President Obama wants to 'go Bulworth'? What's that?

Hint: It's a reference to the 1998 political movie 'Bulworth,' from Warren Beatty. Here's why Obama would be well-advised to resist the urge to model his behavior after the title character.

Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS
Actor and honoree Warren Beatty arrives at the 7th Annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The California Museum in Sacramento, California March 20, 2013.

Beset by a cycle of bad news that is threatening to stall his second term, President Obama has talked wistfully of “going Bulworth,” according to a report in Thursday’s New York Times.

“Going Bulworth”? What’s that? The phrase sounds kind of ... ominous and energetic at the same time.

“Bulworth” was a 1998 political movie starring Warren Beatty that made a bit of a splash when it was released but since has faded into obscurity. In general, it was much cleverer than Beatty’s bland “Dick Tracy” and more entertaining than his long and boring “Reds.”

Its central premise was this: Jay Billington Bulworth is a veteran California Democratic senator who left his liberal principles in the dust long ago. Now he takes money from special interests to bottle up bills in his committee.

But he’s in danger of losing his seat in a reelection bid. Tired of the whole game, he starts speaking his mind, telling audiences exactly what he does and the extent of Washington’s soft corruption.

At one point, for instance, he admits to an African-American audience that his Democratic Party is doing nothing for blacks. “So what are you going to do, vote Republican?” he says. “Come on, you’re not going to vote Republican.”

The movie also feature an assassination subplot and Halle Berry as Beatty’s love interest, but those are immaterial to the message Mr. Obama appears to have extracted from the movie.

The Times quotes longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod on the “Bulworth” desire, saying every politician wants some catharsis at some point, but you have to be “practical” about what you say.

We’ve got a point to add there: We think it’s possible the “Bulworth” reference is something Obama should avoid.

The movie is not exactly analogous to “Network,” that famous 1976 flick in which a deranged anchor cries that he “just can’t take it anymore.” Beatty’s Bulworth character is partly a prophet, but he’s also long been complicit in the system. To a certain extent, his speaking out reflects not just a disgust with the system, but disgust with himself and how he has let the system corrupt him.

GOP pundits could make a fairly decent talking point out of that, couldn’t they?

As the late great Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, “ 'Bulworth' made me laugh – and wince.”

If Obama wants to talk about emulating fictional characters, perhaps he’d be better served to mull over the prospect of “going Bartlet,” after the pretty-much-saintly President Jed Bartlet of the television drama “The West Wing.”

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