Beatty performance draws crowd, but for now he offers only a script; Hollywood, media pack event just in case actor declares White House bid


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Actor Warren Beatty sketched out the script for a liberal presidential campaign last night -- but did not say whether he would play the leading role himself.

Before a huge turnout of reporters and Southern California liberal activists, Beatty offered few clues on whether he intends to launch a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead, he called for sweeping campaign finance reform, lashed President Clinton's record, and portrayed both of the current contenders for the Democratic nomination as cautious centrists in thrall to large contributors.

"We don't need a third party; we need a second party," Beatty said in a speech to the Southern California branch of the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, which presented him with its annual Eleanor Roosevelt award for political activism.

The speech was Beatty's first public appearance since acknowledging that he was considering entering the presidential race.

As much as any single event in recent memory, the evening demonstrated how the lines between politics and celebrity are blurring in the modern media maelstrom. It seemed half political convention, half Hollywood opening with celebrities such as Dustin Hoffman, singer Courtney Love and actress Faye Dunaway, Beatty's co-star 32 years ago in "Bonnie and Clyde."

In a dizzying testament to the media fascination with celebrity, the 62-year-old actor and director drew more than 150 reporters from around the world. The media turnout dwarfed the attendance at any of the major policy speeches by the leading candidates in either party this year; yesterday afternoon, Democratic hopeful Bill Bradley drew a press corps roughly one-tenth as large when he visited a community health care center south of downtown Los Angeles.

Amid all the frenzy, Beatty delivered an exhaustive and self-deprecating speech. Apparently nervous at first, he rattled off facts and figures and touched on a long list of liberal concerns from globalization, to universal health care (he called for a government-run single-payer universal system), to the gap between rich and poor, to the fees charged for lumber and mining resources on public lands.

Above all, he insisted that the ever-increasing cost of campaigns have forced politicians to tilt policy toward the wealthy and corporate interests. "Getting the money to win makes decent politicians do indecent things," Beatty said. He called for complete public financing of all campaigns, including primaries. "The public will never have democracy until it is willing to pay the bill for it," he said.

Despite all the speculation over the past month, Beatty has taken no steps to build a campaign organization; he's spent much of the time preparing this speech. Some close to him believe the odds are shrinking that he will seek the Democratic nomination; he recently ruled out running for the Reform Party nomination.

Others who have spoken to him say that Beatty intends to gauge the reaction to his speech -- from both Democratic activists and the other contenders -- before finally deciding what to do. In the conclusion of his speech, Beatty suggested that he saw a value in continuing to attract the spotlight for his concerns -- though he slightly dampened speculation about running by reiterating that he likes making movies.

Former Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, for one, said that with last night's speech Beatty hoped to prod Gore and Bradley to talk more about reforming the campaign finance system and other issues of concern to liberals.

If he did run, of course, Beatty would begin with a microscopic chance of capturing the nomination from Vice President Al Gore or former Senator Bradley; Beatty attracts single digit support -- sometimes in the low single digits -- in most polls.

Even a video that introduced Beatty captured the evening's strange mix of earnestness and implausibility: It contained testimonials from liberal icons such as George McGovern and Jesse Jackson, and celebrity friends like comedian Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand and director Rob Reiner, who gently poked fun at the uproar by telling Beatty on the tape: "I am more than willing to accept a place on your ticket as vice president."

Pub Date: 9/30/99

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