NEW REPUBLIC: It wasn’t so long ago that Alec Baldwin—his never-all-that-imposing days as a leading man well behind him—was just another Hollywood dolt with a waning grip on our attention and an apparently well-deserved reputation as an arrogant putz. However you define “cultural cachet” in the 21st-century infotainment thunderdome, betting on him to achieve it would have made predicting a Newt Gingrich inaugural seem like the consensus opinion of reasonable people everywhere. Given their shared propensity for giving vanity a bad name, prognosticators would have felt on firmer ground guessing that both men would end up competing on Dancing With the Stars—something Newt, needless to say, may yet end up doing once camera deprivation kicks in for real.

Not Alec, though. The beautiful absurdity of his current status as some sort of avatar of How We Live Now recalls Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn’s horrified reaction to director Billy Wilder’s projected biopic of Nijinsky. Goldwyn doubted moviegoers would cotton to a story about a dancer who ended his days convinced he was a horse, but Wilder had the answer: “There’s a happy ending, Sam. In the final scene, we show him winning the Kentucky Derby!”

That’s more or less what’s happened to Baldwin in the past half dozen years. Out of the blue, the now 54-year-old star of 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, among other non-classics, has become the yeast in our zeitgeist, the unrepentant olive in America’s Manichean martini—and, just possibly, one of the most promising politicians ever to run for (so far) no definable office whatsoever. MORE