The System Works!

PBS defends democracy.

Vote for Me

Oct. 28 and 29, 9-11 p.m. Eastern time on PBS (check local listings)

I f your politics are any less radical than Jesse Jackson’s, the news that PBS plans to air a four-part documentary over two nights about our political system ought to arouse your suspicions. Viewers of Frontline and the newer P.O.V. know that, with some notable exceptions, these series generally broadcast exposés with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) intimations that the system is rigged and that a political-corporate-news media elite routinely quashes popular efforts to reform our plutocracy. (Defenders and defunders alike, of course, should remember PBS also offers plenty of right-of-center fare, from the conservative-dominated McLaughlin Group to the investor-targeted Wall Street Week.) So it comes as a relief that Vote for Me: Politics in America, which airs Oct. 28 and 29 as part of PBS’ so-called “Democracy Project,” doesn’t subscribe to the formulaic conspiracy-mongering that often passes for a radical political critique on our public television network.

On the contrary, Vote for Me celebrates the haphazard and often clownish spectacle of state- and local-level candidates courting the votes of their fellow citizens–if always with the wink of ironic distance that such a description suggests. The selfishness implicit in the title, Vote for Me, seems designed to suggest not so much world-weary cynicism about cookie-cutter politicians as irreverence toward the flock of often patently mediocre bumblers who aspire to wield power in this country. It is the wit of producers Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Paul Stickler, and company, and their eye for spontaneity, that strips the electoral process of its mystique.

In one of the most winning scenes, a half dozen or so senior citizens transplanted from New York stand around a swimming pool–or, more precisely, in a swimming pool, waist- to shoulder-deep in chlorinated water–and interrogate Florida state Rep. John Rayson about his position on casino gambling. Soon, the seniors are shouting to be heard over one another, then shouting at one another, as Rayson, no match for these spirited refugees from a Philip Roth novel, pleads, “Time out! Time out! Here’s the thing …”

One of the themes of Vote for Me is that “this democracy respects involvement and rewards it, and disdains aloofness and punishes it” (in the words of Mario Cuomo, who serves as sort of an Italian chorus throughout the program). The vigorous interest taken by these denizens of Century Village, Fla., in even the most local contests ably demonstrates why Social Security and Medicare benefits continue to escape the federal knife.

Beyond the frolicsome tone, though, Vote for Me lacks a coherent thesis about exactly how our system works. The program succeeds less as an argument than as an entertaining concatenation of examples illustrating the banal insight that all politics are local. The first episode offers a close-up of retail politics in action: Buddy Cianci, the mayor of Providence, R.I., kisses a pig named Petunia, while the father of Chicago, Alderman Brian Doherty, croons an Irish ballad for a roomful of Guinness-swilling constituents. Part two examines the way various constituent groups manipulate the political system for their own ends: In Chicago, Mexican-Americans forge alliances with white ethnics behind the new Daley mayoral regime, squeezing many blacks out of city politics. In Austin, Texas, a swarm of lobbyists waits in the statehouse rotunda to pounce on legislators who pass by.

T he second night of programming begins with a segment that asks why people get involved in politics at all. We visit the political breeding grounds of Louisiana’s Boys’ and Girls’ State conventions, where high schoolers from around the state vie for election to posts called “attorney general” and “secretary of state,” though it’s not clear that, once elected, these young opportunists will have any real responsibilities to carry out. Then we return to Rhode Island–which the filmmakers apparently wish to establish as the most buffoonish state in the union–where Johnston Mayor Ralph aRusso, who changed his surname from Russo so as to appear first on the ballot, fends off an equally resourceful competitor named Mario aaRusillo. Of course, this last segment does nothing to answer the question the episode purports to explore–why people get involved–but the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t resist tossing more funny material into their pageant of absurdity, however irrelevant.

This waste-no-material approach starts to show its limits after almost three hours, but rather than sacrificing guffaws in the interest of concision, the filmmakers tack on a weak (and lengthy) final episode that chronicles the quixotic campaign of a political newcomer to oust a conservative North Carolina congressman. Called, pretentiously, “The Political Education of Maggie Lauterer,” the program spins a familiar narrative of political naïveté, disillusionment, and compromise. The candidate, a local TV newswoman, goes from caroling “Amazing Grace” on the stump to consulting with a Washington media coach and attending a fund-raiser at Marlo Thomas’ Manhattan penthouse. Once piously averse to negative campaigning, Maggie eventually succumbs to her first intoxicating taste of attack politics and is soon wallowing in the low pleasures of zinging her opponent in a debate. “I never knew how to spin in my life,” she says, “and these people taught me how to do that. … This time it was legal for me to punch at him a couple of times. I kind of enjoyed it!” The killer instinct gleams in her eye. She loses anyway.

The problem isn’t just that this Faustian tale has been told and retold umpteen times, in journalism and fiction, print and film, from Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate to David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics to Anonymous’ Primary Colors. Nor is it that Lauterer, a village celebrity described as “the local Charles Kuralt,” hardly suits the role of greenhorn blind to the wily ways of campaigning. Rather, it’s the way the filmmakers portray Lauterer’s defeat at the hands of the right-wing Charles Taylor. Lauterer’s loss is taken not as the expression of North Carolinians’ political preference, but as a failing of her constituents–indeed of voters in general–who profess to want “outsiders” to represent them yet reject their wished-for savior when she appears. In one scene, Lauterer is shown defending her belief in gun control to an agitated hillbilly. “What if we were to be invaded?” he asks her. “What if we were out policing the whole world and we were short here at home? Who’s gonna keep them from–You ever saw the movie Red Dawn?” A flabbergasted look crosses Lauterer’s face. “That is something to consider …” she ventures.

To milk this scene for laughs, the filmmakers don’t linger over the gun-control debate, however unsophisticated this particular manifestation of it might be. Rather, they cut quickly to Maggie indulging the rants of a young man who claims he loves handguns and hunts with them. Then we abandon this scene too, again before any actual debate can unfold. These rubes have served their purpose of illustrating the typical North Carolina voter as a raving lunatic, with whom no sane candidate could ever stand a chance.

For all its refreshingly exuberant attitude toward the quest for public office, Vote for Me too often enjoys its laughs at the voters’ expense–and not just the North Carolina gun nuts and the Florida geezers. While generally inarticulate and seldom coherent in their arguments, the citizens who populate Vote for Me have nonetheless come to form opinions on the basis of which they exercise their democratic rights. However outlandish these opinions may seem, no savvy politician would dare disregard them. But for the makers of Vote for Me, they’re merely fodder for ridicule, no different from Ralph aRusso and Mario aaRusillo’s silly ballot gambits. A more skeptical attitude toward Lauterer, whose sanctimony doubtless repulsed many voters, and a greater interest in the sources of the passions and contradictions of the eccentric citizenry, would have gone a long way toward tempering the filmmakers’ condescension. By golly, if those voters ever got wise to the way they’re being portrayed on government-funded television, they might even try to zero out its budget.

Power in Numbers: A pool full of seniors takes a politician down (20 second clip) Sound03 - vote1.avi or Sound04 -; download time, 3.50 minutes at 56K {Sound01 - bob-vote1.asf for sound only

“Now what if we were to be invaded … have you ever saw the movie Red Dawn?” (30 second clip) Sound05 - vote2.avi or Sound06 -; download time, 5.50 minutes at 56K {Sound02 - bob-vote2.asf for sound only