Pundit Paul: A Nice Guy, But?

In November 1990, a few days after incumbent Republican Jesse Helms bested Democrat Harvey Gantt in their North Carolina U.S. Senate race, a campaign marked by an invasion of Hollywood leftists into that state, I wrote several of them, teasing them for their unsuccessful support of Gantt. Two responded. One was Indigo Girls manager Russell Carter, who in his sophomoric ramble called my letter "pathetic" and described Helms as "petty, racist... narrow-minded... a demagogue."

The other simply expressed hope that despite this setback, liberalism would eventually prevail. It was signed, "Best personal wishes, Paul Newman."

Yes, Newman is a class act who made news last week when his food company sent four tractor-trailers' worth of provisions to the tornado victims of Jarrell, Texas. He's also a committed leftist, but on this front his behavior is less gentlemanly. He's co-owned the left-liberal magazine the Nation since 1994, and this year started contributing opinion pieces to it, explaining to columnist Maureen Dowd, "Unless there's a noisy, vibrant voice on the left, people will think the center is to the right of Genghis Khan. We just got rid of [Bob] Dornan and now we get [Dan] Burton. They just keep popping out of rat holes."

Likening conservatives to rodents is beneath Newman, but dignity, common sense, or both often desert liberals when waxing political. He has little use for a certain onetime fellow actor, charging in 1989, "I know Ronald Reagan clearly knew that if someone ran a complicated economic or strategic concept by him, he would not understand it. Why a person would have the arrogance to think that he could cover up for that lack of cognitive skills and run for office bewilders me."

After Reagan's 1980 triumph, Newman and some Democratic friends screened Reagan's film "Bedtime for Bonzo." As Newman reminisced in 1994, "We gave everybody Budweisers and big pans and spoons and noisemakers and whistles. And it was fun - for about two reels. Then the full weight of [Reagan's victory] hit, and the laughter started to die down. And, finally, it was funereal. It backfired completely, and we shut the flick down." Shucks.

For many years, Newman's contributions to the public dialogue on his pet issue, arms control, were sincere - and sincerely wrongheaded. In a 1982 televised debate with Charlton Heston about Proposition 12, a nuclear-freeze initiative on that year's California ballot, he claimed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had similar records of compliance with nuclear treaties. He fretted over the possible exclusion of arms control from the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit: "It [may] get sidetracked because Reagan is going to [hold firm on] Star Wars [and instead] a lot of peripheral things will get talked about, [such as] human rights." When someone refers to human rights as "peripheral," you can tell he's entered the Zealotry Zone.

Further proof that Newman carried this obsession too far: his support in the late '60s of a bill that would have created a federal Department of Peace, and a bizarre 1989 remark in Esquire: "What the hawks have been trying to do since World War II is artificially pump up... wartime urgency with their concocted bomber gaps, missile gaps, and windows of vulnerability."

Newman's charitable efforts and his political crusades have overlapped at times. Proceeds from sales of his salad dressing, popcorn, and other products have benefited such outfits as the Center for Defense Information, a anti-Pentagon so-called watchdog, and the farcically named Union of Concerned Scientists, which lobbied aggressively against the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Of course, Joanne Woodward, Newman's wife of thirty-nine years, also is a longtime liberal activist. Recently in the New York Times, she demonstrated she understands economics about as well as her husband understood national defense. Apropos of the 1930s agitprop stage play "Waiting for Lefty," which she just directed, Woodward commented, "To me, this play is not just about the Depression... We still haven't figured out how to pay people living wages for a day's work." She seems to have forgotten that the far-greater-than-living wages paid to her and to her husband have bought them, among other things, the Nation magazine.

Still in all, the overall civility of the older generation of liberals represented by Newman and Woodward makes them preferable to the younger generation exemplified by the intemperate likes of Alec Baldwin and Woody Harrelson. Though the ideological persuasions may be similar, one group is driven by misplaced hope, the other by hatred, and more to the point, a hatred of certain people. There's much these types could learn from their elders.