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Carlson Margaret Carlson was named in 1994 the first woman columnist in TIME's history. She writes primarily about policy and politics and is a regular panelist on CNN's Capital Gang.

A Terminal Case Of Telling The Truth

In Bulworth, Warren Beatty plays a pol afflicted with leveling with everyone

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

(TIME, May 11) -- We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium," intones Senator J. Billington Bulworth. Sound a little like that Bridge to the 21st Century? Yes, but unlike President Clinton, Bulworth throws out this bromide in favor of brutal candor.

He tells a gathering at a Beverly Hills hotel that they're spoiled by cheap labor, cheap oil and cheap sex. He tells black churchgoers to go easy on the malt liquor and give up on the "running back who stabbed his wife." He shocks a group of cosseted movie moguls by calling their product schlock.

If you hated Primary Colors because it was about politics, you might just love the movie Bulworth because it is not about politics as we know it. Any resemblance to a politician dead or alive is accidental. Sick of the Senate and himself, and knowing that he is going to die soon, Bulworth proceeds to deliver head-snapping reality to his audiences--that money has rotted a system that has abandoned those at the bottom--as he romps comically through Los Angeles, from Rodeo Drive to Watts.

Warren Beatty, who directs as well as stars in this film about a politician who comes down with a terminal case of telling anyone and everyone the truth, initially looks like the Senator he famously hung out with, Gary Hart. But he allows himself to descend so far into the abyss--no shower, no shave, soiled clothes--that he looks his age (61) and, for the first time in a film, doesn't have sex.

Beatty has created several dead-on characters, particularly his top aide Murphy (Oliver Platt). Although his boss has started speaking almost entirely in class- and race-baiting rap and insults the vapid, helmet-blond moderator of the final debate, Murphy soldiers on as if he's got just a nanny problem on his hands. He praises the "value of a frank exchange" as the richest Jews in California walk out on a Bulworth rant. "Forty winks," and his guy will be just fine. "He's tied up with his advisers," he barks into two phones when Bulworth has disappeared yet again. When the Senator shows up for a TV interview in hip-hop garb fresh from the hood, Murphy chirps, "We're back on track." It isn't until he wonders if there's an opening with Dick Gephardt that we know he's losing hope.

As the movie makes clear, any politician who tries this at home will die. Not to worry. The last thing anyone in Washington wants is to blurt the basic fact of elective office--that you buy it and pay off the debt in daily installments of breaks to special interests. In real life, those few good men and women who truth-talk are quickly marginalized. Senator John McCain, fighting first for campaign-finance reform and now against the cigarette makers, is presumed by the public to be a great candidate for President but equally presumed to be unable to get his party's nomination. Senator Fred Thompson was on the short list of presidential candidates until the G.O.P. club turned on him for supporting McCain's bill and trying to hold bipartisan hearings. The honest-to-a-fault Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan became a quirky elder statesman while still a young man. Colin Powell, he won't do what it takes.

The movie should be required for new members of Congress--instead of lectures by Newt Gingrich. It's spring, and Washington is crowded with hordes of high schoolers posing on the steps of the Capitol with their Representatives. It's just a picture bite. Few nonpayers get to see their Congressman. Just last month, when a stricter drunken-driving standard was up for a vote, Mothers Against Drunk Driving couldn't get in to see key members, who they were told were "in conference or on the floor." But the door was open for the lobbyists for liquor and restaurants, who have donated $25 million. The standard died in committee.

As for the President, what is being a lame duck if not a near-death experience? Why can't he offend the power players? He doesn't need them anymore--unless he's planning to build a really, really big presidential library. He should be going after the producers of drivel, the teachers unions who protect the status quo, the fat cats to whom he apologized for raising taxes. Instead, how about criticizing them for their wretched excess--$1,000 bottles of wine, $250 cigars, Versailles-like mansions? Or reversing the appalling gap between their income and those who haven't got on the Clinton gravy train?

Last Thursday, after his first solo press conference since the Lewinsky scandal broke, Clinton was praised for a bravura performance. Few asked whether what he said was true, or if it mattered--only whether it worked. At 65% in the polls, the President could do with a little less Eddie Haskell, a little more Bulworth. There might be a legacy in it for him.

TIME This Week

Cover Date: May 11, 1998

No Deal
No More Days At The Beach
The G.O.P. Mantra: Keep Dobson Happy
The Lives Of The Saint
A Terminal Case Of Telling The Truth
Notebook: Reputation Long Gone

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