Is there any field of human endeavor where the bullshit is piled deeper and higher than a political campaign? I don’t think so, and I include cattle feedlots. This film pretty much stunned me when it first came out, and I know I wasn’t alone. Back in 1968 we had all talked about being “Clean for Gene!”, meaning Eugene McCarthy, or had high hopes for George McGovern. Remember him? The reason the whole Watergate shitstorm came down, because Nixon’s dirty tricks guys were looking for dirt, and they got caught? And who won in the biggest landslide in American history? Remember that? Many of us were still hopeful that McGovern would prevent Tricky Dicky from being reelected.
This movie showed a lot of us just how corrupted the whole election process had become in the age of television, and made some of us pretty cynical about it all. Like me. I have never really recovered my sense of hope except for a brief moment of intoxication in 2008. I am a full-time cynic these days.
Let me say that there are numerous surgical and dental procedures that I would gladly undergo without anesthesia rather than run for political office. Part of that is that I am not very gregarious, and the thought of wading through even crowds of people who like| me makes me break out in a cold sweat. The other part is that I see just how many principles you have to compromise to get elected, and I would hope I just couldn’t do that. Not that I have a whole lot of principles left beyond a vast, helpless rage at what has become of our country, and that anything Donald Trump is for, I’m against. I find myself imagining horrors almost beyond description, and wishing they would befall that monster. Like, today.
The script was by Jeremy Larner, and I had forgotten that he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar that year. He worked writing speeches for McCarthy in ’68, so he knew firsthand what it was like to be inside a campaign. He patterned this story around the senatorial contest between Old Fart George Murphy (“At last we have a senator who can really sing and dance!”—Tom Lehrer) and John Tunney, a haircut looking for a job, and son of heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Robert Redford is Bill McKay, an idealistic young lawyer and son of a former governor, like Pat and Jerry Brown. The old guv is played by the great Melvyn Douglas. McKay is convinced by political operative Peter Boyle to throw his hat in the ring, with the promise that he can do and say anything he wants to. That promise lasts about ten minutes, and then we see the long, agonizing process of him surrendering most of his principles one little bit at a time, until there isn’t much left but the haircut and the teeth. It is so awful to watch. Before long it’s almost as if Boyle has his hand up his candidate’s ass, operating him like a really, really handsome Muppet. You can’t say this, it would offend this demographic, you can’t say that, you would offend this other demographic. And who cares if between this and that you have ended up saying nothing, but saying it in a way that will neither excite nor offend anyone?
And, my fellow citizens, it has gotten much, much, much worse, year by year, until no one knows what anyone stands for anymore. (I take that back. Donald Trump knows what he stands for. He stands for anything that will help him and his nightmare family sell hotel rooms and condos.) And The Candidate doesn’t even delve into the very worst of the process: The need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars by osculating the rectum of anyone with the big bucks. This is one of the main things that has turned the Democratic Party into Republican Lite since the Clinton years.
This is just one of the best political movies ever made. Maybe even the best. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better one. There is a whole long list of people playing themselves, some of them just captured in convention footage, like Alan Cranston and Sam Yorty and Jesse Unruh, politicians I had long forgotten about. Hubert Humphrey appears. Natalie Wood plays herself, as a supporter of Democratic causes. Then there are the local news people I got to know so well while I lived in San Francisco: Van Amberg, Rollin Post, Maury Green, several others. It’s fun to spot them and remember what big cheeses they used to be. Pretty much all dead now.