Wag the Dog is notable, mostly, for its cynicism—cynicism that is so deep, and so pervasive, that it takes for granted that the cynicism will be shared by its audience. The film’s satire is so searing, in part, because it starts with the premise that politics is performance (or, ahem, that it is Political Theater, if you will)—and then it takes that premise to its logical conclusion. The argument undergirding the whole thing is that what Americans experience as the details of their civic life is actually an enormous production. All of it—the pageantry, the policy divisions, the things that suggest that Americans, by way of our hard-fought representative democracy, have an active say in our own future—is basically one elaborate Truman Show.
Wag the Dog, for my money, is very, very good satire. But what I kept thinking about after I watched it was why, in particular, its satire was so successful. And I think it had something to do with the fact that the film is based on a truth that is so widely distributed, I think, as to be largely invisible: that Americans, nowadays, take for granted the idea that politics is, in some sense, a lie.
It’s entirely fitting that Wag the Dog take for granted its audience’s cynicism; most Americans are, after all, extremely cynical about politics and elections. Not in a #rigged kind of way, necessarily, but in a softer, more diffuse, more miasmic way: Many of us just figure that political institutions are constantly trying to fool us. Campaigns are a Hollywood production, with wardrobe and makeup and cue cards. They involve lines and edits and revisions. They cast characters. They take direction. They take place, for the most part, on screens.
Many of the movies we’ve watched so far in Political Theater get at that basic idea through pushing against it: Head of State’s Mays Gilliam is a regular guy who refuses to play his advisers’ Hollywood-inspired game. So, to an extent, is The Candidate’s Bill McKay. And so, in a way, is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, who thwarts expectations about presidential geniality by being that most time-honored of things: True to Himself.
It’s a common trope in films and shows about politics: the one person, standing up to the Hollywood-produced machinery of Washington. The individual, fighting for authenticity in a political culture that wants nothing more than to be fake. What Wag the Dog suggests, though, is something both gentler and infinitely more cynical: Here, there is no one to push back. Here, there is no one to stand up for authenticity or truth or the empowerment of the individual. Here, it’s all a production; we citizens double as audiences. And the thing of it is that, in the movie’s dark vision, there is no difference between the two.
If you have any thoughts about the film you’d like to add, please drop us a note: email@example.com. Update from a reader:
Glad you brought up this movie. It’s ahead of its time in underlining our tendency to believe what we see on TV, Facebook, Twitter, and from political “surrogates” and pundits. I have to confess: As a Class A cynic (hey, four years at a New England prep school in the ‘60s will do that to ya), I watch Wag the Dog about once a year just because it makes me laugh to see a team of “whatever it takes” political operatives go so all in on Robert deNiro’s command. Great supporting cast, too. Yikes.
Mid-way through October—and aaaaalmost approaching the finish line of this long-running election season—it seems appropriate to consider, for the next installment of Political Theater, the October surprise.
Wag the Dog, the 1997 satire starring Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Kirsten Dunst, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, and a handful of many other mid-’90s luminaries, is all about the last-minute revelations that can change the course of an election. That might be why it was one of your most up-voted movie selections for Political Theater. As one reader explained, “This movie gave me my first look into the government communications machine and drove my interest in political PR, which I ended up making my career.”
Wag the Dog, indeed, is all about the interplay between politics and pageantry. It follows the PR guy Conrad Brean (De Niro) as he attempts to distract the U.S. electorate from a presidential sex scandal—by orchestrating, with the help of a Hollywood producer, a fake war with that unlikeliest of foes: Albania.
Yes. A little bit Argo, a little bit Canadian Bacon, Wag the Dog is uniquely cynical—and, in that, possibly even more relevant today than it was when it premiered nearly 20 years ago.
Here’s a preview:
We’ll be watching Wag the Dog on Monday, 10/17, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. (Wag the Dog is streaming on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and other digital platforms for $2.99.) If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join in! I’ll be tweeting some initial thoughts about it then, with the hashtag #AtlanticPoliticalTheater. As before, though, watch it whenever is good for you, and join the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber) or via an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking forward to watching and chatting with you!
As we were watching Election on Wednesday, my colleague Matt alerted me to something I’d had no idea about: the film’s creators had originally provided a different ending. A really, really different ending.
It went like this:
Which is, yes … shockingly different from the conclusion the filmmakers went with! [Warning: From here, I should say, there will be intense spoilers about that ending.]
The ending that ultimately made the cut is, I think, tremendous: It almost single-handedly elevates—even, you could argue, redeems—Election, transforming it from a high-school soap opera into something that more strictly resembles a sweeping morality play.
The official ending is twofold: First, it finds Mr. McAllister catching a glimpse of Tracy, years after they both left Nebraska, in Washington—just down the street from the White House. She has graduated from Georgetown; she’s now an aide to Mike Geiger, a Republican representative; she’s leading exactly the kind of life you would expect Tracy Flick to be leading. When she and Mr. McAllister cross paths—she’s across the street getting into a limo with Geiger—she looks in his direction, with an expression of triumph on her face, but he’ll never know whether she actually saw him.
And then: He can’t resist. As the limo pulls away, heading away from the White House up 16th Street … he throws his cup of soda at it. The drink explodes on the back window of the car. He runs away. He is just as petty as ever. And she, once again, has won.
Watch the whole glorious scene for yourself:
And then there’s the very last scene: We find Mr. McAllister back in New York, where he works in the educational department at the Museum of Natural History—he guides tours for kids, basically. In the museum, surrounded by dioramas depicting early man, he asks a question: “So will that make this an igneous rock, or sedimentary? What’s the difference between igneous and sedimentary, anyway?”
The hand of a girl shoots up, eager and insistent: the next Tracy. Tracys, the movie suggests, here in this monument to the inevitability of evolution, are everywhere. And they will win, in the end. Darwinism is on their side.
Compare all that, then, to the ending that director Alexander Payne et al almost appended to Election: one that finds Tracy and Mr. McAllister reconciling, awkwardly, via that most idealistically American of rituals: the purchase of a new car. This ending features Tracy, having just graduated from Carver, confessing to Mr. McAllister that she is scared about what the future might hold. This ending, in short, humbles Tracy, and defangs her. It finds her confessing, actually, exactly the thing Mr. McAllister would want her to confess.
Which is all to say: It’s a very, very good thing Election’s creators went with the ending they did.
What about you? What are your thoughts about the ending, or the film in general? Let us know at email@example.com.
It’s not necessarily a flattering comparison: Tracy Flick is, in one sense, a kind of comic-book villain in a plaid skirt. She’s obsessed with winning. She will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. And she’s also that most fraught of things for a woman to be: openly ambitious.
Because of all that, Tracy is an extremely relevant character for the era that is still (still!) grappling with the political ascendancy of Hillary Clinton. So let’s talk about Ms. Flick! And about the movie she stars in! Our next installment of Political Theater will be … 1999’s Election.
Here’s a preview:
We’ll be watching Election on Wednesday, 10/12, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join in! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about it then. (Election is streaming on Hulu and Amazon—where it’s free with a Prime membership—and it’s available for purchase for $2-3 on iTunes, YouTube, and other platforms.) But, as before, watch it whenever is good for you, and join the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber) or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking forward to watching and chatting—and to reveling in high school political intrigue—with you!
One of the election-season clichés that has been a standby in previous cycles, and that has been obliterated in this one, is the Beer Question. Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? Who, basically, do you find engaging, and interesting, and on your level? Who would you want to have over for a pint or two?
It’s the question at the heart of “Game On,” the West Wing episode that finds President Bartlet in a climactic, live-televised meet-up with his Republican challenger, Florida’s Governor Ritchie. The episode may only loosely feature beer; it revolves, though, around the qualities the Beer Question really tests: matters of “relatability” and, with them, “authenticity.” The question is about the gut feeling voters have about the people who put themselves forward to be their leaders. It’s about the tricky paradox that candidates have been navigating ever since the Washingtons welcomed that first eager traveler to Mount Vernon: Americans want leaders who will lead them, but who will also not be above them. They want the world’s most powerful elected leader to be a regular guy. Or a regular girl. They want … a peer.
So “Game On”! Ritchie, here, is very clearly the candidate you’d want to have a beer with. He’s folksy and charming and plainspoken. He probably has thoughts about the Dolphins’ defense. Bartlet, on the other hand … probably does not. He’s the know-it-all, the nerd, the snob, the kind of guy who probably eats a lot of quinoa (and who knows that it’s pronounced “KEEN-wah,” and will totally tell you so when you marvel at how ubiquitous “kin-OH-a” has become). If you came over to hang out with him, let’s be honest, he’d probably offer you a cheeky Zinfandel.
And “Game On” is not subtle about laying any of this out. (The episode is, perhaps relatedly, part of the last season of West Wing episodes to be written by Aaron Sorkin.) Indeed, throughout the televised campaign, Bartlet versus Ritchie, these blunt oppositions have been the stakes: smart versus not, educated versus not, thinking with your head versus knowing with your heart. George H.W. Bush versus George W. Bush.
The stakes are, to be clear, extremely glib: Ritchie is essentially a walking (well, dais-grasping) straw man, standing in for a great many of the stereotypes within which progressives are fond of packaging conservatives. During the debate, Ritchie talks about “Eskimo poetry.” He calls “unfunded mandate” “a big word.” He seems confused. He seems unprepared—not just for the debate, but for leadership. It is simply not a fair fight.
And that, of course, is the point. As Sam and Will are savoring Bartlet’s victory after the debate, Will registers his surprise about how forthrightly superior Bartlet was as it played out. “I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial!” Will says.
“So did we,” Sam replies. “But then,” he adds,
we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning at 3:10, my phone rings, and it’s Toby Ziegler. He says, “Don’t you get it? It’s a gift that they’re irreversibly convinced that he's arrogant ‘cause now he can be.” If your guy’s seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.
Again: so smug. Smuggity smug smug. We can acknowledge our own superiority, without shame or retribution! But I think there’s something hopeful in it, too.
The Beer Question, after all, is the wrong question to ask. Do we really want a leader who is on our level—or is it better, actually, to have a leader who is demonstrably above us? My money’s on the latter. And so is The West Wing’s. You can read “Game On” as a lot of things—smarmy, strawmanny, overly convinced of a single debate’s ability to sway the electorate’s affections—but it also makes a pretty good argument for choosing leaders according to their skills and their knowledge, rather than their charm. Political stagecraft, as Matt noted of The Candidate, offers a mix of benefits and drawbacks; I think one of its most significant failings is the way it has of emphasizing charisma—not interpersonal charisma, but telegenic charisma—over things that are less readily translatable to the screen. It prioritizes the best performance over the best person.
“Game On” aired in 2002, before the founding of Facebook and Twitter; it is not about social media. But in another sense, I couldn’t help thinking as I watched the episode, it is entirely about social media. It is about the performative, personality-driven demands the public makes of its politicians. It is about the way we ritualize the lowering of our politicians so they will meet us within our own averageness. Under the current regime, candidates must be photographed and filmed and Instagrammed as they gnaw on pork products at the Iowa State Fair. They must share their Spotify playlists, and the mixes must be full of selections that are whimsical but also relatable. They must constantly be performing—not just as public servants, but as actors in the great dramedy of American democracy.
“Game On” is in the end, I think, about all of that. It is about how, in the interplay between “person” and “persona,” the American campaign apparatus is biased in favor of the persona. It is essentially a 43-minute long condemnation of the role that beer plays in the American political system—and, at the same time, a reminder that we are all under its influence.
I caught up with the first couple episodes of the new show Designated Survivor this past weekend. In the show, the top 12 people in the line of presidential succession, including the president and his entire cabinet and almost everyone in Congress, all perish in a bomb attack during the State of the Union address. So the running of the country falls to a somewhat obscure cabinet member, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), the “designated survivor” who’d been picked to watch the address from an undisclosed location in the event of just such a crisis.
Watching Kirkman wrestle with the burden of the presidency crystallized for me what bugged me about The Candidate (a film discussed by Megan here and here). Like Bill McKay (Robert Redford), Tom Kirkman is ambivalent at best about taking on a high-profile political office. But Kirkman’s ambivalence comes from the momentous regard he has for the office. McKay, on the other hand, treats the Senate seat he’s pretending to campaign for as something of a joke.
The promise McKay’s campaign manager makes him—the one that convinces him to run—is that he won’t actually have to follow through on any of the idealism of his campaign message. He can say whatever he wants, because he doesn’t intend to win. Although he gradually evolves into a more conventional politician, what drives him is his impulse to spread his cynicism about politics. He runs to mock the artifice of campaigning, and the biting satirical point of the movie (spoiler alert) is that his phony campaign compels voters all the more for its insincerity.
It’s hard to think of a more cynical move than asking people to invest their hopes, their votes, and their money in one’s campaign, all the while intending for that campaign to go down in flames. Yet many viewed McKay as a hero. Legend has it that the film inspired Dan Quayle to run for office, which inspired Jeremy Larner to address the future vice president in a 1988 op-ed in The New York Times. Larner wrote:
The problem of political success was put in a nutshell for me by the extras we gathered at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, to film McKay’s final speech. The director had me explain to them that McKay’s phrases (e.g. “forward into the future”) were meaningless, because he thought the extras had to be told when to laugh or clap. But when Robert Redford delivered the speech, the crowd—even though it knew it was watching an act—was stirred. The speech evoked not only spontaneous applause, but tears. Redford had the grace to be frightened by the response he drew that day.
The point of the film is the power of popular response: how little it has to do with reality or ability. It’s also about how easy it is for a politician to forget that he’s not usually saying anything at all.
Sorry, Senator Quayle, you thought we were telling you how-to, when we were trying to say: watch out. You missed the irony. Unless, in a way we never could have foreseen, you are the irony.
In Designated Survivor, Tom Kirkman begins the story close to where Bill McKay winds up at the close of The Candidate: newly appointed to the highest office in the land, wondering, with mounting panic, “What do we do now?” He wonders almost immediately whether he should step down, but he presses ahead, moment to moment, playing the role of president precisely because he recognizes the nation’s deep need for a figurehead in a moment of crisis. In several scenes, he psychs himself up to perform as a character who’s tougher and smarter and more confident than he really is, believing that the artifice is both necessary and part of the point.
Midway through The Candidate, McKay goes to a hospital for a photo opp with some new mothers, all of whom are black or brown. When his campaign staff reviews the footage with him while they’re trying to cut an ad, we see the mothers talking over him as he doles out platitudes. Over the course of the film, he gets better at commanding attention; as Larner put it in the Times, “his star outshines his soul and events sweep him, blind and lost, to victory.” McKay has the temerity to be shocked by the effectiveness of his superficial appeal, but seems to lack the decency to put that appeal to any use. It never occurs to him to strive to understand what those new mothers might need, and to use his apparent political gifts to get it for them.
What rings truest in The Candidate today isn’t the now-banal insight that pure stagecraft might make for effective politics, but that a vacuous self-styled idealist would exploit that fact all the way to office, with no intention of ever having to govern, believing all the way that his idealism is intact.
This week’s presidential debate! It was … something, right? (Joe Biden summed things up well, I thought, when he told Jimmy Fallon last night, “I’ve never quite seen anything like that.”)
Since presidential debate season is upon us (this Tuesday will feature the veep debate, and the following Sunday will bring the second Clinton/Trump face-off), this time around we’re taking a slight detour from films: For our next Political Theater segment, we’ll watch … “Game On,” the debate episode of The West Wing. (This is the first one, to be clear, the one that aired in 2002—not the experimental live debate between Santos and Vinick that would follow in 2005.)
“Game On” finds President Bartlet running against the George W. Bush-esque Governor Ritchie, and the episode contains, for my money, everything I love to hate—and hate to love—about The West Wing: blithe partisanship, broad-brush treatments of complicated public policies, optimistic institution porn, characters delightfully pranking each other.
Here’s a preview:
We’ll be watching “Game On” on Monday, 10/3, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join in! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about the episode then. (“Game On” is streaming on Netflix—it’s Episode 6 of The West Wing’s Season 4—and available for purchase for $2-3 on Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms.) But, as before, watch it whenever is good for you, and join in the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber), or via email@example.com.
Looking forward to watching/chatting/catharting with all of you, and to reveling in the pageantry of this unprecedented election season. Game on.
Jeff, the J.S. reader who wrote in before with great thoughts about The Candidate, followed up with a fascinating tidbit I hadn’t been aware of: The movie almost—almost—got a sequel. “In case you hadn’t heard,” Jeff writes, “there was talk a few years ago of a sequel, in which an older Robert Redford would play Bill McKay as the president he went on to become later in his career. Redford reportedly wanted to do it, but apparently the project never came off—unfortunately!”
The project was discussed, best I can find, in 2002. Here’s Entertainment Weekly’s write-up of the sequel that, alas, was not to be:
At the end of the classic 1972 political satire The Candidate, having won an upset victory for U.S. Senator from California, the once-idealistic young candidate played by Robert Redford asks, “What do we do now?” Thirty years later, we’ll find out. Variety reports that Redford is planning to direct a sequel, where he’ll play an older Senator Bill McKay. Writing the sequel will be veteran comedy scriptwriter Larry Gelbart (Tootsie, TV’s M*A*S*H).
“Interesting further questions,” Jeff notes: “What might a film about a President Bill McKay try to do? What would it satirize? How would it update the 1970s vision of The Candidate in light of later developments?”
Turns out that, before the project was scrapped, its would-be creators answered some of Jeff’s questions. In 2003, Larry Gelbart told Maureen Dowd that “he’d like this one to show the daily grind of compromises and governing, ‘like trying to make a U-turn with an aircraft carrier.’”
And Redford, for his part—though he told Dowd that he was, at that point, “anti-sequel”—also told the Times columnist that “he wanted to bring back McKay because things had gotten so much worse with the collusion of business, money, media, politics and celebrity.” As Redford put it: “The truth is so awful, but in its own horrible way, it’s entertaining.”
Dowd offered her own wry explanation: “Perhaps Mr. Redford figures this is his best chance of seeing a Democrat back in the White House in his lifetime.”
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 watchingThe 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.
The consensus among our watching party, though, seemed to be that it was difficult to tell how, exactly, the movie was working as satire. Was the crux of the argument that Redford’s character—Bill McKay—was selected to run for Senate almost entirely because of his good looks and, secondarily, nepotism? Was it that he had, in the end, sold out his ideals simply to gain political power? Was it the broader, more tragic notion of how powerless the individual person can be against the lurching machinery of party politics?
Those are all part of the story, definitely—and you could make a good case for each. For me, though, none of them came through terribly strongly, as messages or takeaways or, yep, evidence of satire. McKay, after all, wasn’t that great of a guy at the beginning; for my money, he didn’t turn into that bad of a guy by the end. He sold out, a little, definitely … not that much? And all that in addition to the fact—and this was my greatest source of confusion—that none of the stakes in this election ever seemed that high.
And maybe, you could say, that is the crux of The Candidate’s satire! Here, after all, are politicians asking for power over major and sometimes life-and-death issues in people’s lives (in this case, school busing, women’s reproductive rights, crime, the environment, etc.); and here are those politicians, at the same time, blissfully—cynically—able to treat those things merely as “issues.” Maybe the point here is the ironic privilege of the politician. If so, of course, that would make The Candidate, as many of you pointed out in nominating the movie for discussion in the first place, urgently relevant today. But I didn’t come away, actually, thinking that the people/politician disconnect was the obvious point of the movie. It was too subtle for that. Possibly too nuanced.
So I guess my main question coming out of The Candidate—one I hope you’ll weigh in on—is: Have movies changed, or have people’s perceptions of politics?
Those aren’t mutually exclusive, certainly. But either way they make The Candidate revealing. It could simply be, after all—this is the argument for movies having changed—that I missed the satire because I’ve simply become desensitized to cinematic subtlety. The ’90s, and that decade’s unprecedentedly violent collisions of politics and entertainment, had their way with us all; maybe, in the wake of Wag the Dog and Primary Colorsand even (the absurdist, glorious)Canadian Bacon, I simply expect my satire to be stridently un-subtle. Maybe it’s simply the case that nuanced satire no longer scans, to my Starr Report-addled brain, as “satire” at all.
The other possibility—and, again, the two aren’t necessarily at odds with each other—is that Americans’ perception of politics, in the wake of waters Gate and White, has simply become more cynical in the years since 1972. I pretty much take it for granted, today, that to be a retail politician will require—implicitly—some degree of selling out; I take it for granted, too, that politics and spectacle are, at this point, pretty much inextricable from each other. And in an age that finds conspiracy theories swirling, exhaust-like, around pretty much any major-party national candidate who puts herself forward for candidacy—in an age whose current “political satire” so often culminates in unpunished murder—McKay’s soft-sellout scans to me as … not much of a sellout at all.
Could the difference simply be that people of previous generations, in the post-1968 and pre-Watergate years, simply expected more—and, in another way, less—of their politicians? Very possibly. Here, after all, is the New York Times’s review of the movie, written by Vincent Canby and published in June of 1972:
There is something perverse and puritanical in the way many liberal Americans regard the political system. If a candidate wants to win, he must be suspect. Ambition in itself is bad. Like athlete’s foot, it’s not a sin, but it is unseemly. We put great store by the kind of modesty that insures defeat and that, only then, is revealed to be a form of arrogance. The best man should lose, or he isn’t the best man. This is the Catch-22 of American politics.
We all know that men who run for public office hoping only to improve the tone of the campaign, to raise the real issues, usually fail—and look terrible on television, which may be even worse. We suspect that only winning counts, yet we also fondly believe—since we’ve seen it demonstrated often enough—that the system is so corrupt that no good man can win without either being hopelessly corrupted or turned into a bewildered cipher.
First of all: Like athlete’s foot, it’s not a sin, but it is unseemly. From one writer to another: RESPECT. What a great line.
Second of all, though, it’s noteworthy that these tensions are simultaneously ones that we still discuss today … and, also, that seem distinctly antiquated. My sense is that the American public, writ large, has largely given up even on the notion of modesty in politicians. And that we have also given up, largely, on the notion of idealism—particularly now, as the public anticipates the post-Obama years. A lot of us now simply assume, I think, that an election is a pragmatic choice between two not-terribly-appealing options. And that corruption is simply part of the game—a part, indeed, that we, the public, are complicit in. In the age of social media, after all, we are all part of the partisanship that we are so fond of bemoaning. Candidates are what they are because that’s what we, directly and indirectly, ask them to be.
The Candidate anticipates all that. It emphasizes cameras and flashbulbs and TV screens; it explores the performativity of politics. And that’s what makes it feel—satire or not—worthy of watching today. One reader, who first voted in 1980, explained that the movie is “Timeless, still relevant. Redford’s line after his victory—‘What do we do now?’—sums up the political process as well today as in 1969.”
Another, who first voted in 1960, said that it “shows the candidate as we don’t see him/her in all the media and what campaigning itself can do to the one running for office.”
Another (first vote 1978): “About a guy who doesn’t want to run, and does anyway...resonates today.”
Another (1972): “Still relevant, subtle, entertaining, skewers hypocrisy of both parties.”
Another (also 1972): “Asks the most important question in the 2016 race (regardless of the ultimate winner)—‘What happens now?’”
Another (1968): “Showcases the absurdity of the political process.”
It definitely does. My main question is: How does it do that showcasing? And what can we learn from comparing the 1972 notion of political satire to the 2016 version? I’ll keep thinking and, meanwhile, I’d love your thoughts; send them, please, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The people have spoken. For our inaugural installment of Political Theater, our new reader series, we’ll be watching … The Candidate, the 1972 Robert Redford comedy-satire that received, by far, the largest number of your votes. (Thanks to everyone who cast their ballots!) I haven’t seen the movie before, so I’ll be watching it for the first time, along with fellow Atlantic staffers, this coming week—and I hope you’ll join us!
Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a political election specialist, must find a Democratic candidate to oppose California U.S. Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), a popular Republican. With no big-name Democrat eager to enter the unwinnable race, Lucas seeks out Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the idealistic, charismatic son of former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas).
Lucas gives McKay a proposition: since Jarmon cannot lose and the race is already decided, McKay is free to campaign saying exactly what he wants. McKay accepts in order to have the chance to spread his values, and hits the trail. With no serious Democratic opposition, McKay cruises to the nomination on his name alone.
No spoilers, but it looks like, from there … the plot thickens. Here’s the original trailer:
We’ll be watching The Candidate on Wednesday, 9/21, starting at 6:30 p.m. East Coast time. If you’re free to watch it at the same time, please join us! I’ll tweet some initial thoughts about the movie then. (The Candidate is available for free on Amazon Prime, and for $2-$3 on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.) Watch it whenever is good for you, though, and join in the conversation whenever you’d like—via Twitter (I’m @megangarber), or via an email to email@example.com. I’ll be thinking about it throughout the week.
I’m looking forward to reveling in the wonders of ’70s-era political satire—and to hearing your thoughts about it!
I loveDave—not just because it’s a thoroughly charming comedy, and not just because it’s a perfect relic of the early ’90s, shoulder pads and all, but also because it’s a whimsical fairy tale about … the behind-the-scenes workings of the U.S. executive branch. It goes like this: Dave Kovic, owner of a temp agency in Georgetown, happens to look almost exactly like President Bill Mitchell—so much so that, in his spare time, he moonlights at parties and car-dealership openings as “the president.” But when the real Bill Mitchell has a stroke that leaves him in a coma, Dave, under the direction of two scheming West Wing advisers, steps in so that the Mitchell administration can continue despite its lack of Mitchell himself.
I know that doesn’t sound like much of a fairy tale, but here’s the real magic: Dave, the Regular Guy, ends up being a better president—more practical, more ethical, more compassionate, more fun—than the person the American public had actually elected to office. Dave is Cinderella, basically, only with a bulletproof limo instead of a bedazzled pumpkin.
And that’s why I love it so much: Dave is a fictional story about Americans’ extremely non-fictional tendency to idealize the ordinariness of our leaders. It is a movie for the age of “the president I’d want to have a beer with.” This perfect relic of 1993 feels fresh and urgently relevant during the current presidential campaign.
So, with that in mind: We’re going to watch Dave again! And, while we’re at it, we’re going to watch other political movies, too!
Every week or so, starting in September, we’ll be getting together—the “we” being myself, other Atlantic folk, and, I hope, you—to watch, and discuss, a particular political movie. And the films we watch (except for Dave, which pretty much nominates itself) will depend on you. The American President? All the President’s Men? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde? They’re all on the table. In the form here, let us know which movies you’d most like to watch (and, for extra credit, why you’d like to watch them). We’ll use your ideas to put together a roster of movies that we’ll talk about, in Notes, over the months (yes, it’s still months) leading up to the election. We’re thinking of it as a way both to embrace and to escape the day-to-day doings of this long-running campaign season—’90s-tastic shoulder pads optional.
A peaceful transfer of power is necessary for American democracy to survive.
If Donald Trump is defeated in November 2020, his presidency will end on January 20, 2021. If he is reelected, then, barring other circumstances such as removal from office, his administration will terminate on the same day in 2025. In either of these scenarios, Trump would cease to be president immediately upon the expiration of his term. But what if he won’t leave the White House?
The American Constitution spells out how the transfer of power is supposed to work. Article II provides that the president “shall hold his office for the term of four years.” The 20th Amendment says that the president’s and vice president’s terms “shall end at noon on the 20th day of January … and the terms of their successors shall then begin.” Of course, a president may be reelected to a second four-year term, but under the 22nd Amendment, “no person shall be elected to the office of president more than twice.”
An out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality can take hold when people lose their connection to nature.
My mother situated me on her hip, took a deep breath, and stepped off our porch into the icy floodwaters. I was 2 years old.
It was March 1974, and the rain had been pummeling Lily, Kentucky, for two weeks. The ground had become so saturated that the flash flood came all at once. By the time my mother had navigated us through the waist-high mix of overflowing creek water, sewage, and debris to higher ground, my father had made it home from work, where he found water reaching the windows of our trailer. Family members came to help and frantically piled some of our belongings into a metal rowboat. When the flood receded, my parents salvaged what they could, but after days of shoveling mud, they found that the floors, furnace, and appliances had been destroyed. My mother says this was the first time she ever saw my father, a Vietnam veteran and auto mechanic, cry.
The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.
The scene is one many of us have somewhere in our family history: Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables—siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time. “It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life,” says one, remembering his first day in America. “There were lights everywhere … It was a celebration of light! I thought they were for me.”
The oldsters start squabbling about whose memory is better. “It was cold that day,” one says about some faraway memory. “What are you talking about? It was May, late May,” says another. The young children sit wide-eyed, absorbing family lore and trying to piece together the plotline of the generations.
After the Nevada caucus, Democratic Party leaders have never looked more uncertain about their future.
LAS VEGAS—The phrase Democratic establishment conjures images of something like the Illuminati with the power to determine the outcome of American elections. But so far, the supposedly all-powerful leaders of the party have been about as well organized as The Muppet Show.
Now, with Senator Bernie Sanders’s massive win in Nevada, he’s taken the lead in delegates and may never lose it. Efforts to stop him so far have been ineffective and made the party seem out of touch. This summer, party leaders may be forced to accept the nomination of a man who’s not officially a member of the party, who won’t have won a majority of primary voters, and whose agenda is popular with his progressive base but doesn’t have as much support with Democrats as a whole.
Trump’s pardons were shocking to some, but to me they were eerily familiar—straight out of the kleptocratic playbook I’ve studied in a dozen other countries.
Donald Trump’s decision this week to pardon several Americans convicted of fraud or corruption has garnered condemnation from many in the political establishment. The pardons were shocking to some, but to me they were eerily familiar—straight out of the kleptocratic playbook I’ve experienced and studied in a dozen other countries.
I was immediately reminded, for instance, of an episode from August 2010. I had been living and working in Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, and was participating in an effort to push anti-corruption toward the center of the U.S. mission there. A long, carefully designed, and meticulously executed investigation culminated in the arrest of a palace aide on charges of extorting a bribe. But the man did not spend a single night in jail. Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a call; the aide was released; and the case was dropped.
The episodes in which critics’ predictions weren't borne out offer valuable lessons for Trump’s challengers, even if they still vigorously disagree with the moves the president has made.
It’s 2020, and America is embroiled in not one but two catastrophic wars: one with Iran that has sucked in the entire Middle East, and another halfway across the world in North Korea sparked by Kim Jong Un test-firing nuclear-capable missiles that could hit the United States. It’s all the worse since the U.S. is waging both wars without allies, all of which have abandoned Donald Trump because of his incessant bullying.
Fortunately, this isn’t where we find ourselves today, but it’s what the president’s critics have been warning could occur if he carries on with policies that have shattered decades of conventional U.S. policy making. It’s not as if their concerns have no factual basis. The Trump administration really did come to the brink of war with Iran and North Korea. In neither case are the underlying tensions that got them there anywhere near resolved. America’s alliances are indeed in flux. But the fact that this is not our reality in 2020 is just as instructive as the fact that it could have been.
China’s use of surveillance and censorship makes it harder for Xi Jinping to know what’s going on in his own country.
China is in the grip of a momentous crisis. The novel coronavirus that emerged late last year has already claimed three times more lives than the SARS outbreak in 2003, and it is still spreading. More than 50 million people (more than the combined metro populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco) remain under historically unprecedented lockdown, unable to leave their city—and in many cases, even their apartment. Many countries no longer accept visiting Chinese nationals, or if they do, quarantine them for weeks. Big companies are pulling out of trade shows. Production is suffering. Profound economic consequences are bound to ensue, not just in China but around the world.
The similarities between 2020 and 1972 are too astonishing to ignore. But there’s one big difference.
Let me begin with a confession. When I started to report out and write this article, I had a simple thesis: Bernie Sanders is not George McGovern.
The catastrophic loser of the 1972 presidential election, McGovern has become a convenient bogeyman for any moderate or conservative arguing that leftism is a fatal disease in a general election. McGovern won just one state, Massachusetts, while the incumbent, Richard Nixon, commanded 96 percent of the Electoral College vote. It was then the largest Republican landslide in U.S. history.
Surely, though, I thought, the McGovern analogy was just glibness masquerading as historical analysis. America in 1972 was a different country—before personal computers, Star Wars films, 40 years of rising income and wealth inequality, and the electoral gender gap.
Where socialism imagines greater concentrations of power, her vision ultimately points in the direction of a more decentralized, more competitive economy.
Despite all the newspaper endorsements, Senator Elizabeth Warren is an underappreciated politician—and the candidate herself is among the ranks of those who have sold her short. She is a deep and original political thinker. Over her time in academia and in the Senate, she has evolved a distinctive critique of American capitalism as presently practiced, and a lyrical vision of what might replace it. Based on her presidential campaign, however, you wouldn’t really know it.
While Warren has clashed with some of the candidates to her right—she chastised former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his foray into a wine cave and accused former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of oligarchic tendencies—she has declined to truly delineate herself from Senator Bernie Sanders. The sharpest distinction Warren has drawn with her ally from Vermont is her gender. In a more accurate rendering of the pair, that is only the beginning of their differences.
How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election
Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on February 10, 2020.
One day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.