Have Gun, Will Travel
But can Heston's celebrity and rhetoric revive the N.R.A.?
By Margot Hornblower/Los Angeles
(TIME, July 6) -- Charlton Heston thrusts out his chiseled jaw, tips his eagle-beaked profile toward the light, narrows his steely eyes and folds his arms akimbo. "'Hard' is what I do best," says the veteran actor, explaining how he poses for photographs. "I don't do 'nice.'" No matter that Heston is, in fact, in pain, only days away from a hip-replacement operation, and has been limping around his Beverly Hills home in stretch Speedo slippers. No matter that a toupee, capped teeth and a partly unbuttoned shirt reveal a touch of vanity. At 73, the man best known for playing prophets and warriors is embracing a new role with gusto: president of the 127-year-old National Rifle Association. As poster pinup for America's muscular gun lobby, he isn't expected to do "nice."
No Hollywood prop man could design a more fitting set for the top rifleman than Heston's study, situated on a ridge overlooking Coldwater Canyon, with a view of the distant Pacific Ocean. Models of Air Force bombers and spent .50-cal. machine-gun casings adorn a side table ("I was a gunner in the war"). A portrait of Hemingway ("He was not a very nice man") hangs above a cartoon from the strip Hagar the Horrible ("with whom I have great sympathy"). Stacked around his desk like a fortress are volumes on the Boer War, the Civil War and World War II; biographies of the Founding Fathers; bound editions of the American Hunter; tough-guy novels by Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard and Patrick O'Brien. And, yes, the souvenirs: the ax, dripping fake blood, from a production of Macbeth and the sword from the movie El Cid. ("All things I've killed with or been killed with.") A statue of Andrew Jackson, given to him by the director Cecil B. DeMille, recalls another epic role. "Jackson was one of my favorite Presidents," says Heston, grinning. "One mean son of a bitch."
From this cluttered bastion over the past two decades, Heston has fought crusades on issues ranging from gun owners' rights and right-to-work laws (he's for them) to nuclear freezes and raunchy rap music (he's against them). He has flung rhetorical grenades at Bill Clinton and, with funds from his personal political-action committee, ArenaPAC, he has sallied forth to campaign for conservative candidates, 54 in 21 states during the past election cycle. Now, with a national stage at his disposal, Heston has vowed to wage "a cultural war" in which gun control is only the first line of skirmish. At issue is nothing less than how Americans define themselves. From a wall festooned with flintlock rifles, Heston takes down a skinning knife made from a deer antler. "It was given to me when I was made a blood brother of the Miniconjou Sioux in 1951," he explains. He fingers it lovingly. And then the actor, who traces his Scots ancestors back to 18th century Canada, exclaims with sudden passion, "I'm pissed off when Indians say they're Native Americans! I'm a Native American, for chrisakes!"
Heston's election as president of the N.R.A. comes at a critical juncture. Long one of the most powerful players in U.S. politics, the group has been weakened by vicious internal power struggles. Although it still has the means to pour millions of dollars into federal and state elections, its aura of invincibility evaporated with the 1993 passage of the Brady Bill, requiring a five-day waiting period to purchase handguns, and, later, a Clinton-backed ban on manufacturing and importing assault weapons. Law-enforcement officers, once allies, defected in droves after the N.R.A. defended so-called cop-killer bullets and its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, called federal agents "jack-booted government thugs." The N.R.A.'s hard-line stances have contributed to a drop in membership from 3.5 million in 1995 to 2.8 million today. As Heston told the N.R.A. convention last month, "Too many gun owners think we've wandered to some fringe of American life and left them behind."
LaPierre, who orchestrated the actor's election to the part-time, unpaid post, claims the N.R.A. has been "demonized by the national media." He adds with glee, "Now Moses is here to set the record straight." Heston's heroic image, burnished by such films as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, is already paying off in free airtime. "The day I became president, I don't think I held the gavel 10 minutes," he boasts. "I did 29 media interviews that day." Heston plans to leave the policy setting to LaPierre and focus on salesmanship. "I've been doing interviews for 50 years," he says. "I know how to sell a movie or a book. Now I'm selling the reputation of the N.R.A." Political access is another asset. "If I'm perhaps an iconic figure, it helps me get in to see a Senator. They say, 'I'll be glad to see you, Chuck. And, by the way, could you have your picture taken with my staff?'"
But if anyone thinks Heston is out to soften the gun lobby's image, take note: "hard" is still what he does best. Addressing 41,000 N.R.A. conventioneers last month, the new president thundered at Clinton in his magnificent basso profundo: "America didn't trust you with their health-care system, America didn't trust you with gays in the military, America doesn't trust you with our 21-year-old daughters. And we sure, Lord, don't trust you with our guns." A few days later, Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel chided the actor for "personal insults," given that Clinton had made gracious remarks about Heston at a recent Kennedy Center Honors ceremony and received him at the White House. Chastened, Heston told TIME, "I don't think I should have used quite such harsh language about the President."
A popular speaker on the right-wing circuit, "Heston is no middle-of-the-roader," says Thomas Catina, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "I chuckle through his speeches, thinking, 'This guy's got guts.'" Heston's rhetoric on homosexuality, feminism, multiculturalism and the skin color of the Founding Fathers has made it onto the website of white supremacist David Duke. (Headline: CHARLTON HESTON SPEAKS UP FOR THE WHITE MAJORITY!) But does it help the average duck hunter to preserve the sporting life? Or even the Second Amendment fundamentalist who believes, as Heston does, that any infringement of the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" is a slide down the slope of totalitarianism? N.R.A. opponents suggest it is convenient for the group to try to drown out the clamor against handguns by changing the subject. But to Heston, who quips that "in Hollywood there are more gun owners in the closet than homosexuals," the cultural war is all of a piece with the war against guns. "We seem to be unloosening and unraveling as a nation," he says.
If Heston can preach traditional values from his Beverly Hills perch, it is because he is seen as one of the rare Tinseltown practitioners. Raised in rural Michigan, he has fond memories of roaming the woods with his .22-cal. rifle (and unhappy ones of his parents' broken marriage). He studied drama at Northwestern University, where he met his wife, Lydia Clarke, an actress and photographer. They have been married for 54 years and remain close to their two grown children. As for his six-year-old grandson Jack, who lives close by, Heston's macho stance melts, and he turns positively gaga. "To me, he's king of the world," says the actor, surveying a once elegant patio, now taken up by a sandbox, a miniature basketball court and well-worn tricycles. The actor published a book last year, To Be a Man: Letters to My Grandson. But even in that sentimental volume, Heston can't resist a few pot shots: "Somewhere in the busy pipeline of public funding is sure to be a demand from a disabled lesbian on welfare that the Metropolitan Opera stage her rap version of Carmen as translated into Ebonics." Got that, Jack?
Like Ronald Reagan, Heston was once a moderate Democrat. He campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and voted for John F. Kennedy. In 1961, when an old friend, Dr. Louis J. West, became active in civil rights, Heston agreed to stop by Oklahoma City and picket several whites-only restaurants for a brief photo opportunity. In his 1995 autobiography, In the Arena, he explains, "It was also part of my expanded persona, riding the tiger." Two years later, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, Heston was among a score of actors who attended Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. "Our job was to get as much ink and TV time as possible," he recalls. Now, 35 years later, although his civil rights activism consists of only two appearances, he tells audiences, "I was one of the first white soldiers in the civil rights movement"--as he launches into attacks on affirmative action. When asked what made him get involved in the N.R.A., he told TIME, "The same thing that made me undertake picketing for civil rights." And has he acted on behalf of minorities in the past three decades? He pauses. "Once the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, I had other agendas."
Heston sees his evolution as the result of years of reading. "I didn't change," he insists. "The Democratic Party slid to the left from right under me." He concedes one U-turn: in 1968, after the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, Heston endorsed Lyndon Johnson's 1968 gun-control law--a fact that his N.R.A. rivals blasted over the Internet in an effort to stave off his election. "I was young and foolish," Heston explains.
Now his positions track the N.R.A.'s. Trigger locks? "A ludicrous invention. If you can't put it on a weapon without taking the bullets out, why put it on?" A five-day waiting period? "It's hard for me to accept that a guy says, 'I'm going to kill that s.o.b., but, darn, I have this five-day waiting period.' He probably still wants to kill him after five days." Ban Saturday-night specials? "The black and Hispanic women who clean office buildings until 3 a.m. and then walk home--of course, they want a handgun in their purse." Limit purchases to one gun a month? "It's the camel's nose in the tent. Look at Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Idi Amin--every one of these monsters, on seizing power, their first act was to confiscate all firearms in private hands." Sarah Brady, head of the lobby Handgun Control Inc., doubts that Heston will moderate the N.R.A. "A pretty face but the same old words," she says.
Michael Levine, Heston's publicist, believes the actor's outspokenness has damaged his career. "There's a reverse blacklist," he says. "It is far better in Hollywood to admit you're a drug addict than a conservative." But Heston, having just wrapped his 75th film, Gideon's Webb, shrugs off the concern. "People in the film community think being politically active means getting on Air Force One and going to dinner at the White House," he says. "I've scorned a few liberals in this town, and I get a kick out of that." Only six weeks ago, he called a press conference to attack Barbra Streisand as "the Hanoi Jane of the Second Amendment" for a TV movie she had produced on the 1993 mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road.
And he hasn't hesitated to take on a major employer. Heston's first skirmish in the cultural war dates back to 1992, when, in what he calls "one of my proudest moments," the actor stood up at the shareholder meeting of Time Warner, owner of Warner Bros. studio and this magazine, to read out loud the violent lyrics of Ice-T's Cop-Killer CD, distributed by the company. But Heston limited his attack on media violence to rap music and has had little to say about film or television. "I'm part of the problem," he acknowledges with a chuckle. Had he no qualms about accepting a part in True Lies, the notably violent 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? "No," he confesses. "It was an interesting part, and they paid me an obscene amount of money."
Sitting by his pool in the sunshine, as a small coyote strolls by and red-tailed hawks circle above, Heston seems a man at peace, relishing his foray onto the nation's political stage. In his autobiography, he offers a philosophy of life: "In the beginning an actor impresses us with his looks, later his voice enchants us. Over the years, his performances enthrall us. But in the end, it is simply what he is." Last week, as part of a revived $5 million ad campaign, Heston's metaphysics came newly into focus. His jaw set, his gaze uncompromising, his rifle gleaming, he stared out from a magazine ad under the caption, "I've never been afraid of doing the right thing...I'm the N.R.A."
Chuck Heston's Commandments
I remember when...the Nazis forced [Jews] to wear yellow stars as identity badges. So, what color star will they pin on gun owners' chests?
--Speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, January 1998
I find my blood pressure rising when Clinton's cultural shock troops participate in homosexual-rights fund raisers but boycott gun-rights fund raisers--and then claim it's time to place homosexual men in tents with boy scouts and suggest that sperm-donor babies born into lesbian relationships are somehow better served.
--To the Free Congress Foundation, December 1997
Mainstream America is depending on you--counting on you--to draw your sword and fight for them. These people have precious little time or resources to battle misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it's a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand, while they seek preference with the other.
The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of those wise old, dead, white guys who invented this country. It's true--they were white guys. So were most of the guys who died in Lincoln's name, opposing slavery in the 1860s. So, why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is Hispanic pride or black pride a good thing, while white pride conjures up shaved heads and white hoods?