This is the week of the Democratic convention and the start of months of concentrated politicking, an apt moment to survey campaign movies and to measure our candidates against their Hollywood counterparts. Yes, it's odd to go and rent empty speeches and bogus displays of patriotism at a time when you can get them for free on television, but the exercise is not entirely masochistic. Artists, with their fabled distaste for compromise, might have something to teach us about politicians, for whom compromise is the true art.
With few exceptions, however, the movies I screened—more than 60 hours—were bad politics and worse art. And those exceptions—The Manchurian Candidate (1962), parts of the Robert Altman/Garry Trudeau HBO series Tanner '88, and television's The WestWing—were good in proportion to how much they flouted the "party line." By that I don't mean leftist-populist, which is the genre's prevailing political thrust. (It suits me fine: Whatever keeps Michael Medved up at night is a socially constructive force.) The real party line in campaign movies turns out to lead straight to the Big Speech (let's call it the BS)—the one in which the candidate either bravely affirms principles over politics and is transfigured, or cravenly yields to expediency and is damned. Compromise, the core of the political process, is regarded not as an art but as a black art.
The transfiguring BS happens like this: The crowd is primed to cheer. The candidate (a man, generally) begins a speech that has been worked on by his handlers, the one designed to please the fat cats and ward heelers—i.e., the "special interests." But at the last second, he cannot bring himself to read what's in front of him. He eyeballs the eager crowd, then lays aside that accursed speech and begins to extemporize. I have met the devil, he says, and nearly sold my soul to get elected. This country, he goes on, deserves better. The people deserve better. The candidate's spouse, who has only recently discovered that he wasn't the Superman of integrity she thought she'd married, regards him again with Lois Lane eyes. The crowd goes wild: Balloons and confetti and soaring music signal the politician's apotheosis.
That's the climax of Running Mates, a Turner Network Television film that aired Aug. 13 and that came to my attention when the editor of Slate, Michael Kinsley, phoned to say he had a cameo. The first time I watched the movie, I missed him; the second time I looked hard and found him on a TV screen in a campaign plane. But the sound was off and no one was paying attention. So the filmmakers turned up the volume for Arianna Huffington and Robert Novak but not for Kinsley: Bye-bye to the good review in Slate. That said, Mike was lucky he was vaguely seen and not heard. Films like Running Mates load themselves up with TV pundits in the hope that recognizable talking heads will lend them a touch of authenticity. What happens is the opposite: The movies lend the pundits a touch of inauthenticity.
Linney is the film's have-it-both-ways heroine: fiercely ambitious but also a "patriot"—an elastic word that in this case means that she puts the "people" before the "special interests." The issue that the writer, Claudia Salter, never confronts is that—at least in this culture—contempt for "the people" is built into the process of hard-selling a candidate.
More to the point, it's built into the process of hard-selling a melodrama, which is why it's tough to take the movie's idealism too seriously. For all its paeans to the wisdom of the common man and woman, Running Mates doesn't respect them enough to present heroes and villains with more than a single dimension. It doesn't respect them enough to know that they'll roll their eyes when the candidate stands before his party's convention for the BS and announces his vice-presidential choice without, evidently, having cleared it with the fellow (or his own staff) in advance.
I say: The people deserve better.
Running Mates is a throwback to the Frank Capra era, to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and especially State of the Union (1948)—the template for this sort of melodrama. In that film, the candidate (Spencer Tracy) is a popular businessman handpicked to make a run for the presidency by voracious Republicans, among them his wealthy mistress (a young and steely Angela Lansbury—not yet ready to sell out to the Red Chinese). As a man of "the people," Tracy is unafraid to tell his audiences the truth. ("Nomination or no nomination, they've got to know where I stand before the primaries!") But he bows to his handlers, who assure him that power comes not from the people but from state chairmen and business leaders, and who quickly have him spewing tripe about family values and the need to gut government regulations.
But did Reagan go on to deliver his own unscripted BS? Of course not. The man who would appoint James Watt to be the custodian of the environment would borrow the style of Tracy's utterance, not its point. I've racked my brain for a comparably momentous and successful improvisatory BS in the real world. Ed Muskie was probably extemporizing in 1972 when he fell apart in New Hampshire, but that didn't put him over the top—it ended his political career. Bill Clinton reportedly gutted his prepared text when he spoke to the nation after testifying before the Starr committee, but that was judged a disaster—a gauntlet flung down at a time when unmitigated contrition was in order. Candidates like Ross Perot and John McCain have been known to throw away prepared texts, but both are widely regarded as unhinged. You have to go back to Harry Truman—pre-television—for a winner with a reputation for prickly spontaneity, and even Truman had the good sense not to run against his own party.
You wouldn't guess that from our movies, however. Consider the chief executive (Michael Douglas) of Aaron Sorkin's The American President (1995) impulsively junking a sell-out address on the brink of his re-election campaign. In the BS, he throws his weight behind an environmental bill and attacks Republicans who've branded his liberal-lobbyist girlfriend (Annette Bening) a "whore"—which brings the dishy, demoralized Democrat racing back to the White House with Lois Lane eyes. Consider the suicidal Senate re-election candidate (Warren Beatty) of Bulworth (1998) discarding a feel-good paean to the new millennium and telling an amazed African-American audience that no politician cares about them because they don't give money. Charged up by the crowd, his newfound candor, and the ardor of a dishy, dreadlocked black woman (Halle Berry), Bulworth embarks on a BS odyssey, a series of rabidly populist raps that infuriate the PACs and party poohbahs but reignite his campaign. In Beatty's fantasia of potency regained, the anti-special-interests BS doesn't only make you Superman. It makes you Superblack.
Bulworth isn't entirely optimistic about "telling it like it is"—its hero becomes a martyr. And there are other campaign movies in which the populist decision to defy the fat cats leads to exile or death. The suddenly honest mug (Brian Donlevy) of Preston Sturges' The GreatMcGinty (1940) goes down hard and never gets up. The fictionalized version of Boston Mayor James Curley (Spencer Tracy) in The Last Hurrah (1958) loses his race and expires, while the raucous Earl Long (Paul Newman) of Blaze (1989) wins his race but also expires. The look-alike stand-in (Kevin Kline) for the comatose president of Dave (1993) defies his conservative handlers in his BS, puts those Lois Lanes back in the head of the dishy and liberal first lady (Sigourney Weaver), and gets a grim heave-ho.
The issue of who gets elected and why is framed more compellingly by Gore Vidal in his script (based on his play) of The Best Man (1964). This is the classic statement of means vs. ends—the work not of Vidal the debunker but Vidal the didact, the thesis-monger. What's different here is that the "people's wisdom" is an oxymoron: The view—unstated but plain—is that they're a rabble to be manipulated. A great leader, says the highbrow presidential candidate (Henry Fonda), is one who refuses to employ any means necessary to get elected, whether that means "pouring God over everything, like ketchup," or, more crucially, revealing an episode of alleged homosexuality in an unscrupulous rival's past.
Which view is right? Along with Advise and Consent (1962), another post-Joe McCarthy opus that tackles the question of means vs. ends, The Best Man favors the politician of principle. The tip-off is that Fonda's estranged wife (not dishy but certainly attractive), heretofore disgusted by his history of "bimbo eruptions," gives him the Lois Lanes when he does the moral thing. The job of president might not be for him, but he and the hero of State of the Union are no longer exiles from their wives' beds.
The great work of this subgenre remains John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod's delicious The Manchurian Candidate—which succeeds by taking Vidal's too-earnest means vs. ends debate to a hallucinatory extreme. It argues, audaciously, that an anti-Communist like Joe McCarthy who employs undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends is literally doing more to subvert democracy than his Commie-coddling counterparts: He must be a Commie spy!
In the wake of The Candidate, Watergate, and Ronald Reagan, left-wing campaign films (really the only kind) fell out of fashion. (The exceptions were juicy Watergate melodramas like Washington: BehindClosed Doors  and Nasty Habits , in which favorite moments from the Nixon White House were re-enacted by nuns.) In 1988, Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau collaborated on a project of renewal: an evolving, shot-on-video campaign epic that mixed the media satire of TheCandidate, the philosophical earnestness of The Best Man, and the liberal ingenuousness of State ofthe Union. In Tanner '88, made for HBO, Altman and his cast—Michael Murphy as the moral but wishy-washy candidate, Pamela Reed as his campaign manager, Cynthia Nixon as his leftist daughter, and a press corps that included Veronica Cartwright and Kevin J. O'Connor—followed in the footsteps of that year's actual presidential contenders. A few—Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Bruce Babbitt—exchanged pleasantries with Tanner on-camera, and when Babbitt pulled out of the race he became Tanner's spiritual adviser, advising him to tell the truth and—win or lose—he'll make a difference.
The last two episodes feature a furious, Byzantine effort to keep Dukakis from winning a first-ballot nomination and then a new option for Tanner: staying in the race as an independent. But the series didn't continue, as planned, until the election. After an hour-long pilot and 10 half-hour follow-ups, HBO pulled the plug. The show is hard to find today, but Tanner's polyphonic structure, on-the-fly camerawork, and attention to politics as a spectator sport were enormously influential. Elements of the series have found their way into those fascinating vérité documentaries The War Room (1993) and A Perfect Candidate (1996), as well as Primary Colors (1998) and the TV series The West Wing.
Michael Kinsley liked Primary Colors a lot more than I did, choking back tears when its idealistic protagonist pleaded with his boss not to "let us down." I imagine that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, reacted the same way. Back when Clinton was elected, I wrote in England's Modern Review that his pre-inaugural economic summit reminded me—thrillingly—of Star Trek:The Next Generation, of Patrick Stewart fielding reams of data from various alien visionaries, synthesizing them, formulating policy, and saying crisply, "Make it so." After years of Hollywood doubletalk from Ronald Reagan and linguistic slapstick from George Bush, here at last was a leader with the intellectual stature to bring us into the process of governing.
Well, that's what Sorkin and his great writers, directors, and cast do every week on The West Wing: They give us the Clinton of our dreams. Martin Sheen might be too short to ever get elected president, but he's the ideal Father of Our Country, an intellectual who knows how to manage his own family, who senses when the time is right to soothe and when it's right to raise storms. He tempers his crusty chief of staff (John Spencer) and plays Ward Cleaver to his rambunctious young 'uns (the marvelous Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford, not to mention Rob Lowe—redeemed!). And don't get me started on Allison Janney …
What The West Wing demonstrates is that a good White House is always in campaign mode, with many different simultaneous campaigns—multiple fronts. The hurtling camera and lickety-split line readings convey the message that in politics, momentum is all. And the liberal conscience? It's evenly distributed. You get means and ends tangled up—the Big Speech and the poll the day after the Big Speech and maybe a bit of back-pedaling. You get a lesson in how to watch campaign speeches—not to mention all those silly, melodramatic campaign movies.
Click for Edelstein's handy guide to the best movies and TV shows about political campaigns.