Maybe we didn’t need Warren Beatty to run for president after all to make 2000 the year the Bulworth Effect finally propels a candidate into the Oval Office. While populist darling John McCain will likely never resort to busting mad rhymes on his whistle-stop tour, he seems to have capitalized on the more potent, if subtler, message of Beatty’s 1998 political satire: America seems ready to fall in love with a candidate suffering from a Bulworthian case of political Tourette’s syndrome.
In Bulworth, Beatty’s California senator is a fallen idealist who overdoses on Capitol Hill cynicism, goes mad, and plots his own murder. On the way down, however, he decides to be the one candidate to finally serve up his political diagnoses raw and uncut. “Put down that malt liquor and chicken wings and get together behind something other than a running back who stabs his wife,” he instructs a stunned South Central church congregation, before going on to tweak Hollywood’s power Jews in their very own brocaded living rooms about the cultural bilgewater they churn out. Butchering sacred cows with distinctly flava-free raps, Bulworth becomes a grassroots sensation but finally meets his doom trying to push the special interests out of Washington – which just happens to be the Arizona senator’s real-life agenda.
Lose the beat box, and the similarities don’t end there (never mind that Bulworth ended up a born-again liberal). McCain, like Bulworth, decries the insurance industry’s influence inside the Beltway. He even takes on Big Tobacco. “Come on down, you jerks,” the right-wing McCain recently challenged the right-wing National Smokers’ Alliance. “You’re the guys who addicted our children.”
McCain has also shown a bit of his big-screen alter ego’s jaw-dropping lack of racial sensitivity. In the South Carolina debate, McCain – fawningly! – referred to his friend Colin Powell as “the 800-pound gorilla.” Now the candidate’s handlers are assuring the press that he will back away from his favored term for his North Vietnamese torturers. “I hated the gooks and will continue to hate them as long as I live,” McCain blithely told the Boys on the Bus only two weeks ago.
Like Bulworth, McCain has inspired no shortage of speculation that the Straight Talk Express in his head might have jumped the rails a few stations back, perhaps during the former Navy aviator’s 2,000-night stay at the psyche-straining Hanoi Hilton. Fellow Republican Arlen Specter wondered aloud last fall what might happen if he “gets access to the red telephone.” In November, McCain was prompted to answer the whispers by releasing a 350-page cache of medical files proving his sanity – to the degree that proof of sanity is necessary in these politician-weary times. As McCain himself likes to say, “you have to be half nuts to run for president.” And this year, in a country crying out for a Bulworth, you might have to be at least half nuts