Contrary to popular belief, this years’s US Presidential Election is not between President Obama and Mitt Romney. No, it is actually between Jimmy Stewart and Martin Sheen. Here’s why.
Its Obama vs Romney. Should you choose, your next month could be a rolling ticker of projected turnouts and approval ratings, punctuated with demographic profiles of key swing states or explanations of the electoral college system and a confusing reverse of left and right and red and blue.
In between presidential debates and partisan interpretations of opinion polls, there is another source of information you might want to turn to. The films and TV shows which attempt to depict this unending, unfolding and mostly unedifying political drama in the most celebrated democracy on the planet – a celebration which is, however, largely confined to the US itself.
If you take this option, don’t go looking for the definitive American depiction of US politics. There isn’t one. Films and TV do provide a frame for understanding the hopes invested into American democracy and especially Obama’s administration, and the fears and cynicism that have turned these hopes into a Tea Party sneer.
To understand the hope (or a Democratic manifesto) you have the “The West Wing” – the famously liberal epic. More than any other representation of politics, “The West Wing” never quite got over its ideal – that of a liberally responsible and intellectually robust administration steering the greatest nation on the planet. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett is the President that Clinton or Obama never became and the Republican nightmare that can never be.
But for all its posturing, once the show moved to take in a campaign, it became a different beast – a tale of desperation rather than idealism tested. Two plots. An outgoing Presidency rendered irrelevant by not owning tomorrow; two candidates frenetic, ambitious, noble, torn trying to grasp it. Yes, Alan Alda’s Republican candidate is arguably a democrat with a blue tie (an accusation that could not be levelled at Romney), but it is a must between now and November 6th. It is powerful, stirring and utterly gripping, brilliantly depicting the marathon effort and energy required to secure office (President Obama should give it a look ahead of next Thursday’s debate).
If “The West Wing” represents the impossibly high bar for any Democrat administration, it is Capra’s “Mr Smith Goes To Washington” that represents the fear behind the Palin sneer. 73 years on, it appears innocuous and with its Capra tinted glow, is inevitably charming. However it reflected and has become a symbol of a deep mistrust of a money grabbing national government working against the noble individual. Current Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and others before him like Reagan, have been channelling Jimmy Stewart’s regular guy decency ever since.
The sneer, directed not so much at liberals, but just politics in general, can be found in the curiously overrated “The Ides of March”.It offers neither idealism nor hope, just a tired and earnest cynicism. If you’re going to be cynical you need to be funny as well, as “Veep” and “The Daily Show” show for our regular benefit. A smooth likeable candidate (George Clooney) is marshalled by the usual combination of ruthlessly ambitious young bucks (Ryan Gosling) and integrity rich boffins (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Cynicism triumphs because it is a sin of the flesh rather than a compromise of an ideal that frames the film’s moral dilemma. The elephant in the room of all modern politics (funding) is avoided and the biggest red herring of all (private lives) is indulged. And anyway, haven’t we seen that somewhere before?
Indeed we have – except of course, the political can be personal and the Clintons married the two like no other figures in American history. The Clintons are an extraordinary tale and isn’t finished yet. Early 90’s Clinton is captured succinctly, albeit at one remove, in “Primary Colours”. It is a superb reworking of a primary campaign with a Bill like John Travolta at its centre (except it isn’t about them directly, no studio could afford the legal fees).
“Primary Colours” is moving, powerful, disturbing and yet somehow light and humane about all involved (including Mr and Mrs). It amplifies what we already know to be true. Despite so much scandal before, during and after office, it defies all political logic why so many Americans would probably still choose Bill Clinton as their preferred Democrat candidate next month. “Primary Colours” explains how someone like Clinton, with both a regular Mr Smith appeal and a Bartlett-like intellect, can be forgiven for almost anything. Why? Because of what is at stake; the American presidency and the shadow that looms over all Democrat leaning political dramas (which is most) – the other guy. The guy who doesn’t believe in big government but big business – or Mitt Romney in other words.
Tuesday’s debate is between President Obama and Mitt Romney, but somewhere in the subconscious of those involved and watching are figures imaginary and real. There will be Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Bartlett. There will be Mr Smith.