Yesterday, I did some unusual viewing for me. I had previously recorded The Best Man, a 1964 movie from the play by Gore Vidal, written in 1960. I watched it last night. I've always liked the political drama, and was happy to find on TCM a film I don't recall ever seeing before. It was also interesting to see for itself and for looking at it as a commentary on current politics.
It is about a race race for the Presidential nomination. Without a mention, this appears to be the Democratic Party, since there is a Southern state Governor who is a candidate, one who is opposed to integrated schools, nonetheless wanting the mantle of "Progressive." There are two front runners. One is an egghead, the current Secretary of State, played by Henry Fonda, whose political vice is that he is on occasion indecisive, or at least appears to be so to others not quite so intellectual, looking for the perfect solution, or at least a solution better than those that immediately present themselves. His marriage is in trouble. To insiders, that is not a political flaw, but it is a liability with the voters, so it needs to be concealed. The wife cooperates. She has her own aspirations to be First Lady. The actress who plays her is Margaret Leighton and she has a very distinctive, somewhat hoarse speaking voice. I thought I had heard that before and then I started to play my game, where? After being vexed for a while I thought I figured it out. Somehow I convinced myself that it was the same voice as the wife of the deceased President Lassiter from the West Wing Episode, The Stormy Present. This proved completely wrong. Margaret Leighton passed away in 1976, while that West Wing episode is from 2004.
The interesting part of the Fonda character is that there is a strong ethical streak and there is more spine to the character than one might initially expect. So it is not quite a stereotype, which I suppose is why Fonda played the character, since he always seemed to play that sort of individual. This character contrasts with the character of the other front runner, a Senator with a prosecutorial style in the manner of Joe McCarthy. This character is played, quite convincingly, by Cliff Robertson, a self-made man who claimed to understand the voice of the people because he was one of them. Yet with a tin ear, he couldn't read the nuance of a particular situation and of the true character of his political allies and enemies. That proved to be his political undoing.
Both of the front runners are vying for the endorsement of a former President, who it turns out is dying from cancer, though that is closely held information. This endorsement will presumably determine which candidate gets the nomination. The drama unfolds as the former President has private meetings with each candidate and where it unfolds that each candidate has some dirt on the rival that might be used as a lever to get the other to drop out. How the dirt is used (or not) is the way we learn about the candidate's true character.
The flavor or the story seems quite realistic. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for the film afterward, I learned that each character had been based on actual Presidents or Presidential candidates. In that way the author gets to leverage our own mental images of these characters and doesn't have to elaborate on their descriptions. One telling scene will do. Of course I'm watching the film almost 50 years after the fact (and more than 50 years for the original play). I know who Adlai Stevenson is but have no memory of him as a candidate and only a vague memory of him as a representative to the U.N. I didn't put two and two together that he was the model for the Fonda character. But the story seemed realistic to me anyway, even though some of the environs and the seeming lack of Secret Service personnel anywhere plus that the film is in black and white make it look dated. One particular realism, used to set the stage at a formal dinner for the candidates the night before the Convention started, was entertainment provided by Mahalia Jackson singing Down By The Riverside. They didn't show the whole song, but what they did show was quite moving.
Let met draw a couple of take aways as they relate to the present. I believe it has been under commented on how party elders used to influence current elections, but no longer appear to be doing so. In the current Republican race, the ghost of Ronald Reagan is clearly present, but the specter of the still living Bush Presidents is nowhere to be seen. I recall a column by Maureen Dowd written still early in the Bush II Presidency, that ultimately the father would be remembered as the true conservative. So far that doesn't seem to have happened, though outside the current campaign his reputation appears to be rising, precisely because he compromised and did raise taxes in a way that everyone is aware of that. (There has been much said recently about tax increases under Reagan, but his reputation doesn't appear to have been besmirched by these realities.) The absence of influence from former Presidents allows for greater instability and fewer ties with the past.
The other point, worth reflecting on further, is that as a culture we seem suspicious of high intelligence and are more trusting of the ordinary guy. One principal fallibility of Bush II, going with what his gut tells him, is something prized in the movie, even if it leads to undeniably flawed conclusions. The character associated with being "a fighter" is valued more than any possible conclusion derived from an in depth reasoning through on the issues. The seeming know-nothing-ism of today has deep roots, a point I became aware of from quite a different source. Super smart guys as counselors may be okay, but having such a smart guy as leader poses serious issues, because intelligence is perceived to conflict with pragmatic solutions, particularly if that intelligence has been accommodated with intense schooling. (Steve Jobs, for example, might be exempt from this particular prejudice because as a drop out his adult learning happened in the business world and his decisions were validated by the success of the products Apple produced.) As we look to reinvigorate our economy, perhaps we should look at cultural liabilities that hold us back from further progress.
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Earlier in the day, I watched the baseball playoff game between the Rangers and the Tigers. It being a potential elimination game for the Tigers and their relief pitching deleted from prior over use, there was some extra drama in the game as the star pitcher, Justin Verlander, was asked to go a long way to secure a victory. Ultimately his pitch count got to 132, more pitches than he had made in any other game over his entire career. Apparently before the game the manager Jim Leyland had announced not just that he wasn't going to use his closer or setup man, but also that he'd limit Verlander to 125 pitches or so, unless circumstances dictated otherwise. As it turned out, Leyland got two out of three and on Verlander he perhaps should have stuck with his original decision, because while Verlander still seemed to be in command in the eighth inning, the last pitch he threw was a two-run homer by Nelson Cruz.
I have been thinking the last week or two how in baseball they are now so sensitive about overwork for a starting pitcher possibly ruining his career. Sandy Koufax is the pitcher everyone thinks about in regard to this hypothesis, though you have to rely in innings pitched as the over use measure, because they don't have pitch count statistics. Nolan Ryan had high innings pitched in his early years with the Angels, but the innings pitched came down after that. Back to my thought, there is no comparable idea of overwork for everyday players. But it sure seems like many of them are injured, and in ways that materially impact the outcome of the game. This is particularly true for the catchers, but also for several outfielders. I don't know what the solution is, but I do wonder why there isn't more precaution taken about the health of the everyday ball player.
The game itself seemed to have divine grace. The Tigers immediately feel behind and in a bunch of small ways they appeared to be wilting under the pressure. Then in the sixth inning with a runner on first base, there was a play I hadn't seen before. Cabrera, the best Tiger hitter, sends a ground ball with some bounce to it down the third base line. The ball hits the bag and then bounces over the third baseman's head. Earlier in the game the third baseman, Adrian Beltre, had made a beautiful back handed stop of a hard hit ball. So off the bat this looked like a repeat, one that would turn a double play. Instead it became a double. Following that the Tiger hit a triple, then a home run. It was the first time in the history of the playoffs that a team had "hit for the cycle" and in order. The tide had turned.
I don't know if I will watch the next game (tomorrow evening). I've got the feeling that they've used up all the good karma, the way Butler seemed to in the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament. The final game was an anticlimax. But maybe there will still be some left, because this will only be game six. If there is drama you can watch the game without being a fan. Without the drama, there are other distractions that are more compelling.