To Boldly Go . . .

This column, and the world, have been very serious lately. Let’s take a not-too-solemn look at postelection players.

Warren Beatty has been all over the news as the leader of the anti-Schwarzenegger forces in California. He has emerged, and good for him. He’s been making heavily covered speeches and shadowing GOP rallies along with his wife, Annette Bening, a truly great actress. But Wednesday Beatty told reporters, “I don’t want to run for governor.” Which left me scratching my head. This is politics, not showbiz. It has nothing to do with what you want. If you’re serious you move forward, whether you’re in the mood or not. You really don’t want it? Then get out of the way! Get off the stage, let someone else stand there. The Democrats of California need a leader, not a handsome fly buzzing ‘round their heads.

Beatty is used to the rhythms of Hollywood, where you can ponder a movie for years. He’s famous for doing so. He was pondering making a movie about John Reed for more than a decade before he made “Reds.” I got this from the just published biography of Beatty by Suzanne Finstad. It’s a good book and almost hilariously touching. Good because it takes a serious, fact-rich look at a serious artist, hilarious because in the writing of it the author obviously fell in love with her subject. At any rate she got spun like a top. She’s probably still spinning; she’s probably in the waters off Malibu causing tidal wives as we speak. But I digress. Beatty understands the showbiz-politics nexus but doesn’t understand the politics-politics nexus. In politics, opportunities suddenly present themselves. Pols gamble—it’s part of the game. They throw the dice, they don’t stand there holding them over the table and talking game theory.

Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to be lucky in his foes but unlucky in outcomes. (I know him slightly, like him personally, and once gave him small assistance, gratis, in a tribute to George H.W. Bush.) He’s a living illustration at the moment of How Quickly It All Changes. Two years ago when he was elected governor Chris Matthews spoke of seeing a young boy so dazzled at the sight of the Terminator and his then famous bus that the kid broke from a crowd, touched the bus with his hand, and danced away with excitement. That, said Matthews, is star power. It was.

But with each day a star is in politics he loses some of his star-glow, and if he doesn’t gain, each day, an equal amount of leader-glow he begins to experience a steady diminution of personal power. Ronald Reagan, as California governor, made the transit from star-glow to leader-glow. He did it by doing big things successfully. Schwarzenegger’s stuck. He just lost four ballot questions out of four. Being on local news every night can make your presence more brilliant or more banal. For Schwarzenegger right now it’s having the effect of kryptonite. (Mr. Beatty, please note.)

Are you watching Trent Lott? He’s playing an interesting game. Just under three years ago he lost his Senate leadership post, but he’s no longer acting as if he’s concussed. He seems like someone who’s thought it all through. He appears to have little respect for his colleagues in the Senate GOP Conference, or at the White House for that matter. And of course he has reason to feel disdain: No one stood by him when he got nailed for saying the kind of things Bobby Byrd would say on a good day. (This column knocked him hard, too.)

When Lott stepped forward this week to say he thought the latest national security leak probably came not from Democrats but from his Republican colleagues I thought: Hmmm. This guy has set himself as the man from Mississippi who works for Mississippi. He no longer has to carry the party on his shoulders; he no longer has to be the leadership, or to be protective of his colleagues. What he has is freedom; what he’s taking is an opportunity to enhance his national standing with unfettered truth-telling. Or at least the telling of what he believes is true. This is better than party leadership. It’s a pretty wonderful position to be in, free of the need to show solidarity, brotherhood or even team-playerhood.

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Bob Novak did a column this week saying John McCain’s fund-raising has been slowed because of the concern of potential donors that he’s too old to run for president in 2008. I don’t believe it. In a solid year of hearing people talk about the ‘08 possibles, I have never heard anyone say McCain is too old. Nor have I heard anyone do the weaselly I have a feeling people think he’s too old. McCain is 69. He always seems bouncy and bantamy, in part because of the tight way he holds his mouth, like someone who’s trying to keep something wildly interesting from popping out of it.

But he is also not too old because every adult in America seems to have decided over the past 10 years that everyone’s age has been officially pushed back a decade. Decades have been redefined. When we were kids, 50 was old. Now it’s not. Sixty was even older; now it’s the beginning of age. Seventy was semiancient, now it’s hale maturity. Eighty is still antique, but that will change.

I have been thinking lately, by the way, of this: When they ran against each other for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, George W. Bush was the conservative and McCain the moderate maverick. Now, five years later, who looks more conservative? McCain, who worries about spending, regulation and immigration, or Bush? Funny how things change.

Jon Corzine comes across as a tired professor. He doesn’t seem sharp or divisive. He seems mildly befuddled. There was a great moment in his debate with Republican Doug Forrester when he was asked if New Jersey should lower the drinking age to 18. Corzine paused, lowered his head, and sputtered, “I think it is 18, isn’t it?” It made you laugh and made you like him. It will soon be common wisdom that Corzine’s former wife’s attack made him governor. I suspect we will soon be reading essays claiming that a high percentage of American voters have been divorced, or have endured the pain of a loved one’s divorce, with all the attendant bitterness and vindictiveness, and that these people ultimately felt sympathy for Corzine.

But I doubt it. I suspect Forrester’s backing of Corzine’s former wife’s charges gave Forrester a small boost, but not enough to be decisive. New Jersey is a Democratic state and a big media state. Corzine was a Democrat willing to spend $40 million. New Jersey continues to be blithely uninterested in charges of personal or professional corruption, assuming that politics itself is corrupt and draws a certain kind of practitioner. They’re like Southerners who used to support Huey Long and Edwin Edwards, only without the dizzy assumption that all will be well. They too say, “Come on baby, let the good times roll,” only with a certain pessimism, and dour expressions. This makes them, to me, quite loveable.

Mike Bloomberg won in a landslide in New York City. No one is surprised, least of all Bloomberg. He said in his victory speech, “Nothing can stop us now,” a remark that I experienced as vaguely threatening. He will probably find new places to ban smoking. Standing behind him on the podium was his beautiful lady friend, Diana Taylor, and as she beamed in her intelligent and ladylike way at the back of his head I thought, Why doesn’t he marry that girl? She works hard for New York and obviously adores him. If he does not ask her to marry him by New Year’s, she should do commercials against him.