The Candidate Explores the Political Spectacle

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

J.S.—a reader who first voted in 1976 and has seen The Candidate, for the record, “four or five times”—writes in with a really smart answer to my question about the movie and its status as satire:

The Candidate is the story of the education of a novice politician. It presents us with various individual lessons he learns, the overall gist of which is that it’s not enough actually to be an attractive, smart young idealist; you need to become “the attractive, smart young idealist,” i.e. a certain media type that voters will recognize as such. The satirical point, you might say, is that creating even a true image takes careful crafting, and that this process has an undertow—the crafting itself induces cynicism, thus making the image at least a bit less true.

But “satire” is just a label we put on all this after the fact. As you say, the bludgeoning political satires of the ’90s like Wag the Dog have somewhat spoiled the term. The Candidate is a comedy based on close observation of what actually happens in political campaigns. Through the eyes of the politician-in-training, we learn, for instance, how it doesn’t just matter what you say during a TV interview, but that you remember not to look up, because on camera that makes you look stupid. And that the powers of incumbency include being able to overwhelm a smart analysis, say of the causes of brushfires, with spectacle: swooping in by helicopter, deus ex machina, to announce that you’ve just secured the President’s promise of disaster relief. And that being effective means staying on message, which means repeating the same formulaic lines until they start to sound like random nonsense even in your own head.

You might say that this is the “wagging the dog” that happens in real life: the craftedness, the staging, gradually become the point, instead of merely a means to get the point across.

My own view, though, is that the film overstates this, hence the ending [embedded above] rings a bit false. There’s no reason that Bill McKay, upon winning, would be so completely at a loss, or that we should believe he will likely do little or no good in the Senate. If we’re to believe he’s the smart, decent person that made it plausible to run him in the first place, then there’s no reason to suppose he couldn’t be a kind of Paul Wellstone or Russ Feingold. Senators like those have had to run campaigns too, using many of same techniques and making many of the same compromises as McKay and his handlers, and yet the Republic has benefited greatly from them.

I really like that idea: that the satire here, to the extent that there is satire to be found, comes down to the interplay between person and persona—and between the candidate as a human and the candidate as a self-contained spectacle. One of the things that struck me while I was watching The Candidate was how much the movie made of the technologies that helped to encourage that dynamic: the whirring film reels, the crackling TV screens, the popping flash bulbs. These machines of political engagement carried with them a certain sense of menace. They were not merely omnipresent, but physically omnipresent: They were loud and leering and looming. They were everywhere.

All of that supports J.S.’s theory! It suggests a movie that is deeply concerned with political alchemy: how a person, with all his quirks, gets transformed into a shiny, glimmering candidate. But I agree with J.S.: It doesn’t seem to me that, if that transformation was the concern here, the film fully made its case, by its end.

You could read “What do we do now?” as meaning, essentially, “What do we do now that the performing is over, and we have to get real?” But that discounts the dynamics of the permanent campaign, which were already very much in play by the ’70s. You could also read it as an acknowledgement of the overall vacuity of the campaign: Empty rhetoric colliding, finally, with a job that needs doing.

Whichever it is, though, at this point it’s hard to get too incensed about the notion that campaigns double as spectacles; that doubling, after all, is also how politicians reach their constituents in the age of mass media. The connection between “spectacle” and “democracy” is a really interesting one, and one that movies, both before and after The Candidate, have explored to great effect; I didn’t read The Candidate, though, as fully embracing it. J.S. mentioned Wag the Dog; the story of Bill McKay strikes me, for the most part, as a case of the dog doing the wagging. It’s describing what happens during a campaign; I’m not sure, though, how much it’s actually criticizing.

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