Pass the Popcorn, Senator

How John Edwards learned to stop worrying and love Dr. Strangelove.

One thing you have to hand the 2004 campaign: it’s made for some really good TV. Compared to the turgid slog of 2000, when two virtually indistinguishable candidates scrabbled over tiny percentages of the vote to the resounding snores of the general populace, this has been a bracing, contentious political season on the small screen. Talking-head interviews with public policy figures have become the new water-cooler conversation. Friends send tips by email: “Did you hear? Shrum’s on Hardball tonight!” “OMG, are you watching C-Span right now?” Whatever happens on election day, I’ll miss the scrappy energy of Wonk October.

Last night, Turner Classic Movies kicked off a monthlong series called “Party Politics and the Movies,” in which senators are invited to choose and introduce their favorite films. John Edwards was the inaugural guest, and his selection was almost shockingly bold: Dr. Strangelove. This 1964 black comedy is best remembered for its closing image: Slim Pickens, playing a bellicose Texan Air Force pilot, yodels with glee as he rides a “nucular” missile to his death, initiating worldwide Armageddon. Essentially, Strangelove is the story of a few deluded powermongers who destroy the world because they can’t admit they’re wrong. Edwards was bashful about drawing parallels, but host Ben Mankiewicz finally baited the hook for him: “Is there any message you would like President Bush or Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to get from this movie?” Edwards’ answer, delivered in his usual courtly drawl, was a quiet little knife in the president’s ribs: “Human beings are fallible. They make mistakes … That’s why it’s so important to have somebody at the top of the civilian government who understands what’s happening and has good sound judgment.”

Next Thursday night, John McCain will introduce another Kubrick film, Paths of Glory, that’s one of the most virulently antiwar movies of all time. How he’ll manage to spin that one in Bush’s favor should make for some fun watching. But what doesn’t these days?  7:26 a.m.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

After last week’s Surfergirl item about the First Couple’s appearance on the Dr. Phil show (click here and sc roll down) I wouldn’t be a good obsessive-compulsive if I didn’t bookend with a few thoughts about today’s episode, on which John and Teresa Heinz Kerry joined the TV shrink for a resolutely apolitical chat about marriage and family life.

An amateur diagnosis: Kerry is more fun on the therapist’s couch than you might expect, but he should consider attending a workshop on overcoming self-sabotaging behaviors. Asked if one of his daughters was more like him than the other, he responded, and I swear to God I’m transcribing word-for-word: “Yes. No. Well that’s … gosh, I’d like to say yes, but I guess … yes, the answer is yes.” Which daughter, Mrs. Dr. Phil inquired? “Well, that’s why I hesitated. Because in some ways my daughter Alexandra is more like me, but in other ways my daughter Vanessa is more like me.” Senator? It’s not an appropriations bill with riders. Just pick a name! Memo to Joe Lockhart: For the remaining three weeks of the campaign, do not let your candidate appear to vacillate on any subject, no matter how trivial. When he pulls into the fast-food drive-through on a campaign stop, have him bellow “COMBO CLASSIC, HOLD THE CHEESE!” before the intercom even comes on, and keep on repeating it at top volume until the last french fry has vanished down his gullet.

Other highlights? The Kerrys’ account of their traditional Christmas afternoon broom-hockey game, in which her side of the family takes on his, each team outfitted in custom-made T-shirts: “The Tomatoes” vs. “The Pickles.” Dr. Phil chuckled approvingly as Kerry explained that the team names were invented because “they sort of blended her thing with our thing.” First of all: That is one awesomely dorky family tradition, straight from the Ned Flanders playbook. Secondly: Did I miss something with the T-shirt reference? The Heinzes must be the tomatoes, obviously, but why are pickles the Kerrys’ “thing”? Could Wonkette be on the mark in her  ongoing speculations about the Democratic candidate’s intimate endowment?

Just as they have done on the campaign trail itself, both Kerrys at times managed to turn truth-telling into a liability. Asked how they managed to find time together, the couple cracked up. “I was thinking about the irony of our being here to talk about families, when I haven’t seen Teresa since Wednesday,” replied Kerry as his wife hid her face in mock shame. An honest enough assessment of the rigors of campaigning, but I don’t know how it’ll play next to the wifely devotion of Laura Bush, who must have a live video feed into the Oval Office so she can gaze adoringly at her hubby’s face 24/7. Teresa even used the word “witch”—twice—to describe her strict parenting style when her sons were young. The term was no doubt meant as a self-deprecating joke to endear her to the “family values” crowd (He’s tough on terrorism! She’s tough on … mischief!). But Heinz Kerry is probably underestimating the number of political cartoonists who would love to draw her riding on a broom.  … 3:26 p.m.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Slate is so blessed with great political writers: thoughtful, informed, fair-minded. And then there’s me. As the shallow TV chick, I get to leave the chin-stroking punditry about the veep debate to the formidable likes of Kaplan and Kaus, while I dwell on random ephemera like this:

Worst Question: Moderator Gwen Ifill asks the combatants to describe their differences without ever mentioning their running mates by name. Now there’s a useful skill in a leader. Hop to the mailbox on your left foot, being careful not to touch any cracks in the concrete! Chug a 32-ounce Yoo Hoo without coming up for air! Write a novel that does not contain the letter ‘E’! Edwards’ foot slipped off this particular Twister board twice in a row as he sullied his lips with the forbidden K-word, prompting a finger-wagging from Ifill. But the no-name game was no stretch for Cheney, since he barely mentioned his boss’s name at all during the entire hour-and-a-half long exchange, choosing instead to stick with the royal “we” (just take a look at the transcript.) There’s no doubt that trying to forget who’s running the country has been a crucial survival strategy for all of us during the past four years, but isn’t it Cheney’s job to at least pretend Bush is in charge?

Laziest Argument: Cheney’s claim that Bush would be a better commander in chief because “he’s already done it for four years.” The perfect argument for keeping your job: youalready have it! I’ve been at Slate for almost a year now – can we just skip that performance review, boss? Hey, Saddam had been in power since 1979! Where’s the loyalty there?

Biggest Nonverbal Mistake: Edwards’ frequent sips of water from that black coffee mug. I realize a man needs to wet his whistle now and then, but every time Edwards swallowed, he let his tongue loll outside his mouth for a brief, terrible moment, like a camel ruminating in the desert sun. I came to dread those sips. There is not a politician out there whose tongue I want to see more of. Less political tongue in ‘04, that’s my motto.

Sneakiest Save: Cheney’s deferential silence, and voluntary forfeiting of his 90-second response time, when Edwards complimented him on loving his gay daughter, even as the Bush administration opposed her right to marry. Yes, it was tacky of Edwards to get personal. But his subsequent dismissal of the gay marriage ban as a meaningless wedge issue was one of the few morally satisfying moments of the debate. The talking heads are already spinning Cheney’s non-response as “gracious” and “classy,” but wasn’t it also an effective technique to avoid dwelling on the screaming contradiction between Cheney’s personal life and the Bush administration’s gay-baiting tactics? … 11:06 p.m.

Monday, October 4, 2004

It’s no doubt a programming accident that Robert Altman’s  Tanner on Tannerpremieres tonight at 9pm, in the exact same time slot as the Vice Presidential debate. But there’s a wicked rightness to this scheduling coincidence; if you get tired of politics-as-fiction in the Edwards/Cheney match, you can switch over to fiction-as-politics on the Sundance Channel. The series will air every Tuesday in October with a four-episode marathon on October 31. Tanner on Tanner was commissioned by Sundance as a sixteen-years-later sequel to the groundbreaking HBO series Tanner 88, which the Nashville director has called “the most creative work I’ve ever done.”

Scripted by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Tanner 88 was required viewing for political junkies and cinema buffs. It was wry, dense, and layered with overlapping, semi-improvised dialogue that sounded somehow cynical and idealistic at the same time. Above all, it was a wildly inventive piece of guerilla filmmaking; using the real-life ‘88 campaign as a backdrop, Altman and his cast and crew simply showed up at party conventions and other campaign events with their fake presidential candidate, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), and started kissing babies and handing out buttons. The resulting footage, intercut with scripted scenes from the Tanner war room, hung together both as a comedy series with a dramatic arc, and as a sly satire of the emerging political art of “spin.”

Sixteen years later, reality television has become a programming mainstay, and “spin alley” has become a legitimate address. But Altman, who will turn 80 next year, remains an unparallelled chronicler of the hypocrisy, absurdity and sheer fun of politics-as-theater. Tonight’s episode reintroduces us to the now-graying Jack Tanner and his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon), who has grown up to be a documentary filmmaker unhealthily obsessed with her father’s failed presidential bid. When her latest documentary, “My Candidate,” flops at a film festival, Alex resolves to shoot new footage at the 2004 DNC in Boston, encountering along the way the usual Altmanian complement of also-rans, hangers-on, name-droppers and big shots: In the first episode alone, Mario Cuomo, Martin Scorsese, Al Sharpton, Steve Buscemi and Robert Redford show up to schmooze and kvetch.

Some critics  have found Tanner on Tanner too self-reflexive for its own good, calling it an “echo chamber” whose only message is that “Bush will eat your children.” Luckily, I have no offspring for the President to snack on. But in a campaign season made up of nothing but echoes, Tanner sounds clear as a bell to me. …  3:13 p.m.