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Look Who's Running

So far this fall at Harvard, Billy Graham has come to lecture, as has the former prime minister of Britain, and the presidents of Tanzania and the Dominican Republic. This week, at the request of the students at the Institute of Politics, the timbre deepens just a bit. The featured speaker in the atrium of the Kennedy School of Government will be a certain former professional wrestler. You may know of him. He's the one who says that organized religion is a "sham," that the Navy's Tailhook scandal was "much ado about nothing," and that the American "military-industrial complex" hired assassins to kill JFK. He's the one who favors legalizing marijuana and prostitution, and who tells Playboy magazine that he would like to be reincarnated as a bra of a specific size: 38DD.

This is where American politics is at the moment: Al Gore, the Harvard-educated preppy

who was reared in Washington, is moving his headquarters down home to Nashville, Tenn., hoping to enliven his image and show that he's a regular guy. Meanwhile, at Al Gore's alma mater, the kids want to partake of the wit and wisdom of Jesse Ventura, a high-school-educated biker turned governor of Minnesota. So does the faculty. Ventura will meet with some of them to discuss economics and constitutional law. "He wanted to meet faculty," said one official at the institute. "And they were more than a little curious to meet him."

Of course they were. Even Harvard professors love a good show. The O. J. Simpson trial turned the law into soap opera. Bill Clinton's rise and fall and rise did the same for politics. Campaigns and entertainment have always been intertwined in America, from rye at the polls to wry pols. But Monica Madness has erased what was left of the dividing line between the serious and the circus, and in these celebrity candidates the media may have found an irresistible roster of camera-ready contenders.

Inside the Beltway, and in the calibrated world of mainstream politics, campaigning has become an exercise in ideological caution and the accumulation of cash. Two-party politics seems a joyless and unresponsive industry of scripted speeches, spreadsheets and centrist calculation. In this world, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is lapping the Republican field, while Al Gore and Bill Bradley are locked in a hairsplitting death match of small differences as they fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Enter the Wild Bunch: a band of media-savvy quasi candidates with massive egos, mixed motives and, in some cases, humongous bank accounts. If they have a unifying theme, it is that The System is corrupt, and only a deus ex machina with fame, money or skill at provocation (or all three) can reform it. No plain "politician," they argue, can give America what it seems to want in the post-Clinton era: an "authentic" leader who isn't merely the sum of the polls he takes. The Wild Bunch cares less about winning than sending a message--and can sometimes be so ornery or outrageous that winning becomes impossible. The prototype, of course, is Ross Perot, the founder of the Reform Party who got 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8.4 percent in 1996.

Now others are auditioning for the role. On Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, Warren Beatty is pondering his next move after giving a thoughtful, well-received speech on the virtues of old-fashioned liberalism. He tells friends he may well run in selected Democratic primaries, if only to be a one-man Greek chorus of liberal conscience on the campaign trail. On CNN's "Larry King Live" this week, the multibillionaire developer and casino owner Donald Trump is expected to say that he's serious about seeking the Reform Party nomination for president, and may at some point establish a legal mechanism to begin doing so. Meanwhile, the rush of the rich and famous gathers force: actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, basketball star Charles Barkley and actress Cybill Shepherd have all expressed interest in seeking office.

Maybe they're all arriving just in time to reawaken public interest in politics. A lower percentage of Americans is voting in elections than at any time since the roaring '20s, and, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, barely half--54 percent--say that the two-party system is doing even "a pretty good job of addressing the issues that are most important." To many voters--especially young ones--traditional politics is not only beside the point, but dull beyond words. In a time of relative peace and prosperity, a cable-ready nation is looking for action and inspiration--and generally not finding either. "Politics has to be exciting again," says talk-show provocateur Pat Buchanan, who's done his part to wake the echoes by suggesting that the United States should have made a prewar separate peace with Hitler's Germany. "This is a bored nation."

It's also one in which the avenues for "outsiders" to be heard have multiplied--even as the insiders have reasserted their grip on the two-party process by bunching the majority of the primaries early in the season. As a result, the traditional candidates spend most of their time raising money, usually behind closed doors. Those literally outside the room, meanwhile, have new ways to be heard. Cable and the Internet broke the grip of Big Media, and give anyone with a strong opinion and a flair for theater a chance to become a presence--if not a force--in politics. "Ross Perot couldn't have existed without CNN in 1992," said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "Now, just seven years later, there can be a channel for every candidate." The times, moreover, not only allow but seem to demand the outrageous. "The cold war is long over, the economy seems fine," says Beschloss. "There is no grand crisis to define our politics at the moment."

Of course that doesn't mean Donald Trump will ever get the chance to put a casino in the West Wing. The same sense of millennial exhaustion that makes celebrity candidates interesting makes their ultimate success highly unlikely. Since the summer of 1992 (when Perot briefly led in the polls), there hasn't been enough anger in the country to propel an independent candidate into the White House.

Nevertheless, a race of sorts is taking shape for the Reform Party nomination. It pits Trump, who consults regularly with Ventura, against shouting head Buchanan, who wants to win the support of Perot. Trump fired the first shot recently, attacking Buchanan for his comments on Hitler. "Nobody in Pat's own party wanted to take him on," says Trump. "Somebody had to, and I did." Ventura bestows praise on Trump. "He's certainly not a career politician," Ventura said on NBC's "Meet the Press" last week. "I see some parallels between Trump and myself."

Does anybody care who gets the Reform Party nomination? The Austin Powers do. At the Bush headquarters in the capital of Texas, they are closely monitoring developments, and for good reason. W and his top advisers believe that the one-two punch from Buchanan (in the primaries) and Perot (in the fall election) cost Bush's father the presidency in 1992. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, Buchanan gets only 8 percent in a race against Bush (46 percent) and Gore (38 percent), with 8 percent uncommitted. Still, the family folk memory seems to have influenced W's reaction to Buchanan: sensitive to the need to win over Pat's supporters in a general election, W refused to pick a fight with him over World War II history.

The Wild Bunch lives to provoke. Centrist political correctness is for wimps. Buchanan carried the battle flag two weeks ago, until it was picked up by Ventura in Playboy. His comments about religion, sex and bra sizes brought a sharp attack from the Perot camp. Outgoing party Chairman Russell Verney, a Perot ally, wrote a letter demanding that Ventura "resign" from the Reform Party. The Body answered that his remarks had been taken out of context, but for the most part blasted back at his foes. "They probably didn't support me anyway when I ran for governor," he told NBC. "If one interview in Playboy brings shame... I think they have ulterior motives."

Still, for the most part, the Wild Bunch honors each other's right to be outrageous. Most of them, after all, have a book to sell (or soon will). Trump avoided criticizing Ventura, saying that Jesse had meant no disrespect to "religious belief" per se. The Donald, despite his billions, was somehow unable to find a copy of the interview. Amazingly, Buchanan came to The Body's defense. A devout, conservative Roman Catholic, Buchanan nevertheless ordered the media to lay off. "It's a free country, and he is entitled to free speech," he said. In Austin, they loved the Buchanan and Body brouhahas. "Those Reform guys are really something, aren't they?" said one Bush adviser. "First they defend Hitler, then attack Jesus. What's next, denouncing motherhood?"

Buchanan is sticking with plans to leave the GOP and contend for the Reform Party nomination. He won a ruling from federal officials that will allow him to get some $2 million in matching money for an independent bid. He says he may put off his timetable for departing the GOP because of the controversy over his new book. "The book tour's a little more exciting than we anticipated," he said dryly. Buchanan expressed concern about Trump's bankroll. "If he gets in and says he'll spend $100 million, why, that's something to think about."

Still, in the NEWSWEEK Poll, Buchanan starts out in the lead in the Wild Bunch. Asked who would be the most "effective" Reform Party candidate, 24 percent of the voters said Buchanan, 16 percent said Perot, 13 percent Ventura, 10 percent Beatty and 6 percent Trump. "Come next summer, after everyone becomes totally fed up with the major-party candidates, there's going to be a real chance for somebody to break through," Buchanan predicted.

Keep an eye on Trump. He has, as they say in the business these days, a "narrative." Nearly in bankruptcy a few years ago, The Donald has re-emerged as perhaps the most powerful builder in what he calls "the hottest real-estate market on the planet," New York. He speaks in a clear, punchy style, and is the kind of business hero (like Lee Iacocca before him) who appeals to blue-collars and computer nerds alike.

If he runs, he'll be well organized. He has a few clear ideas (to be laid out, natch, in a new book): tougher trade deals, stimulative tax cuts and a get-tough policy against nuclear proliferation. His casino mailing lists are said to hold more than 6 million names, and Trump's allies have conducted polls. His organizers pass out fliers at every Reform Party gathering. "This time," says the slogan, "it's for all the marbles." Though the Gore and Bradley camps are too busy figuring out the Democratic primary race, they ought to take a glance ahead in Trump's direction: his internal polls show that he draws more heavily from Democrats than from the GOP.

Beatty is a threat--or at least an annoyance--to the Democrats in a different way. Though he seems to be shying away from competing seriously for the nomination, he can effortlessly get out his message--that Gore and Bradley are weak-willed centrists--and do so in a charismatic way that makes the front runners look even more dull than they already appear. The media turnout alone was astounding for his Beverly Hills, Calif., speech last week: 150 reporters from around the world to cover an event with 720 supporters.

Though Beatty insists he has no interest in the Reform Party, at least part of his message jibes with theirs: denouncing the role of big money in politics. "The party is drifting," he said in his speech. "It's enslaved by big money and it's lost its purpose." Beatty's opening may be growing smaller as Bradley moves steadily to the left, but Beatty seemed undaunted, blasting both candidates for having made "political bargains that have left a hundred million Americans behind." The reviews were generally favorable. "The response was great, and he's more into it than ever," said one longtime political friend in California.

Meanwhile, it's Trump and Ventura who are center stage, The Donald on "Larry King" and "Dateline," The Body in Cambridge and on "Meet The Press." The defining moment of the New Age may have come at the end of Tim Russert's cross- examination. Did Ventura really want to be reincarnated as a 38DD bra? "I've rethought that position," said Jesse. "And I'd like to rethink it. Because if the bra was on you, no." Then it was time for a commercial.