Could Barack Obama Really Go Bulworth?

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Finally, a half year into his second four-year term in office, President Barack Obama has given the first indication that he might not have a wind-up key or an extension cord coming out of his back, and he has done it big-time.  Similarly deep into a May 15 New York Times article by Peter Baker on Obama’s many recent political woes, we find this little gem, “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.”

There it is.  Baker tries to make small of the revelation by characterizing Warren Beatty’s classic 1998 satirical autopsy of the American body politic as “little-remembered.”  The movie certainly made an impression on me, one that has lingered.  And much of the rest of the mainstream media took note of Obama’s private longing, recognizing, perhaps, that at last something a little more genuine than that long-delayed Hawaii birth certificate might have made its way out of the White House.  But it seems that their main reason for taking note of it was to limit its impact by steering us toward the wrong conclusions. 

How could it be otherwise?  Bulworth lays into our bribed-by-being-overpaid leading news hacks with the same zest that it takes on our puppet politicians.  If we needed any reminder of how similarly shackled the news folks are, the immediate loss by Rick Sanchez of his high-paying, high-profile CNN job for his merest hint of a Bulworth moment concerning Jewish media power, and his groveling attempt to get it back, was a powerful object lesson.

I first learned of Obama’s supposed private musing by reading about it in the column of the young and presumably ambitious Melinda Henneberger in The Washington Post.  Right off the bat she misinterprets what “going Bulworth” means, suggesting that it is the politician’s “political adversaries” who are holding him back.  Further on, she compounds her error of interpretation with this observation: “Obama is cautious by nature, so I don’t imagine we’re going to be treated to any raps that speak truth to the man — even if, sorry sir, but you are the man.”

Is it her youth and inexperience, or is it her naked ambition that could cause her to write such patent nonsense?  It’s possible that she doesn’t yet know it, but the whole point in a president, of all people, wanting to “go Bulworth” is that he is not “the man,” but wishes that he were.  In a certain sense, he is not even a man, much less the man.  He is Pinocchio wishing that he were human.

A Fox News crew predictably trivialized the “going Bulworth” line by calling the movie “little seen” and simply bad, suggesting that no one’s speech, much less the president’s, is the least bit constrained in this country, and that the Bulworth character’s message was all just so much liberal-type socialism. 

All anyone needs to disabuse himself of the notion that Bulworth is the typical Hollywood promotion of socialism is to listen to this rap from the movie about the great artificial black-white divide in the country.  Right off the bat we are reminded that black leaders have been assassinated and that blacks have been victimized even more than poor whites by the loss of the country’s manufacturing base.  The unfettered Bulworth tells us, as well, that the big corporations that are responsible for many of the problems we face also own the media who determine the news agenda.  The liberated Bulworth is not exactly a standard socialist; he is the sort of political leader who would use his prominence to take on corrupt power in the country.  He is the kind of leader that we are starved for, whatever our political persuasion, and he is uttering truth, which is something that we are starved for even more.

The Fox News take on the Bulworth remark might have been bad, but Michael Tomasky, herding the liberal sheep for The Daily Beast was even worse:

In all the commentary I’ve seen on this, I haven’t yet seen anyone point out that going Bulworth is a pretty stupid idea, because the Warren Beatty character, after enjoying a brief resurgence in the polls, became as I recall sort of a laughingstock (at least, that’s what I thought) and then ended up staging his own assassination at the depths of his self-loathing. No. If we’re going to delve into movieland for analogies, it’s not Bulworth that Obama needs to “go,” but Rambo—on the Republicans, and in a hurry.

The rest of the article continues in that completely irrelevant and very nearly unreadable vein.  It’s almost as hard to read, in fact, as it is to watch Rick Sanchez humiliate himself in his futile attempt to get back on the corrupt gravy train.  A principal role of the media is to continue stirring up the phony left versus right conflict, using the old divide-and-conquer strategy while maintaining the illusion that we actually have legitimate choices when we go to the polls.  In their response to the “Bulworth” remark, the mainstream media played their role to the hilt.  The Fox News crowd in particular needs to be reminded that Senator Bulworth was not so much offering a prescription for our national ills as he was providing a clear-eyed diagnosis.  Such a proper diagnosis is the first thing we need, but it is the last thing they want, because they, as Bulworth points out so well, are among the worst of our national pathogens.

But does Barack Obama or Barry Soetoro or whoever he is really have it in him to go Bulworth?  Well, it’s a good sign that he has apparently at least paid some lip service to the concept.  One can hardly imagine such words ever coming out of the mouths of, say, either Bill or Hillary Clinton or either President Bush or either John, McCain or Kerry.  There is a third John of recent memory who came within sniffing distance of the presidency, John Edwards, whom I could actually have seen going Bulworth at some point.  Remember the “Two America’s” theme of his campaign?  It must have really given “Mister Big” a case of the shivers, and now Edwards is as politically dead as Gary Hart.  Could our controlling criminal elite (CCE) really be getting nervous over this “Bulworth” peep out of Barry? 

I think any nervousness would grow out of the fact that holders of power are always nervous about it and jealous of it, and they really do have a whole witch’s brew of secrets to keep the lid on.  Might he really go off the deep end and use the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to reveal that the war on terror is a fraud and that the notion that a man in a cave in Afghanistan, depending completely in advance upon the total incompetence of America’s air defenses, orchestrated the 9/11 attacks is a patent, ridiculous lie?  They might even have started drawing up a contingency plan for Obama going Bulworth, even in the smallest degree, as soon as he did his private musing and well before it hit the pages of The New York Times.

Does Obama Have it in Him?

Absent the remark, though, Barack Obama, from his record, strikes us as very nearly the last person in the world who would actually go Bulworth.  Surely he knows that he is as much a nonentity as Rick Sanchez ever was, that he is the complete creation of those whom he would have to blow the whistle upon.  The chance that this particular dog would ever bite that feeding hand is about as close to zero as it’s possible to get. 

Consider, as well, the particular unseemliness of a president hinting that he would really like to commit truth for the benefit of the American people, exposing the malignant power wielders behind the scenes, while he is coming down on actual whistleblowers in a fashion that is unprecedented in presidential history.  Is he signaling with his Bulworth remark that he secretly sympathizes with them?  So what?  He was open about the great sympathy he felt for Muslims and his intention to close the prison at Guantánamo, but he has massively escalated the drone war on people of the Muslim persuasion and the prison at Guantánamo is still a going concern.  Taking this president at his actual word has proven to be not a very good idea; seizing upon a reported private wistful sentiment, then, would seem to give a whole new meaning to the expression, “grasping at straws.”

So we can give up our daydreams about this president, or any president, coming on the air and asking why our sons and daughters must kill and die in Middle Eastern wars when there is only one nearby little country in the entire world where the majority of the people favored our invasion of Iraq, while they were not asked to risk a single son or daughter.  Nor is there any chance that Obama will go Bulworth and explain to the American people why we can no longer afford the enormous subsidy that we give, for no reason that serves our own interests, to that little country every year.  The man’s, or Mr. Big’s, or the CCE’s, or whatever-you-want-to-call-them’s vetting process for the presidency has become way too effective for that.

Finding His Inner Bobby Kennedy

The Post’s young Ms. Henneberger might know a bit more about the significance of Bulworth, though, than she is letting on.  She gives it away with this paragraph:

For those who missed “Bulworth,” Warren Beatty’s satirical, smart and widely mocked 1998 movie, which I loved for daring to be dorky, it’s about a hollow, bored faker of a public servant. California Sen. Jay Bulworth is a third-way Democrat and first-rate fundraiser who means nothing that tumbles out of his mouth. Until, that is, having given up on life entirely, he finds his inner Bobby Kennedy by hanging out in the ‘hood.

The similarity of the fictional Jay Billington Bulworth to the real Robert F. Kennedy is so inescapable that even a Washington Post columnist couldn’t help but notice.  I took note of it in a book review that I wrote back in 2000.  It is repeated here in full:

In much the same way that Warren Beatty's movie Bulworth, for a political movie from Hollywood, was a breath of fresh air, Richard D. Mahoney's Sons and Brothers, the Life and Times of Jack and Bobby Kennedy is a breath of fresh air from an American academic historian. What strikes you in either case is the realism. It is a realism born of the clash of the clearly strong idealism of the writer and the reality of naked, corrupt power in what has become of America's once great republic.

In Bulworth, it hits you early in the little-noted dead-on portrayal of the big-time gangster with whom Senator Bulworth arranges for his own murder. When he ushers the man into his Senate office, Bulworth greets him like a long-lost brother. The visitor looks nothing like the stereotypical Hollywood mobster, nor like the few who have been subjects of the occasional show trial like John Gotti. From the universal respect he appears to command and from the man's confident, prosperous appearance one thinks he might be something like the head lobbyist for the American Association of Retired People or a senior lawyer at Covington and Burling.

Beatty obviously knows his topic. In the late 1970s The Washington Post reported that the organized crime unit of a suburban Washington police force was there writing down license plate numbers (á la The Godfather) outside a mansion where a large dinner party was going on. The host was a major political contributor and king maker who, The Post reported, had been involved in casino ventures with members of the Gambino family and the Meyer Lansky organization. The guest of honor that night was Beatty's sister, the actress Shirley McLain.

A history of the modern American presidency that ignores organized crime is a fairy tale. Mahoney's treatment of the lives and the deaths of Jack and Bobby Kennedy is, in that respect, like a book for grown-ups compared to other historians' children's books. Others may have paid some lip service to the various connections of the Kennedy family to the mob, but Mahoney, the first John F. Kennedy Scholar at the University of Massachusetts and the Kennedy Library, fleshes the story out and sees the larger importance of it.

Joe Kennedy, Sr., of necessity, worked hand and glove with known mobsters in amassing his bootlegging fortune during Prohibition. Working outside the law in a major business enterprise, he was himself, by definition, a member of organized crime. The connection continued at least up to his arrangement with the Chicago mob to deliver the deciding votes in the 1960 presidential election.

Jack and Bobby's connection was not only as beneficiaries of the 1960 accommodation, something of which they had to have been aware, but also through the ongoing Mafia-CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, a plot that they inherited from the Eisenhower administration but poured extra effort into after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Further entangling Jack with the mob was his sharing of the mistress, Judith Campbell Exner, with Chicago kingpin, Sam Giancana.

These are the connections we know about, and yet Mahoney is obviously a deep admirer of both Jack and Bobby, and the reader comes away from his book sharing the admiration. Both of them had leadership qualities that distinguish them from those we have had imposed upon us since their deaths. They grew in office. They learned from their mistakes. They were both extraordinarily courageous.

Jack, who had much greater expertise and interest in foreign than in domestic policy, probably never intended to go as far as he did on civil rights, but circumstances, and his ability to empathize, pulled him along. On the foreign front, on the other hand, his instincts all along were diametrically opposite from that of the Cold Warriors who held the real power in the country. He was determined over the long run not to stand in the way of the nationalist aspirations of the Vietnamese, as the French had done with our encouragement and assistance, and his pursuit of detente with the Soviets in the last few months of his life was genuine.

This was more than enough to get him killed, but Mahoney focuses upon Bobby's anti-Mafia crusade as the straw that broke the camel's back. Looking at the role played by mobster Jack Ruby in the episode is enough to convince one of the mob's involvement in the Kennedy assassination, but there is a lot more evidence as well, which Mahoney brings out. Though they had the motive and the means to pull it off, and a lot of evidence points to them, the question remains as to how they thought they could get by with it and why they were right. Was the mob able to order up a phony investigation and to whip the press into line? Maybe Mahoney simply knew how far he could go and still get his book published. As it is, the book has received far less publicity than it deserves.

Mahoney's big revelation to this reviewer jaded in Kennedy lore was the eerie resemblance of Bobby Kennedy's brief bid for the presidency to the fictional last campaign of Senator Jay Billington Bulworth. The more he saw of the world and the more personal tragedy he endured the more he seemed determined simply to do and to say what was right, regardless of the consequences. And like Bulworth he was wildly popular with the poor and with minorities, but also like Bulworth he got quite bad press, even from the "liberal" establishment. Could there be a better indicator of his genuineness? These are the same people who covered up in his brother's assassination, after all.

But there was also the same foreboding, as "...some around Bobby began to talk openly about the inevitable. French novelist Romain Gary, then living in Los Angeles, told Pierre Salinger, Your candidate is going to get killed. When Jimmy Breslin asked several reporters around a table whether they thought Bobby had the stuff to go all the way, John J. Lindsay replied, Yes, of course, he has the stuff to go all the way, but he's not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it, just as sure as we're sitting here. He's out there waiting for him."

And, indeed, he, or they were, just as they were waiting for Bulworth.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a new flurry of activity in the CCE’s ongoing patsy-grooming process as soon as the word “Bulworth” came out of Obama’s mouth.  Wooden though he may seem, the incumbent presidential seat-warmer surely has the requisite imagination.  He knows, as well, that the lapdog press would, on cue, quickly start barking for the patsy’s scalp.  There is an ultimate sanction against a president or any of our politicians “going Bulworth,” so, sad to say, it will have to be nothing more than a fond reverie.

David Martin

May 22, 2013




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