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Celebrities add sparkle to race; Politics: Show-biz personalities who talk of runs for president contribute by at least tickling public interest.


WASHINGTON -- At a Beverly Hills ceremony this week honoring die-hard liberal Warren Beatty, director Rob Reiner warmed up the crowd by announcing that he would like to be picked as the actor's vice president. Television's Roseanne Barr explained why she would run against the screen star. Actress Goldie Hawn testified to his character. And comedian Gary Shandling called him cute.

Their talk was all a tease, of course.

And, ultimately, so too might be Beatty's quest for the presidency.

But for now, at least, Beatty's White House flirtation is getting semi-serious treatment. National news outlets are asking, "Will he or won't he?"

Beatty advisers are directing reporters to his movie "Bulworth" for a primer on his political beliefs.

Even the candidates are taking notice.

Gore campaign official Marla Romash said yesterday that she would like to meet Beatty, though she sounded more like an overheated fan than a political strategist.

What makes the talk about Beatty more unusual is that it is one of a series of speculative celebrity campaigns emerging this year.

Under the headline "America Needs a President Like Me," business tycoon and gossip-page regular Donald Trump told readers of the Wall Street Journal that he would like to take on, among other things, the "striped-pants set" of Washington.

Shepherd, Winfrey, Ventura

Actress Cybill Shepherd has dispatched her political adviser to talk about the potential candidacy she announced on Oprah Winfrey's show.

(Winfrey is a favorite candidate of some Reform Party members, who also want Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former pro wrestler, to run.)

Celebrity has long mingled with politics; Ronald Reagan is evidence of that. But Reagan had served two terms as California governor, while most of these big-name presidential hopefuls never ran for a thing.

What would bring stars with no political experience to join this race?

Perhaps it is the nation's disillusionment with government, or its fascination with celebrity, or the entertainment value of its politics, or the publicity power of its entertainers. Whatever the reason, the next president could need an agent.

"It's all about show business," said Roger Stone, a political adviser to Trump, explaining why he believes the presidential campaign can benefit from famous faces.

"Politics and entertainment have merged into one -- this is about bringing excitement and charisma to the presidential campaign."

All about image

Some political theoreticians cringe at the idea of celebrities running without a lick of experience and wonder whether they are attention-seekers who like to dress up and play politics. The consequences, the experts warn, could be an election based as much on image as the People's Choice Awards are.

"A celebrity campaign just runs on image," said Warren Mark, who teaches government at Georgetown University. "It risks being detached from the thick process of public judgment. Celebrities have very evocative images, and the normal processes of judging character no longer hold."

Some hardened political veterans sound resigned, even open, to the idea of a superstar candidacy.

"The politicians don't have very much to say anyway," said Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy and a Beatty friend.

"I think political activism is coming from places where people are more naive, and Hollywood is one of them. And that can be a good thing."

Beatty has most support

More than any other celebrity candidate, Beatty has generated mainstream support, after friend and conservative commentator Arianna Huffington floated the idea of his candidacy in a column.

She had become smitten with the actor's views after watching "Bulworth," in which Beatty plays a fictional candidate who speaks his mind and insults the big contributors paying for his campaign.

Beatty's possible candidacy has won the backing of some Washington interest groups and attracted informal political advisers. Deeply critical of the Democrats he labels "Clinton Republicans," Beatty is positioning himself as a renegade voice of liberalism and government reform.

A Beatty run could quickly get into life imitating art imitating Beatty. Asked about the actor's position on health care, Mankiewicz responded, "Did you see 'Bulworth?' "

At an awards dinner for the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action on Wednesday night, Beatty had a chance to elaborate on his off-screen views. He touched on government reform, social justice and international trade.

Nothing but coy hint

As for his political plans, he yielded nothing but a coy hint.

"When you start hearing those moneyed, honeyed voices of ridicule and reaction, let them call you coy, let them call you flirtatious," he said, presumably to himself. "But keep talking."

Beatty's political activism stretches back decades, beginning with the Robert F. Kennedy campaign. He took a year off from acting to work for George S. McGovern's 1972 presidential bid, reuniting James Taylor and Carly Simon for a fund-raising concert on McGovern's behalf.

(Apparently, he still had pull with ex-girlfriend Simon, even after she wrote "You're So Vain" with Beatty partly in mind.)

In Hollywood, many see celebrity campaigns as a much-needed rebuke to the nation's ruling establishment, showing that politically conscious stars can do what career politicians do -- only better -- by bringing celebrity power, money and a disregard for entrenched rules.

"The mistake Washington makes about Hollywood is they assume everyone is an airhead," said Peter Bart, editor in chief of Daily Variety and a Beatty friend.

"The mistake is to think this is a lot of publicity-seeking. There are a lot of very serious people in television and film who are very serious about politics."

But is America really ready to elect the man who dated Madonna? Or Trump, patron saint of the Miss USA pageant? Or Shepherd, with her background in steamy movie scenes?

The celebrities might not stick around to find out: Celebrity backers hope these campaigns, if nothing more, will generate media coverage for political causes and stir debate among the mainstream candidates.

After all, they reason, what can be bad about a Beatty statement on campaign-finance reform that ends up in Newsweek and Teen People?

"I'm interested in any candidate who can shake the system up and get the public's attention," said Huffington, explaining her affinity for Beatty.

"The fact is that Warren Beatty can dramatize the issues and draw attention to those issues that others have neglected. Most other politicians talk like accountants."

Even so, these campaigns probably would go nowhere without their star power.

"In an otherwise boring year, celebrities make the race interesting," said feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, campaign adviser to her friend Shepherd, who would campaign solely on abortion rights.

Allred noted that she has advised a fictional candidate:

In "Bulworth," the candidate barks, "Call Gloria Allred" to secure the women's vote. Still tickled by the mention, she said, "Warren surprised me!"

Allred thinks Shepherd has a shot.

"Cybill is known not just for her beauty but her direct approach," she said. "She cares about her country."

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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