It's been hard to keep up with the crazy lately, so I'm a little late to the news that the first black president of the United States has been dreaming lately about being a little bit more like the first fictitious white rapper Senator in filmic history, Warren Beatty's Bulworth. The New York Times broke the story:
Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of "going Bulworth," a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him.
"Probably every president says that from time to time," said David Axelrod, another longtime adviser who has heard Mr. Obama's movie-inspired aspiration. "It's probably cathartic just to say it. But the reality is that while you want to be truthful, you want to be straightforward, you also want to be practical about whatever you're saying."
Not surprisingly, the type of liberal political commentator who loved the movie's message (much more than the American public did) about corporate control of politics is now urging the president to go full Bulworth. Katrina vanden Heuvel, for example, attempted some awkward white rapping of her own in the Washington Post:
Of course, to do a Bulworth requires exposing the money that so pervades and corrupts our politics. Bulworth took delight — and gained massive popular support — in calling out his donors:
You know it ain't that funny, you contribute all my money .?.?.
As long as you can pay, I'm gonna do it all your way
Or as Obama might say to his Wall Street donors:
You are too big to fail
And too big to jail
And we'll keep paying you that tribute
So long as you continue to contribute
That would be "massive popular support" in a movie, Katrina. The WashPost's Ezra Klein also got into the presidential ventriloquism business, using Bulworth Obama's newly found spine to take on the Republican haterz:
Look, the reason the American people can't trust their government is here in Washington. Right now sequestration is cutting unemployment checks by 10 or 11 percent. Do you hear anyone talking about that? Or doing anything about it? No. You hear Republicans aides telling Politico, anonymously, that the speaker is quote "obsessed" with Benghazi. You know, I don't think most of the Republicans screaming about Benghazi could find Libya on a map. I don't think 10 of them knew our ambassador's name. And, let me be clear, Speaker Boehner certainly wasn't obsessed with giving us the money we asked for to keep the embassy's [sic] safe.
But now he's obsessed with Benghazi. And not even Benghazi. The Benghazi talking points. Are you kidding me? He's not obsessed with global warming or unemployment or rebuilding our infrastructure. And now that there's conflict, all of you are obsessed with Benghazi talking points too, and meanwhile, we're cutting the National Institutes of Health and we're cutting too deep into the military and we're making life harder for the unemployed and we're doing nothing to keep this planet in good shape for our kids.
You can read similar fantasia from Salon's Joan Walsh, Mother Jones's Asawin Suebsaeng, the Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger, The Nation's Jeremy Pikser, The American Prospect's Paul Waldman, NewsOne's Michael Arceneaux, and The Huffington Post's William Bradley. The general gist of which is that it would be better if Barack Hussein Obama acted a bit more like Jay Bullington Bulworth. So what did Bulworth do, exactly?
He tried to fuck a young Halle Berry, was dazzled by her straight-outta-Howard-Zinn interpretation of America's hollowed-out manufacturing base, decided to start telling uncomfortable "truths" (like to a black audience: "if you don't put down the malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a runningback who stabs his wife, you're NEVER gonna get rid of somebody like me!"), began dressing up like an old white liberal's version of what "gangsta" might look like and chanting out some excruciatingly awful anti-corporation raps, advocated socialism, became a media and political sensation, attempted to engineer his own assassination, changed his mind, but then got shot anyway by the evil insurance companies who just couldn't handle his pro-Medicare truth. After which he was visited by a Magical Negro who told him to keep on fighting.
It was, to put it charitably, not the most racially enlightened film. The politics were also, as the New York Post's Kyle Smith helpfully reminds us, socialist. And as Jesse Walker pointed out in a great piece from 2004, it followed the now eight-decade Hollywood trope about a mythical politician who "survives an accident, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be." I would expect political journalists to prefer the lure of Aaron Sorkin-style fantasies over the messy realities of governance, but the sitting American president? That's just weird, and unseemly.
But what troubles me most about Obama's cinematic jonesing is just the massive contempt that both Bulworth and Beatty showed for their audiences. Check out the picture's ballyhooed turning point, where Sen. Bulworth throws away his stale talking points and flat-out speaks truth to the powerless:
Are there any sectors of American political life not sandblasted with contemptuous caricature here? Yes—and those get their comeuppance later in the movie. Bulworth hates himself, his supporters, his opponents, his constituents, the media, corporations, Republicans, Democrats, Jews, Hollywood…basically everyone except a chosen few wise-speaking black folk who connect him to a new sense of authenticity. The "truth" that this politician is so liberated in the telling is basically that all of you people suck. Only an enlightened few are aware enough to realize that the whole game has been rigged by evil corporations.
As for blurting out the truth and taking the gloves off, we know one thing for sure about when Barack Obama so liberates himself: That's exactly when he's most likely to lurch to the left, and/or lie.
I liked Bulworth at the time (back when I agreed with its money-is-ruining-politics theorem), and I'll still give Beatty a B- for diving so enthusiastically into awkward waters, but as a presidential template, this is just embarrassing: