of political value.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Especially the corruption of the system by money, which is what I believe Beatty will be talking about. Nobody inside can really speak to that with deep conviction because they're stuck; they're caught in the web, and he cares so deeply about it, if he can make that part of the agenda, whatever happens to him, he will have succeeded.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead. Sorry, I wanted to ask you something. Now, you know a lot of these people. I mean, why do you think -- if we sit in Washington and we look at people in Hollywood and you think they have celebrity already, they have money, they have fame. Why are they interested in politics?
GERALD RAFSHOON: Well, isn't it interesting that only two people who are being thought about as possible presidential candidates are talking about, seriously talking, about campaign finance reform? One is John McCain, who spent most of his life in the military, and, you know, was a prisoner of war, had other life experiences, besides being a politician, and Warren Beatty, and we all know and we talk about it, and we say there's not enough consensus for campaign finance reform. Look how important that is and these are the only two guys in the arena who are talking about that. So you know, they have interests, just like businessmen and other people, and they're articulating them, and they have a right to do that, and we ought to listen.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Michael, do you think we're going to see more of this?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we're going to see more, and I hope that the people who are celebrities who do this are of the caliber of Warren Beatty. One thing we have to remember -- 1972, he was involved in the George McGovern campaign - the Hollywood figure who probably had been of greater stature in a presidential campaign than any earlier.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, Michael. Thank you all four very much.