Last Friday I went to the Broadway revival of the 1960 Tony Award-nominated play “The Best Man,” written by the late Gore Vidal. John Larroquette plays Secretary William Russell, the womanizing candidate in a sham marriage who’s the more scrupulous of the two politicians vying for the presidential nomination in this imagined 1960 convention in Philadelphia. The other, Senator Joseph Cantwell, played by the other 1980s sitcom star, John Stamos, is a young conservative, ruthless and willing to do whatever it takes to win.
In what now seems quaint, the play takes place over a harried two days of delegate voting. That’s right. Not two years of campaigning. Not 20 debates. Two days. Like I said, quaint. Peppered with Gore Vidal witty one-liners like, “That man has all the qualities of a dog except loyalty,” and “In those days we poured God over everything like ketchup,” the play is a thoughtful commentary on politics of the era.
The hinge of the saga is these two candidates have an arms race (how very 1960s) with their respective mudslinging. In the third act, Larroquette’s Secretary Russell asks for a moratorium when he gets the power to take out his opponent. They’re on a crash course of mutual destruction that could blow up even their party.
In the end the ambitious-at-any-cost and the ambitious-yet-moral cancel each other out, and without a nod from the sitting president — who dies with contempt for both men for different reasons — a dull third candidate wins the necessary delegates. He’s described as neither the angel of light nor the angel of darkness. He’s dubbed the Angel of Grayness. The ending scene’s summation is that the “best man” indeed won.
The take away? The delegate voting process whitewashed, bowdlerized and watered down men of potential greatness.
The next night I went to see “The Campaign” starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Ferrell plays Congressman Cam Brady, a sleazy (again) womanizing incumbent who’s happily running unopposed for his fourth term. After he becomes vulnerable, the billionaire Motch brothers (played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) find a puppet candidate — the local yokel tour guide, Marty Huggins (played by Galifianakis) — to run against Brady, thus starts the title-promised “Campaign.”
The Motch brothers (a thinly veiled spoof on the right-wing bankrolling Koch brothers) are in the process of selling the district to China, and need to get rid of some regulations so they can build proper sweatshops in North Carolina. As amoral billionaires they invest in Republican politicians who gladly spew platitudes about freedom and God while genuflecting solely to the pursuit of profit. Its “art” imitating life … assuming your life has a Will Ferrell movie-amount of scatological jokes in it.
Because this is a Hollywood movie, the puppet candidate ends up “doing the right thing” and dishes about money in politics, which in this medium is so admirable it wins him a seat in Congress. After the credits roll there’s a brief scene of a Congressional hearing called by the now-Congressman Huggins, to investigate the Motch brothers’ financing candidates. The remark is made that because of Citizens United, they haven’t done anything illegal. But then to add to the sense of “feel good” and “everything worked-ness” the brothers are then tied to harboring a known fugitive (Huggins former campaign manager). It’s quick tacked-on justice. Roll the rest of the credits.
The take away? I’ll quote former candidate for the GOP nomination, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer (who did dish about money in politics as a Republican and it got him disinvited to every single debate in the primary): “Washington isn’t broken, it’s bought.”
But in these two tales are a foreshadowing of the current GOP ticket: Mitt Romney, the Angel of Grayness; the candidate who in the primary stayed neutral and Etch-a-sketchy while the others self-combusted on each other’s volatility. He’s Gore Vidal’s “best man.” And then there’s the Vice President nod, Paul Ryan, a Koch brother candidate whose signature budget plans were drafted and scored by the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation and whose policies would greatly benefit billionaires.
Mitt Romney, a 1960s lament. Paul Ryan, 2012’s crux.