Political campaigning has become a lame and predictable enterprise, dominated by empty talk and big money. Such was the motivation for Hollywood’s Warren Beatty way back in 1998 — or 21 long-yet-not-so-long years ago — in creating the political movie Bulworth, which he starred in and directed.
Beatty’s California Sen. Jay Bulworth is so disillusioned with the shallowness of his life in politics that he hires a hit man to get himself killed (and thus provide his daughter insurance money) — but then looming death sets him free. With a flask and an occasional joint serving as a kind of truth serum, Bulworth starts swearing in public, talks honestly about poverty and race in America, endorses the crazy notion of single-payer health care, and even raps for a suddenly adoring public at one point.
The movie was a critical success but a commercial flop, and I hadn’t thought about it very much until the last two weeks, as I’ve watched presidential candidate Beto O’Rouke go not-quite-full Bulworth out on the 2020 campaign trail. True, the former Texas congressman who was fronting a punk-rock band called Foss and occasionally wearing a dress on stage in the late 1990s when Bulworth was briefly at the multiplex hasn’t erupted in hip-hop rhyme at a campaign rally.
Not yet, anyway.
But all the other Bulworth stuff is happening. The well-placed curse word — famously asking, “Members of the media, what the f***?” as he lost his patience with some reality-detached press questioning about President Donald Trump’s racism. The blunt talk about America’s “legacy of slavery and segregation” and the need for some type of reparations. The raw emotion — call it “emo” if you must — that’s never been far from the surface since a white-supremacist gunman slaughtered 22 people in his hometown of El Paso and he choked back tears while discussing it with reporters.
But the new map of O’Rourke’s reinvented campaign is arguably even more interesting than his emo style. “Someone asked if I was going to be heading back to Iowa, go to the Iowa State Fair, corn dogs and Ferris wheels," he said in the aftermath of El Paso. “And I said, no, I can’t go back for that.” He vowed instead to boldly go “to those places where Donald Trump has been terrorizing and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans."
So far, he’s kept his word. He went to the Mississippi town whose families have been ripped apart by the recent immigration raids, and dropped by an Arkansas gun show to debate AR-15s with random attendees. In a swing through Oklahoma, he swung by two very different mile markers of white supremacy — the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Tulsa neighborhood demolished in 1921 by white rioters who murdered as many as 300 African Americans.
“Not only are we as divided as we’ve ever been," O’Rourke said as he stood under a monument of preserved bricks that’s pretty much all that remains of a once-thriving district known as Black Wall Street, "but the racism that has been foundational to this country has now been admitted out into the open. And people are acting on that.”
Now there are a couple of different ways to look at this campaign reboot that one could call Beta O’Rourke. The easiest and arguably laziest take is the cynical one. It was, after all, two of O’Rourke’s fellow Texans — Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin — who wrote and made famous the notion that freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, and Beto had clearly become a presidential candidate with nothing left to lose.
The candidate who’d won the hearts and opened the wallets of so many progressives in a failed 2018 U.S. Senate bid watched that goodwill rapidly dissipate when he was no longer the man who could end Ted Cruz’s wretched political career but suddenly looking like one more entitled white dude (“Man, I’m just born to be in it,” he disastrously told Vanity Fair) in the 2020 race whose only difference was that he wildly jumped up on tables. Support quickly fell into low single digits, and donations plunged.
Is Beto 2.0 the only hand he has left? The New Yorker’s Eric Lach sees it that way, writing that “unless O’Rourke learns to speak about his experience with something other than earnest awe or surprised heartbreak, his campaign will continue to sound like it is closer to the end than the beginning.”
I see the Beto reboot differently — as something to be hailed and applauded, even if it may be too little and (weird as it sounds 11 months before the 2020 Democratic convention) too late to propel O’Rourke into the White House on Jan. 20, 2021. For my entire adult lifetime — since not voting for Ronald Reagan in my first election in 1980 — American voters on the left and center-left have too often been left cold by a Democratic Party establishment and its strange conventions that fail to connect with the emotion and, too often, the raw anger of our times. And that was before Donald Trump seized the White House with racist and xenophobic demagoguery.
Since the endless 2020 White House marathon left the starting line this winter, I’ve often felt the Democratic Party primaries were an odd and bloodless affair far too disconnected from the state of dire emergency that exists in Trump’s America.
Turn on the cable TV news at 7 p.m. and your heart will be racing as U.S. democracy plunges through the guardrails and out over the cliff, with a president who inspires mass killers with his rhetoric, preens through racist chants at Nuremberg-style rallies, and looks to the heavens as he declares himself “the Chosen One.” Then at 9 p.m. comes the latest Democratic debate where the candidates argue how many health-care plans fit onto the head of a pin or relitigate 1970s’ school busing in a way that barely acknowledges the Category 5 hurricane right outside the studio.
Beto’s not done with his presidential campaign, but he’s done with the charade — and more power to him. To watch him march in El Paso funeral processions or hugging devastated Latinx immigrant spouses in Morton, Miss., Robert Francis O’Rourke is evoking — maybe consciously, maybe not — the last truly great American presidential campaign, the tragically brief 1968 effort of Robert Francis Kennedy.
Fifty-one years ago, RFK ran arguably the last major campaign that was driven not by focus groups or consultants but by, dare I say it, instinct and emotion. That meant wading into thick crowds in Los Angeles’ forgotten barrios and courageously announcing Martin Luther King’s assassination to a black crowd in Indianapolis that could have turned hostile but was instead awed. And it meant defying his advisers at a key juncture in the race to visit the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, not because it would mean a lot of votes but because he thought America’s treatment of its indigenous people was “a national disgrace.”
Less than two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed (and, yeah, the fictional Bulworth was also gunned down, more ambiguously), the “law-and-order” of Richard Nixon and Reagan seized on America’s chaos, and a cowardly Democratic Party has never been quite the same. What Beto O’Rourke is doing right now is a response to both the existential horror of Trumpism but also the vapid emptiness of Bidenism, this idea that you can offer America nothing more than “I’m not Trump” and pretend not to notice the world is on fire.
People are mad as hell and Beto is the one who’s chugging from the steel flask of truth and putting it all out there right at the moment we need to hear it. There’s plenty of time to fret about what that means for an election that won’t happen for 15 months.