Pols on Film 

How do you tell a real politician from a Hollywood politician? In the movies, your man always ends up on the Straight Talk Express. 

This is the week of the Democratic convention and the start of months of concentrated politicking, an apt moment to survey campaign movies and to measure our candidates against their Hollywood counterparts. Yes, it’s odd to go and rent empty speeches and bogus displays of patriotism at a time when you can get them for free on television, but the exercise is not entirely masochistic. Artists, with their fabled distaste for compromise, might have something to teach us about politicians, for whom compromise is the true art.

With few exceptions, however, the movies I screened—more than 60 hours—were bad politics and worse art. And those exceptions—The Manchurian Candidate (1962), parts of the Robert Altman/Garry Trudeau HBO series Tanner ‘88, and television’s The WestWing—were good in proportion to how much they flouted the “party line.” By that I don’t mean leftist-populist, which is the genre’s prevailing political thrust. (It suits me fine: Whatever keeps Michael Medved up at night is a socially constructive force.) The real party line in campaign movies turns out to lead straight to the Big Speech (let’s call it the BS)—the one in which the candidate either bravely affirms principles over politics and is transfigured, or cravenly yields to expediency and is damned. Compromise, the core of the political process, is regarded not as an art but as a black art.

The transfiguring BS happens like this: The crowd is primed to cheer. The candidate (a man, generally) begins a speech that has been worked on by his handlers, the one designed to please the fat cats and ward heelers—i.e., the “special interests.” But at the last second, he cannot bring himself to read what’s in front of him. He eyeballs the eager crowd, then lays aside that accursed speech and begins to extemporize. I have met the devil, he says, and nearly sold my soul to get elected. This country, he goes on, deserves better. The people deserve better. The candidate’s spouse, who has only recently discovered that he wasn’t the Superman of integrity she thought she’d married, regards him again with Lois Lane eyes. The crowd goes wild: Balloons and confetti and soaring music signal the politician’s apotheosis.

That’s the climax of Running Mates, a Turner Network Television film that aired Aug. 13 and that came to my attention when the editor of Slate, Michael Kinsley, phoned to say he had a cameo. The first time I watched the movie, I missed him; the second time I looked hard and found him on a TV screen in a campaign plane. But the sound was off and no one was paying attention. So the filmmakers turned up the volume for Arianna Huffington and Robert Novak but not for Kinsley: Bye-bye to the good review in Slate. That said, Mike was lucky he was vaguely seen and not heard. Films like Running Mates load themselves up with TV pundits in the hope that recognizable talking heads will lend them a touch of authenticity. What happens is the opposite: The movies lend the pundits a touch of inauthenticity.

RunningMates Running Mates was useful, however, for its textbook BS. The movie tells the story of a Michigan governor and party nominee (Tom Selleck) who disregards the exhortations of a loose alliance of liberal females—his dishy campaign manager (Laura Linney), his dishy wife (Nancy Travis), the dishy wife (Teri Hatcher) of a Hollywood studio head, and the dishy but aging wife (Faye Dunaway) of a senator passed over for the vice-presidential nod. Linney wants Selleck to choose a Naderesque populist (Bob Gunton) for the ticket, but an icy cabal of male party bigwigs has promised him $100 million if he chooses a stout, sneering, egregiously corrupt Southern senator (Bruce McGill) who calls Linney a “bitch” but does profess to admire her “sweet little ass.”

Linney is the film’s have-it-both-ways heroine: fiercely ambitious but also a “patriot”—an elastic word that in this case means that she puts the “people” before the “special interests.” The issue that the writer, Claudia Salter, never confronts is that—at least in this culture—contempt for “the people” is built into the process of hard-selling a candidate.

More to the point, it’s built into the process of hard-selling a melodrama, which is why it’s tough to take the movie’s idealism too seriously. For all its paeans to the wisdom of the common man and woman, Running Mates doesn’t respect them enough to present heroes and villains with more than a single dimension. It doesn’t respect them enough to know that they’ll roll their eyes when the candidate stands before his party’s convention for the BS and announces his vice-presidential choice without, evidently, having cleared it with the fellow (or his own staff) in advance.

I say: The people deserve better.

Running Mates is a throwback to the Frank Capra era, to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and especially State of the Union (1948)—the template for this sort of melodrama. In that film, the candidate (Spencer Tracy) is a popular businessman handpicked to make a run for the presidency by voracious Republicans, among them his wealthy mistress (a young and steely Angela Lansbury—not yet ready to sell out to the Red Chinese). As a man of “the people,” Tracy is unafraid to tell his audiences the truth. (“Nomination or no nomination, they’ve got to know where I stand before the primaries!”) But he bows to his handlers, who assure him that power comes not from the people but from state chairmen and business leaders, and who quickly have him spewing tripe about family values and the need to gut government regulations.

StateOfUnion The liberal counterweight is his estranged wife (Katharine Hepburn), whose humiliation during a live radio broadcast rekindles Tracy’s manhood. Hearing his spouse stammer Republican malarkey spurs his famous BS, which begins when he seizes the microphone from a panicky MC and proclaims, “I paid for this broadcast!” That rabble-rousing declaration was paraphrased by Ronald Reagan at a New Hampshire Republican debate—a Hollywood moment that many pundits felt turned his candidacy around.

But did Reagan go on to deliver his own unscripted BS? Of course not. The man who would appoint James Watt to be the custodian of the environment would borrow the style of Tracy’s utterance, not its point. I’ve racked my brain for a comparably momentous and successful improvisatory BS in the real world. Ed Muskie was probably extemporizing in 1972 when he fell apart in New Hampshire, but that didn’t put him over the top—it ended his political career. Bill Clinton reportedly gutted his prepared text when he spoke to the nation after testifying before the Starr committee, but that was judged a disaster—a gauntlet flung down at a time when unmitigated contrition was in order. Candidates like Ross Perot and John McCain have been known to throw away prepared texts, but both are widely regarded as unhinged. You have to go back to Harry Truman—pre-television—for a winner with a reputation for prickly spontaneity, and even Truman had the good sense not to run against his own party.

You wouldn’t guess that from our movies, however. Consider the chief executive (Michael Douglas) of Aaron Sorkin’s The American President (1995) impulsively junking a sell-out address on the brink of his re-election campaign. In the BS, he throws his weight behind an environmental bill and attacks Republicans who’ve branded his liberal-lobbyist girlfriend (Annette Bening) a “whore”—which brings the dishy, demoralized Democrat racing back to the White House with Lois Lane eyes. Consider the suicidal Senate re-election candidate (Warren Beatty) of Bulworth (1998) discarding a feel-good paean to the new millennium and telling an amazed African-American audience that no politician cares about them because they don’t give money. Charged up by the crowd, his newfound candor, and the ardor of a dishy, dreadlocked black woman (Halle Berry), Bulworth embarks on a BS odyssey, a series of rabidly populist raps that infuriate the PACs and party poohbahs but reignite his campaign. In Beatty’s fantasia of potency regained, the anti-special-interests BS doesn’t only make you Superman. It makes you Superblack.

Bulworth isn’t entirely optimistic about “telling it like it is”—its hero becomes a martyr. And there are other campaign movies in which the populist decision to defy the fat cats leads to exile or death. The suddenly honest mug (Brian Donlevy) of Preston Sturges’ The GreatMcGinty (1940) goes down hard and never gets up. The fictionalized version of Boston Mayor James Curley (Spencer Tracy) in The Last Hurrah (1958) loses his race and expires, while the raucous Earl Long (Paul Newman) of Blaze (1989) wins his race but also expires. The look-alike stand-in (Kevin Kline) for the comatose president of Dave (1993) defies his conservative handlers in his BS, puts those Lois Lanes back in the head of the dishy and liberal first lady (Sigourney Weaver), and gets a grim heave-ho.

The issue of who gets elected and why is framed more compellingly by Gore Vidal in his script (based on his play) of The Best Man (1964). This is the classic statement of means vs. ends—the work not of Vidal the debunker but Vidal the didact, the thesis-monger. What’s different here is that the “people’s wisdom” is an oxymoron: The view—unstated but plain—is that they’re a rabble to be manipulated. A great leader, says the highbrow presidential candidate (Henry Fonda), is one who refuses to employ any means necessary to get elected, whether that means “pouring God over everything, like ketchup,” or, more crucially, revealing an episode of alleged homosexuality in an unscrupulous rival’s past.

BestMan The counterargument, articulated by a dying ex-president (Lee Tracy—who once played an idealistic candidate in a good 1932 drama called Washington Merry-Go-Round), is that this isn’t a country for Roman patricians: The politicians who get elected are those who will use any tool at their disposal. He even prefers the Nixonesque-McCarthyite thug, Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), to Fonda until Cantwell makes the mistake of denouncing him. “Power is not a toy we give to good children,” the old man asserts. “It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don’t go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you’ve got no business in the big league. Because if you don’t fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.”

Which view is right? Along with Advise and Consent (1962), another post-Joe McCarthy opus that tackles the question of means vs. ends, The Best Man favors the politician of principle. The tip-off is that Fonda’s estranged wife (not dishy but certainly attractive), heretofore disgusted by his history of “bimbo eruptions,” gives him the Lois Lanes when he does the moral thing. The job of president might not be for him, but he and the hero of State of the Union are no longer exiles from their wives’ beds.

TheCandidate The domestic sentimentality of The Best Man would melt away in cynical, counterculture campaign movies like The Candidate (1972), directed by Michael Ritchie from a Jeremy Larner script. In the Vidal tradition, the objects of derision are less the bosses than the highly malleable populace—whom the once-idealistic Senate candidate (Robert Redford) labels, in a moment of exhausted candor, “middle-class honkies.” The candidate, selected not by party movers but by gun-for-hire political operatives, is figured to lose against a hoary and popular Republican senator (unforgettably named “Crocker Jarmon”). But the young man proves too winning. His first speeches are awkward and sincere, and they fail. His climactic ones are glib and empty, and they’re a triumph. In 1958, The Last Hurrah suggested that the new medium of television would favor a canned mouthpiece over a press-the-flesh man of the people. But The Candidate is the first film to put the flimflam of political marketing at the center. It must have been a shock back in ‘72—another reason to drift into political apathy.

BobRoberts In some ways, The Candidate, with its unformed protagonist and trendy hopelessness, is even more disturbing than the flagrant melodramas about fascist demagogues and their supporters: All the King’s Men (1949), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and Bob Roberts (1992), which adhere to clear definitions of good and evil and offer correctives in the form of heroic individuals and a knowledgeable public. The tedious Bob Roberts, directed by and starring Tim Robbins, is positively comfy in its liberal righteousness: Only a deeply committed left-winger could fail so completely to project himself into the mind of a villainous capitalist and immoral Moral Majoritarian.

The great work of this subgenre remains John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s delicious The Manchurian Candidate—which succeeds by taking Vidal’s too-earnest means vs. ends debate to a hallucinatory extreme. It argues, audaciously, that an anti-Communist like Joe McCarthy who employs undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends is literally doing more to subvert democracy than his Commie-coddling counterparts: He must be a Commie spy!

In the wake of The Candidate, Watergate, and Ronald Reagan, left-wing campaign films (really the only kind) fell out of fashion. (The exceptions were juicy Watergate melodramas like Washington: BehindClosed Doors [1977] and Nasty Habits [1977], in which favorite moments from the Nixon White House were re-enacted by nuns.) In 1988, Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau collaborated on a project of renewal: an evolving, shot-on-video campaign epic that mixed the media satire of TheCandidate, the philosophical earnestness of The Best Man, and the liberal ingenuousness of State ofthe Union. In Tanner ‘88, made for HBO, Altman and his cast—Michael Murphy as the moral but wishy-washy candidate, Pamela Reed as his campaign manager, Cynthia Nixon as his leftist daughter, and a press corps that included Veronica Cartwright and Kevin J. O’Connor—followed in the footsteps of that year’s actual presidential contenders. A few—Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Bruce Babbitt—exchanged pleasantries with Tanner on-camera, and when Babbitt pulled out of the race he became Tanner’s spiritual adviser, advising him to tell the truth and—win or lose—he’ll make a difference.

Tanner Tanner ‘88 is sometimes glib, sometimes painfully sincere, and it’s more slowly paced than you might wish. But it remains an extraordinary piece of work—an attempt to take the conventions of campaign movies, undermine their melodrama, and explore them in what feels like real time. Here’s an example: When Tanner becomes frustrated about the way in which his handlers have packaged him, he launches into a Big Speech about the wisdom of the American political process and the untapped potential of the people, and he’s secretly videotaped (from under a glass coffee table) by an opportunistic campaign photographer. Excerpts from that oration become his new commercial and even provide a catch phrase: “Tanner: For real …” But Tanner resents the invasion of his privacy and the packaging of his passion, and he never makes his peace with that slogan.

The last two episodes feature a furious, Byzantine effort to keep Dukakis from winning a first-ballot nomination and then a new option for Tanner: staying in the race as an independent. But the series didn’t continue, as planned, until the election. After an hour-long pilot and 10 half-hour follow-ups, HBO pulled the plug. The show is hard to find today, but Tanner’s polyphonic structure, on-the-fly camerawork, and attention to politics as a spectator sport were enormously influential. Elements of the series have found their way into those fascinating vérité documentaries The War Room (1993) and A Perfect Candidate (1996), as well as Primary Colors (1998) and the TV series The West Wing.

WarRoom Primary Colors, from the novel by Anonymous (Joe Klein), is The War Room with an injection of cheap moralism—disgust. In the documentary version, communications director George Stephanopoulos doesn’t appear to be revolted by what he’s doing in the name of a candidate with sleazy personal ethics. He’s delighted to bask in the glow of that titanic barker James Carville, and in a memorable scene, he assures a Perot campaign official that he’ll never work in Democratic politics again if he goes public with an item alleging that Clinton has fathered an illegitimate black child. But in Primary Colors, the Stephanopoulos stand-in is a young black man (Adrian Lester) who watches Shane (1953) on television and sighs aloud for a candidate of similar character, and who vomits after a visit to a black restaurant owner who believes that his daughter is pregnant with the candidate’s child.

PrimaryColors What’s most emotionally devastating about Primary Colors if you’ve watched a lot of old-fashioned campaign pictures is that the candidate’s wife (Emma Thompson) is oblivious to her time-honored role as the liberal conscience with Lois Lane eyes. In fact, she wants more dirty tricks—more leaked revelations of her husband’s rivals’ dirt. It’s the young black man, not the dishy spouse, who’s the spokesman for means over ends. The movie might have worked (Klein’s novel does) if it hadn’t made such a hopeless botch of the Bill Clinton figure. John Travolta—a good actor but not a brain, not someone who can think convincingly on camera—telegraphs his character’s insincerity at every turn. He makes Clinton look like a bad actor, whereas the real Clinton is a great actor—a politician who, whatever his psychosexual defects, is capable of entering completely into the role of master politician.

Michael Kinsley liked Primary Colors a lot more than I did, choking back tears when its idealistic protagonist pleaded with his boss not to “let us down.” I imagine that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, reacted the same way. Back when Clinton was elected, I wrote in England’s Modern Review that his pre-inaugural economic summit reminded me—thrillingly—of Star Trek:The Next Generation, of Patrick Stewart fielding reams of data from various alien visionaries, synthesizing them, formulating policy, and saying crisply, “Make it so.” After years of Hollywood doubletalk from Ronald Reagan and linguistic slapstick from George Bush, here at last was a leader with the intellectual stature to bring us into the process of governing.

Well, that’s what Sorkin and his great writers, directors, and cast do every week on The West Wing: They give us the Clinton of our dreams. Martin Sheen might be too short to ever get elected president, but he’s the ideal Father of Our Country, an intellectual who knows how to manage his own family, who senses when the time is right to soothe and when it’s right to raise storms. He tempers his crusty chief of staff (John Spencer) and plays Ward Cleaver to his rambunctious young ‘uns (the marvelous Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford, not to mention Rob Lowe—redeemed!). And don’t get me started on Allison Janney …

What The West Wing demonstrates is that a good White House is always in campaign mode, with many different simultaneous campaigns—multiple fronts. The hurtling camera and lickety-split line readings convey the message that in politics, momentum is all. And the liberal conscience? It’s evenly distributed. You get means and ends tangled up—the Big Speech and the poll the day after the Big Speech and maybe a bit of back-pedaling. You get a lesson in how to watch campaign speeches—not to mention all those silly, melodramatic campaign movies. 

Click for Edelstein’s handy guide to the best movies and TV shows about political campaigns.