1964, 102 minutes, United Artists, available on YouTube
With unrest in the streets and a pandemic not yet contained, it can be easy to forget that there’s also a presidential election coming this November. And although this is no run-of-the-mill campaign season, familiar campaigning dilemmas are surfacing once again. How does one respond to smash-mouth, tabloid-like politics—particularly given the proudly crass personality and penchant for insults demonstrated by the current President? As unpleasant as it is to admit, the scorched-earth approach does at least put one’s opponent on the defensive. In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama was widely praised for her memorable insistence that “when they go low, we go high.” It’s genuinely classy and idealistic advice, but the urgent question remains: Will it work in November?
The Best Man, an overlooked 1964 movie with a screenplay by Gore Vidal based on his widely acclaimed Broadway play, uses this urgent question to fuel a witty, incisive, and subtly idealistic look at what it means to win or lose in Washington. Two vastly different but very recognizable political archetypes battle for the Presidential nomination of an unnamed party, implied to be the Democrats. Henry Fonda plays Secretary of State William Russell, a genteel, witty, Adlai Stevenson-like candidate with hidden marital and psychiatric problems. Tall, with chiseled features and pensive eyes, Fonda was known for playing noble characters like Tom Joad and Abe Lincoln, as well as the lone voice of reason in 12 Angry Men. Watching him effortlessly toss off Shakespeare quotes to a hungry press can make you nostalgic for the days when politicians could still do that sort of thing. Russell is up against a brusque Southern populist and gung-ho Cold Warrior Senator named Joe Cantwell, who is a kind of cross between Nixon and Joe McCarthy, but today might summon thoughts of a Tea Party demagogue.
The lame duck President is an earthy, avuncular fellow named Art Hockstader, who doesn’t let his advanced age and secret diagnosis of stomach cancer get in the way of downing plenty of bourbon, toasting each glass with the Prohibition-era slogan “here’s to striking another blow for liberty!” Veteran actor Lee Tracy perfectly captures the folksy realpolitik of the legendary smoke-filled back rooms and earned an Academy Award nomination for the role. Wily Hockstader knows perfectly well that he is on his way out and that the two candidates vying for his blessing need to prove to him that they are cunning enough to handle Washington. We see why Hockstader has been a successful politician for years by the masterful way he adjusts his voice and posture depending on the situation; Tracy is an expert actor playing a type of expert actor. Hockstader knows exactly when to charm, wheedle, insinuate, or command, and when to shut up and scrutinize the person sitting across from him. Gleefully calling himself “the last of the great hicks,” he’s the kind of political animal who relishes a good scuffle for its own sake, but even more importantly, we learn that he is also equipped with an ironclad backbone that keeps him standing upright after all the smoke and dust clears.
Vidal knew these kinds of characters very well. Born into the East Coast elite, Vidal had a unique way of mixing upper crust polish with an unrepentant political radicalism and a cutting, aphoristic wit worthy of Oscar Wilde. Anyone who can utter a line like “a narcissist is someone better looking than you” understands something about human nature. Vidal cut his razor-sharp teeth on Capitol Hill while assisting his uncle, a long serving blind statesman from Oklahoma, and observed how the Washington game was played behind the scenes by actually reading legislation and sitting in on meetings. Distantly related to both Jackie Onassis and Al Gore, Vidal spent quality time with the Kennedys before becoming a snarky critic of Camelot. As an archetypal example of a public intellectual, Vidal accomplished the rare feat of writing quality bestselling fiction and nonfiction while unsuccessfully running for office twice and making the scene at every cocktail party and interview show he could find. In 1968 he went head to head with William F. Buckley in a memorably contentious series of debates that was discussed in the engaging documentary Best of Enemies.
There is a knowing correspondence between Vidal’s fiction and the real world culture clash he wittily and devastatingly analyzed, which was every bit as divisive then as it is today. One of the issues that divides Vidal’s fictional candidates is their clashing stances on integration—Russell is a “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” advocate, while Cantwell claims that the federal government shouldn’t tell Mississippi what to do. The film marks an interesting historical moment when segregationist Democrats like George Wallace and Barry Goldwater Republicans overlapped and eventually melded, causing a political sea change that reshaped the demographics of both parties for decades. There’s also a telling cultural juxtaposition between the urbane East Coast Russell and the brash Southerner Cantwell, which is certainly in the air these days. In a spooky coincidence, most of the film is set in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which would go down in political infamy only a few years later.
The ideological divide between Russell and Cantwell reinforces the fact that there can be only one nominee, since party unity is at stake, and so the gloves quickly come off. The dirt that Russell’s team digs up on Cantwell has to do with some homoerotic hanky-panky he may have engaged in as a soldier during the war. It’s fairly risqué stuff for the mid-sixties, but it’s an ironic plot point since the openly gay Vidal was always adamant that homosexuality, and sexuality in general, signified nothing whatsoever about anyone as a person. Vidal believed that “there are homosexual acts but not homosexual people”—a provocative counterpoint to today’s identity politics, especially coming from a pioneer who wrote some of the first mainstream American novels to openly deal with homosexuality and, in the case of the ribald Myra Breckenridge, transexualism.
Perhaps by using this particular issue as a plot point, Vidal is both commenting on the venality of the political world (and by extension, the country at large) and the hypocritical approach to sexual moralism. The sleaziness of the information is directly proportional to how useful it is, which demonstrates how dubious the political killer instinct can be. We’ve seen plenty of examples of how a politician’s dirty laundry can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion, if not an actual court, so the move is pretty routine at this point. But we’ve also heard the pearl-clutching choruses of indignation that tend to follow, only to watch the cycle repeat itself over and over. We Americans love to righteously condemn all kinds of “sinful” behavior in our public figures as long as it doesn’t involve one of our preferred vices of choice or our preferred candidate.
Hockstader admonishes the squeamish Russell that he should use this dirt to his advantage and put the boorish Cantwell away for good. Personally, Hockstader couldn’t care less about the information’s moral implications or truthfulness, but he is convinced that such decisiveness is essential to leadership. He clearly prefers Russell, though he chides him for his cerebral nature, over the opportunistic and boorish Cantwell. In the movie’s key scene, Hockstader explains that “power is not a thing we give to good children. It is a weapon, and the strong man takes it and uses it. And if you don’t go down there and beat Joe Cantwell To. The. Floor. With this very dirty stick than you’ve got no business in this big league. Because if you don’t fight, this job is not for you. And it never will be.”
But just when we think that we’re getting a thoroughly cynical endorsement of smash mouth politics, The Best Man suddenly turns into a parable about the twin virtues of selfless idealism and patriotism, even when it ends up benefitting neither candidate in the end. Relinquishing one’s political ambitions for a higher purpose may be an unexpectedly sentimental gesture, especially coming from a heavyweight champion of cynicism like Vidal. When applied to today’s Trump-instigated cultural war of all against all, it feels slightly too lofty. Stooping to trade blows with an expert mudslinger isn’t most people’s idea of democracy at its finest, but then again, politics ain’t beanbag, and democracy isn’t what it used to be. After being exposed to an endless series of hateful, paranoid, and occasionally frightening broadsides, who among the anti-Trump faction feels like turning the other cheek?
Watching The Best Man today suggests that maybe the most radical choice one can make in campaigning is to be moral about throwing mud. Political pacifists might be leery of dirtying their hands in a war of words, but maybe fighting dirty is morally acceptable when it’s done in defense of something higher than oneself, when the end goal is not merely winning at all costs. Extremism in the pursuit of victory makes victory hollow; a party that will do anything it takes to win often won’t know how to handle the power they crave. Adlai Stevenson once proposed to his Republican opponents “that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.” Yet despite this pithy pleading for fair treatment, Stevenson lost both of his presidential races in landslides.
Russell’s hesitance about going low is an example of the deep moral sense that makes him worthy of a leadership role. But it causes him to miss the bigger picture; that moral instinct is precisely what authorizes him to sling that mud. Hockstater’s argument isn’t just about realpolitik for its own sake, it’s about proving that a leader-to-be knows exactly when and how to pick their battles. Going high when the other guy goes low may retain the moral high ground, but sometimes that only gets you so far. Attacking one’s opponent is fair play as long as it’s based on truth, principle, and if the motivation for doing so extends beyond one’s own self-interest. In life as in politics it’s pretty obvious that the best man doesn’t always win, but that shouldn’t mean that the better people can’t try to reverse the trend once in a while.