Must Political Stagecraft Be Evil?

Tom Kirkman, surrounded by screens as always, in Designated Survivor. (ABC)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.