What Would Bulworth Do?
Barack Obama's bizarre movie idol.
by JAMES TARANTO
A New York Times story on President Obama's plague of scandal contains this eyebrow-raising revelation:
Yet Mr. 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."
Perhaps the Times didn't want to spoil the film for its readers--which we are about to do, so please skip the subsequent four paragraphs if you're planning on seeing it and want to be surprised. But the Times's description comes nowhere near doing justice to the film and Beatty's character--and to how strange it is that it is the object of a presidential fantasy.
"Bulworth" is a satire about a politician going through something of a midlife crisis. Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth, a veteran Democrat from California, is a radical leftist at heart, but the exigencies of electoral politics have required him to pose as a moderate. He's up for re-election and running behind a young challenger. His marriage is on the rocks.
Depressed and suicidal, he offers a favorable vote to an insurance company in exchange for a bribe--a $10 million life policy with his daughter as beneficiary. Of course the policy is void if he takes his own life, so he hires a hit man to assassinate him instead.
He drinks heavily, and the combination of alcohol and imminent death has a disinhibiting effect. He begins speaking his mind at campaign events. Then he begins rapping his mind. We're not making this up: "Yo, everybody gonna get sick someday / But nobody knows how they gonna pay / Health care, managed care, HMOs / Ain't gonna work, no sir, not those / 'Cause the thing that's the same in every one of these / Is these m-----f---ers there, the insurance companies! . . . Yeah, yeah / You can call it single-payer or Canadian way / Only socialized medicine will ever save the day! Come on now, lemme hear that dirty word--SOCIALISM!"
The burst of media attention revives his campaign. He begins an affair with a young staffer. Suddenly things are looking better for Bulworth. He cancels the assassination contract and decides to run for president. Then he gets shot anyway--by someone from an insurance company who opposes socialized medicine.
What would it mean for Obama to "go Bulworth"? We suppose we had a hint of it a month ago tomorrow, when he raged against the Senate for rejecting his calls for gun control, a subject on which he had cultivated a pretense of moderation during both his presidential campaigns.
Another example is a June 30, 2003, video of Obama, then a state senator, telling an AFL-CIO gathering: "A single payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that's what I'd like to see." Bulworth might have added: But you ain't gonna get it from no insurance company.
Given the revelation that Obama fantasizes about going Bulworth, and the long-established fact that Obama has made statements consistent with the fictitious senator's view that only socialized medicine will ever save the day, it seems to us some apologies are in order from those who insisted it was crazy to think Obama is a socialist. John Avlon should go first.
Let us be clear: We think it unlikely that the president will go Bulworth, and although we're sure we'd enjoy the spectacle, we think it would be bad for the country if he did. An unhinged president would be dangerous to America and the world in a way that an unhinged senator would not.
At any rate, there doesn't seem to be much danger that Obama will go Bulworth. Consider this story from National Journal about Obama's hypovehiculation of the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service:
Under pressure to show who's boss, President Obama called a press conference late Wednesday to say he was "angry" that the IRS singled out conservative groups for extra vetting and to announce that the agency's acting commissioner had been forced out.
"It's inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it," he said. "I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives."
Unlike the gun-control statement, this one didn't have the feel of being a genuine cry from the heart. Instead, the president seemed to be saying what he had to say.
By contrast, National Review Online notes that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri had some Bulworthy comments about Obama's opponents yesterday on MSNBC's "Hardball": "He has taken control / Of their soul / And their obsession / Is prolonging our recession . . . It's going to be very very, very difficult for us to erase / Some of the things that people have embraced . . . And they simply want this to be a figment / Of his pigmentation."
The prevailing image of Obama in the face of the past week's scandalous revelations is more similar to the weak and aimless Bulworth of the film's beginning. "The challenges underscore a paradox about the 44th president," as that Times piece puts it:
He presides over a government that to critics appears ever more intrusive, dictating health care choices, playing politics with the Internal Revenue Service and snooping into journalists' phone records. Yet at times, Mr. Obama comes across as something of a bystander occupying the most powerful office in the world, buffeted by partisanship and forces beyond his control.
The scandals have even former White House aide David Axelrod complaining that government is too big. Yesterday he said this to MSNBC's Joe Scarborough:
Look, it's an interesting case study because if you look at the inspector general's report [on the IRS abuses], apparently some folks down in the bureaucracy--you know we have a large government--took it upon themselves to shorthand these applications for tax-exempt status in a way that was, as I said, idiotic, and also dangerous because of the political implications. One prima facie bit of evidence that nobody political was involved in this, is that if anybody political was involved they would say: Are you nuts?
Part of being president is there's so much underneath you that you can't know because the government is so vast.
To David Ignatius of the Washington Post, it's all evidence that government is dangerously ineffective:
The crippling problem in Washington these days isn't any organized conspiracy against conservatives, journalists or anyone else. Rather, it's a federal establishment that's increasingly paralyzed because of poor management and political second-guessing.
What should frighten the public is not the federal government's monstrous power but its impotence.
But there's a more disquieting interpretation. The Benghazi and IRS scandals were both clearly political in nature: The dissembling about what happened in Libya was manifestly an effort to prevent a foreign-policy disaster from becoming a political problem for the president in the weeks before the election; the IRS abuses were an effort to intimidate and silence the president's political enemies.
What about the Justice Department's decision to cast aside decades-old traditions governing press freedom in order to monitor the communications of Associated Press reporters and editors? This Washington Post report suggests a political motive for that one, too:
For five days, reporters at the Associated Press had been sitting on a big scoop about a foiled al-Qaeda plot at the request of CIA officials. Then, in a hastily scheduled Monday morning meeting, the journalists were asked by agency officials to hold off on publishing the story for just one more day.
The CIA officials, who had initially cited national security concerns in an attempt to delay publication, no longer had those worries, according to individuals familiar with the exchange. Instead, the Obama administration was planning to announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday.
As HotAir.com's "AllahPundit" interprets it: "CIA asked AP not to expose Yemen terror plot bust until White House was ready to crow about it publicly."
If you think about the government in terms of its original mission--"to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty"--then Ignatius is right. It's disturbingly ineffective.
But what if the government between 2009 and 2012 took on a different mandate, namely helping to re-elect Barack Obama? Then the Benghazi and IRS scandals, and possibly the AP one, look frighteningly effective.
If, as Axelrod implies, agents of the government did all this without the president's direction or even knowledge, that is even more frightening. That would mean, to quote a great orator, that the federal government has become "some separate, sinister entity" in which the leaders we entrust with authority cannot be held accountable for its abuse.