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What it would mean if Obama 'goes Bulworth'
"The cinematic allusion seems striking given Mr. Obama's rejection of Hollywood's version of the White House."
 
"A suicidally disillusioned liberal politician... [is] bluntly honest with his voters by affecting the rhythms and speech of hip-hop music and culture."
"A suicidally disillusioned liberal politician... [is] bluntly honest with his voters by affecting the rhythms and speech of hip-hop music and culture." Wikimedia Commons/Quentin X

There's a veritable cottage industry in analysis articles on how a trifecta of political scandals will affect the last three and a half years of Obama's presidency. In The New York Times' iteration, by Peter Baker, members of Obama's former brain trust offer their advice and insight.

Near the end of the article, Baker drops in this anecdote:

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. [New York Times]

So, what's the deal with Bulworth? Here's IMDB's synopsis:

A suicidally disillusioned liberal politician puts a contract out on himself and takes the opportunity to be bluntly honest with his voters by affecting the rhythms and speech of hip-hop music and culture. [IMDB]

Here's the pivotal scene:

Does Obama really want to "go Bulworth?" "Probably every president says that from time to time," former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod tells The New York Times. "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."

Let's put it this way: "Obama, unlike Bulworth, is not likely to show up drunk at a campaign event or start rapping," says Luke Johnson at The Huffington Post. But the famously no-drama Obama has already been "unusually straightforward against his political opponents in recent weeks," Johnson says. Obama plainly accused Republicans of politicizing the Benghazi talking points "sideshow," adding "there's no 'there' there." And he said the gun lobby had "willfully lied" about a national gun background check measure that was blocked in the Senate.

The "satirical, smart, and widely mocked 1998 movie" is about more than just a politician being honest, says Melinda Henneberger at The Washington Post. "It's about a hollow, bored faker of a public servant who means nothing that tumbles out of his mouth until, having given up on life entirely, he finds his inner Bobby Kennedy by hanging out in the 'hood." So if Obama wants to "speak truth to the man — even if, sorry sir, but you are the man" — but can't, what is it he wishes he could say?

Would he address extreme poverty, maybe, as so many of my friends actually believed he would in a second term? Is the truth he's longing to tell about policy or politics? Would it lay out the path forward, or grouse about the partisan obstacles in his way? Unfortunately, I don't know what issue dearest to his heart he would sing out about if unshackled.... If he's half as hemmed in as he seems to feel, why not let us in on the secret? [Washington Post]

For a movie that is, as Baker says, "little remembered," a lot of people seem to have strong feelings about Bulworth. And not everyone is on the same page as to what "going Bulworth" even means:

Which brings us to the last point about Obama's reported Bulworth fantasy: "The cinematic allusion seems striking given Mr. Obama's rejection of Hollywood's version of the White House," says The New York Times' Peter Baker. One former aide calls it "'the Harry Potter theory of the presidency," which suggests that he could wave a wand and make things happen," and Obama himself mocked it — and, implicitly, columnist Maureen Dowd — at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, bristling "at the idea that he should be pattern himself after Michael Douglas's assertive character in The American President."

What does it say about our nation's politics that the president thinks it more plausible to be a politically self-destructive truth-teller than, as Obama described The American President, "an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy"?

Here's the Bulworth trailer:

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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