“I see nothing wrong with Maria [Shriver] becoming a Republican. I’d say many of my best friends are Republicans,” says Warren Beatty, Oscar-winning actor-director and liberal citizen-activist. Over the phone, his legendary voice purrs. He knows exactly what he’s saying, and although his tone is wry, he’s not really joking.
Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poll numbers have been dropping thanks to advertising campaigns by teachers and nurses, Hollywood, usually a hotbed of liberal activism, has so far remained mum about this former denizen.
In the last few months, Beatty, the star of and force behind such seminal films as “Shampoo” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” has become the first big name to break the entertainment community’s unofficial speak-no-evil toward Schwarzenegger and his wife, Shriver.
Over the weekend, Beatty, 68, gave his first commencement speech ever to the graduating class of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and used the occasion to humorously but witheringly attack Schwarzenegger -- much like the candid candidate Jay Billington Bulworth from his 1998 political satire. He derided the governor for “his reactionary right-wing agenda,” “his bullying of labor and the little guy,” his plan to spend money on a “totally unnecessary special election” and his refusal to raise taxes on the rich. Beatty asked Schwarzenegger to “cut down the photo ops, the fake events, the fake issues, the fake crowds ... the scapegoats, the ‘language problems,’ the broken promises, the ‘Minutemen,’ the prevarications and put some sunlight on some taxes.
“It’s become time to define a Schwarzenegger Republican -- a Schwarzenegger Republican is a Bush Republican who says he’s a Schwarzenegger Republican,” Beatty said. “Can’t we accept that devotion to the building of the body politic is more complex and a little more sensitive than devotion to body-building?
“Does that make me a ‘girlie-man’?” asked one of the 20th century’s most famous Lotharios.
Beatty, a political veteran who’s worked for every Democratic presidential candidate since Robert Kennedy in 1968, dismissed Schwarzenegger’s claims of uniting both sides of the political aisle. “By bipartisanship, do you mean the Kennedy family?” he said to the Berkeley crowd. “Governor -- I knew Jack Kennedy.
“Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Governor, you’re no Kennedy Democrat.”
Within hours, Beatty, a blue-chip Hollywood figure famous for 46 years, was swatted down by the Schwarzenegger team. The governor’s communication director, Robert Stutzman, dismissed him as a “crackpot.”
“I don’t think that that’s the most intelligent response for Arnold to have his people give,” Beatty muses a couple of days later, though he seems jazzed by his return to the public policy limelight. “I guess I needed to say some of those things.”
A spokesman for Shriver declined to comment about Beatty’s recent remarks, and Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said, “His comments don’t merit any more of a response than we provided before. We didn’t believe that they’re personal in nature.” He added a refrain that the governor’s office has tried to inject into the debate: “Warren’s just mad at Republicans because he’s afraid they’re going to cut off his Social Security.”
Beatty advised the Kerry campaign during the last election, but stayed in the background because, he says, “I felt that the Republican campaign was too successfully demonizing the entertainment community. To be more publicly visible in that campaign could do as much harm as it would help.” Of course, the stakes change when it’s all-Hollywood mano a mano.
“In California, it’s much more difficult to demonize the entertainment community when the governor is an entertainer. If I’m leading the way on that, that’s good,” Beatty says. Indeed, this is the second anti-Schwarzenegger speech that Beatty has delivered in the last few months, and he’s not ruling out more.
In Hollywood, Beatty’s “the only one out there,” says Andrew Spahn, a DreamWorks executive active in Democratic politics. “He’s been out front on this and helped to give voice to some disorganized feeling.”
Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, notes, “Schwarzenegger has such a long personal history with so many players here. On balance, they’d rather be quiet than express publicly their views that they disagree with him. He’s a very congenial companion so it’s tougher to criticize someone that you have a relationship with than a politician you might not know. It’s axiomatic that Hollywood is a relationship town.”
However, he adds: “What [Beatty’s] saying is something that people have been saying in private. He has nothing to lose. In same ways, he has at least the same kind of standing in this creative community that the governor does.”
Before Schwarzenegger’s political ascension, he was regarded as a waning action star, long on chutzpah and marketing might. Beatty’s recent films might not have attracted the legions of teenage boys, but inside the community, he is still viewed as a brilliant A-list talent, part of the permanent aristocracy. Of course, power does change everything. At the Golden Globes this year, Schwarzenegger was the only person whose arrival in a room full of celebrities caused rubbernecking.
Still, as it’s been for decades, whenever Beatty talks, the media wonder if he’s planning to run for public office. During his speech, Beatty said that Schwarzenegger “knows I’m a private citizen just as he was a year ago, I’m an opponent of his muscle-bound conservatism with a longer experience in politics than he has and, although I don’t want to run for governor, I’d do one helluva lot better job than he’s done.” A couple of days later, Beatty demurs and seems keen on simply being a “truth teller,” although he does say, “One never knows at what point one becomes sufficiently inflamed to take a step that one does not basically want to take.”
One unusual feature of Beatty’s address was his reference to his own relatively modest background. “I grew up a nice Southern Baptist boy in Virginia. My parents and grandparents were teachers,” he told the graduating class. It seemed a pointed reference to Schwarzenegger’s frequent use of his rags-to-riches story as part of his campaign sell. Beatty explains that he was trying to make the point that “the usurpation by the rabid right wing of the message of the church on a national or state level shouldn’t be permitted. As a Democrat, I feel that the basic tenets of the Christian church that I grew up in are ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘Love one another.’ I simply believe that the philosophy of the Democratic Party is closer to those Christian principles than what has become the principles of what I would call the Republican activist base.”