Is He Auditioning for Office?

Times Staff Writers

Warren Beatty has been a movie star most of his life. And he’s dabbled (he’ll hate that word) in liberal politics for four decades. He even managed to merge his two personas in “Bulworth,” the darkly comic movie tale of a senator gone wildly unpolitic.

Now, at 68, Beatty has bulldozed from stage left into Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political traveling show, literally and figuratively. With his movie-star wife, Annette Bening, at his side, he was turned away from a Schwarzenegger rally in San Diego on Saturday, and landed on the front page he has openly coveted.

As Beatty trampled the governor’s special-election campaign trail, talk has turned to whether he’s paving his own path to next year’s gubernatorial race.


“I have to give you a stock answer,” Beatty said Wednesday. “I don’t want to run for governor, but I would have no inhibition at all.

“Let me put it another way: I feel I would have a perfect right to change my mind. Everyone does have that right.”

Beatty has never run for anything, but he’s basked in the spotlight of speculation before. Every few election cycles, he falls into his “I’m not saying I’m running, but I’m not saying I’m not running” persona.

In 2000, he stirred up a brief flurry of publicity that he might be interested in running for president.

But people familiar with Beatty or with the rough world of politics, or both, say there’s no reason to believe this time will be any different.

Frank Mankiewicz, veteran advisor to numerous Democratic candidates, who has known Beatty for 30 years, put it another way: “No. I can’t believe he would run. But he does want to figure. He thinks he can be valuable.”

Longtime Hollywood political activist Marge Tabankin agreed: “He’s got a film career and a house full of kids, and while I would never say, ‘never,’ I would say that it’s the debate that excites him at this point.” (Beatty’s four children are ages 5 to 13.)

“I don’t think he will run,” said Rob Reiner, the director who spoke out frequently against Proposition 75, which would have limited public employee unions’ ability to raise money for political campaigns, and has expressed interest in running for statewide office. “He likes expressing his opinions -- the ability to get his ideas out there. But he doesn’t want a day-to-day job working on policy. It’s very difficult work, and it’s tough on a family. This is a 24-7 job. With California, it’s like running a country.”

Ben Austin, a political consultant who advises Reiner, said he believes Beatty is “at a crossroads.” The actor-director has added to the debate, Austin noted. “But at the end of the day, the question is: ‘What do you want to get done and how are you going to get it done?’ There comes a point when you have to stop talking.”

Beatty has always played by his own rules in both Hollywood and the celebrity fringe of politics.

He famously likes to control his image, visually and otherwise. Madonna memorably teased Beatty -- her then-boyfriend -- about his consciousness of his lighting during a scene in the documentary “Truth or Dare.”

(Weeks ago, he rebuffed a request for an interview, insisting he’d talk to The Times only for a front-page story. He made no such demands Wednesday.)

Although Schwarzenegger was adroit at manipulating the media during the campaign as if he was running a movie press junket, the overwhelming majority of political candidates don’t win that kind of control.

“I don’t think he has the stomach for it,” said Michael Levine, an L.A.-based public relations veteran. “I think he likes the pedestal of Beverly Hills, where he can mouth off and not get his fingernails dirty.”

During the special election campaign, the Schwarzenegger camp dismissed Beatty as a Hollywood has-been yearning for a second act.

“We don’t care that much about Warren Beatty, and based on his ticket sales from the past generation, I doubt anyone else does either,” said spokeswoman Margita Thompson.

Schwarzenegger later toned down that rhetoric over the past week, calling Beatty a friend.

Beatty is not done with Hollywood. He has just written a movie -- which he won’t discuss much. Never prolific, Beatty is usually meticulous in his acting and directing choices. He last acted in the 2001 comedy “Town & Country,” which bombed in its opening weekend.

Beatty acknowledged in a phone interview Wednesday how difficult it is to be in public office these days, especially when public officials want to go against opinion polls.

“I have enormous sympathy for people in office or who want to retain their office. I haven’t known many people who do this for their lives who are corrupt,” he said. “I take my hat off to people who run for office and serve for office -- the generosity involved in that.”

Beatty is proud of his long history of political involvement. He’s campaigned for every Democratic presidential candidate since Robert Kennedy in 1968.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, Beatty sometimes takes offense when people discount the depth of his political knowledge.

He said he modulates his visibility on campaign stumps. “I was very supportive of John Kerry,” he said, “but the Republicans had so successfully demonized the entertainment world that I felt if I took a visible speaking role that I would probably wind up doing more damage than good. That certainly wasn’t the case in the California situation.”

Beatty said he figured simply going “respectfully” to Schwarzenegger’s events and listening would automatically get him media attention he could use to criticize the initiatives, which he called “Trojan horses.”

“They were deceptively named,” he said. “Paycheck protection -- which is a bunch of nonsense. Living within our means -- which is a bunch of nonsense. They were such oversimplifications. It’s outrageous.”

Over the last year, Beatty -- who strongly opposed the recall -- has spoken out on several occasions against Schwarzenegger.

At an awards dinner in Beverly Hills last spring he said the governor should “terminate” his fundraising and dinners with “the brokers of Wall Street” and the “lobbyists of K Street” in Washington.

In September, Beatty was back in the spotlight again, this time at a California Nurses Assn. convention in Oakland, where he accused Schwarzenegger of governing “by show, by spin, by cosmetics and photo ops.”

Beatty kept his crusade going. He taped a radio ad for the nurses that called on voters to turn down Schwarzenegger’s “year of reform” initiatives.

Then last weekend, Beatty and Bening, along with a busload of nurses, teachers, firefighters and union leaders, crashed a Schwarzenegger rally at a private airplane hangar in San Diego and were turned away at the door by Schwarzenegger spokesman Darrel Ng.

Tuesday night, Beatty and Bening stopped by the boisterous victory luau the nurses were enjoying at Trader Vic’s. Beatty spoke to the crowd. Someone asked him, “How does it feel to be with all these nurses?” He thought for a moment. “It just makes me want to be nursed,” he answered wryly to laughs and applause.

Near midnight, the Schwarzenegger aide, Ng, stopped by the Trader Vic’s party hoping to get a photo of himself next to Beatty and Bening.

Bening smiled as soon as she saw Ng, and told him there were no hard feelings, as did Beatty.

“I felt so bad for him,” Bening said. Beatty told him he “handled it so nicely.”

Beatty and Bening readily agreed to oblige Ng’s request that they pose with him for a photograph.


Times staff writers John Horn, Dan Morain and Robert Salladay contributed to this report.