Around this time of year, nostalgia for the old days of politics runs deep. Thus—bunting, whistle-stop campaigns, somber invocations of the triumph of generations past. On the stump, everyone’s grandfather is an immigrant, everyone’s mother a saint of sacrifice. Such paeans to the past become especially prevalent now, when party stalwarts gather for the quadrennial conventions. Sixteen-thousand journalists are expected down in Tampa and Charlotte, and it is safe to say that nearly all of them will express some form of lament over the fact that the conventions are now so scripted , so info-mercional. Where is the excitement of the conventions of yore, with their skinny ties, delegate wrangles, smoke filled backrooms and uncertain outcomes?
Is there a word for nostalgia for something that you do not really know? There hasn’t been any drama at a convention (assuming you don’t count aged Hollywood stars talking to chairs as drama) for 35 years, and the outcome of one hasn’t seriously been in doubt for probably 60, meaning that practically none of the scribblers in the press riser have living memory of the kind of conventions that this year’s are a mere pale imitation of.
Still, in the hopes of catching some of that old-time spirit, and as a palette-cleanser from Ann Romney’s attempts to “humanize” (a word that has leapt into the political argot without proper vetting) her husband, and as a break from the convention’s livestream, which had taken on a predictable rhythm of scathing, over the top attack, followed by wild cheer, followed by moment of silence for the victims of the apparently incoming hurricane—press repeat—The Observer ventured out into the surprisingly empty late summer street and into Times Square for one of the final matinee performances of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
The play has been running on Broadway to mixed reviews since April. The run ends this week. Mr. Vidal’s death last month, at age 82, adds a special poignancy to it. The play takes place on the eve of a 1960 convention in Philadelphia. William Russell, a former secretary of state (played by John Larroquette), has a lead in the delegate count. He is much like Mr. Vidal—who tried his hand at politics himself, twice running for Congress, but found, as Russell does, that there is little room for erudition and eloquence out on the hustings. He is challenged by the young upstart, Senator Joseph Cantwell (John Stamos). The senator is the kind of figure who is perhaps unique to politics—overwhelmed by ambition, shrewdly calculating, charismatic without being intelligent, teetotaling, oversexed—think John Edwards crossed with Anthony Weiner crossed with Paul Ryan. Cantwell is coming on strong, late, and the matter seems itrephrase? will be decided by Arthur Hockstader, an avuncular former president (James Earl Jones), whose endorsement still carries enough weight to sway blocs of delegates, and who despite, or because of, Russell’s role as a former aide, is genuinely torn.
The action turns venial in the way we expect all politicians to behave when no one is looking. Cantwell happily admits that he is uninformed, and willing to etch-a-sketch his positions away to/a bit awk whatever is most popular at the moment. He happily pilfers a report from Russell’s former shrink that reveals that the secretary of state’s sidelining for a mysterious “exhaustion” diagnosis was really a nervous breakdown, and prepares to distribute it to the delegates. When Russell discovers evidence that Cantwell was discharged from the Army for being what, as Hockstader delicately puts it, “when I was a boy, we called a degenerate?”
“You know how it is sometimes when there’s all those men together,” says the campaign’s mole. “We had some nurses later on, but not enough to make much difference. I mean there were all these men.”
Hockstader encourages Russell to go through with it, and hints that a pol worthy of his endorsement would already have done so. Hockstader too is a figure unique to politics. A revered figure in the country, we are led to believe, who brandishes more than a hint of Bill Clinton’s Bubba-esque rapscallion charm, he paints himself as someone solemnly concerned about the state of the country, or the state of his political party, as he drops in on Russell and Cantwell. Really, what he wants is his ring to be kissed. It is a scene reminiscent of those Democratic bigwigs who are politely declining to donate to Barack Obama this year because he has not been as obsequious as they expect those who receive their checks to be.
The central drama then centers around whether or not Russell will use his own bit of oppo research to stave off Cantwelll’s attempt to smear him with his psychiatric history. As audience members, we are meant to look on this display with nostalgia How quaint it all seems: There is one news anchor narrating the action, not 17 talking heads on cable shouting over one another. The boundaries of privacy surrounding candidates and their spouses are largely protected. The candidates and their wives smoke and drink and wander the secret passageways of an elegant Philadelphia hotel. This, at last, is the drama and intrigue we yearn for from the conventions, where party pooh-bahs control large swaths of delegates, the vote-counting lasts deep into the night and one well-wrought speech can at any moment send the whole show into chaos.
But instead it is impossible not to look at The Best Man and the shows in Tampa and Charlotte and come away with the conclusion that little has changed in politics over the last half-century. Even in the golden era of Camelot eloquence, politicians were stupid and venal. Handlers kept unscripted moments to a minimum. Pols kept an eye on polls, but denied it. Even in the pre-cable era, appearances mattered, and erudition was considered a handicap.
“You see, the women like a regular kind of man, like General Eisenhower. Now he really appeals to the women,” advises one party big wig to Russell, who, by the look of shock on his faces makes clear he has no intention of imitating Ike. “That nice smile. He has such a way with him…he inspires confidence because he doesn’t seem like anything but just folks. You could imagine him washing up after dinner, listening to his wife’s view on important matters.”
Russell is the moral hero of this tale, the Vidalian alter-ego. His high-mindedness is long gone from the stage—replaced, if at all, by the call every election season to change the culture of Washington, a promise that still has some life despite the lack of any evidence that Washington, or human nature, will ever change—and it is not much missed.
As Russel puts it, “I don’t believe in polls. Accurate or not. And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons: Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the up and downs of popular opinion.
Yech. If the golden era included such pious sermonizing, then good riddance. This is a lesson that Democrats in particular never seem to quite grasp—that voters aren’t electing a policymaker-in-chief but rather what the NYU social scientist Jonathan Haidt calls “the high priest of America’s civil religion,” a description that becomes truer every day as the president grows more ubiquitous on television and internet screens. Russell, and the rest of us lamenters over the current coarsening of the discourse, yearn for a sober purity that was never quite there. Is the public really not entitled to know that their high priest had a nervous breakdown, or was court martialed? Are we better off when our presidents quote Bertrand Russell?
Surely not. If Russel represents the golden past, and Cantwell the fallen present, then gratefully, we are living in a Cantwellian era. Better our pols be strivers with moxie than above the fray, and better too our conventions be little more than extended advertisements and the winner get decided by the voters rather than by negotiation and the corralling of allegiances.
There are of course, many many things wrong with our politics. And in the end, The Best Man doesn’t really speak to them: The rise of money. The decline of the distinction between truth and fiction. But that campaigns, and convention are all glitz, that politicians personal lives are out in the open, and that hardball tactics have a way of winning out, are neither that much of a blight on the body poltic, nor that much of a recent invention.