Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Candidate Discovers Plastics

This is an intensely political year, and so I chose to catch up with a 1972 film that American political junkies often reference. At a time when Richard Nixon was winning re--election, The Candidate focused on a fictional California race for the U.S. Senate, one that seemed to reward the value of style over substance, suggesting the evolution of politics into a beauty contest in which the best-looking candidate wins. And they don’t get much better looking than the young Robert Redford, who was the film’s star.

Coincidentally, Redford came close to winning the title role in 1967’s The Graduate, in which “plastics” stood in for all that was crass in the modern world. Plastics in The Graduate was something that recent big-man-on-campus Benjamin Braddock was determined to resist in his adult life. In The Candidate, Redford plays Bill McKay, an idealistic young California activist with cover-boy looks. When the film opens, he has absolutely no use for political game-playing; obviously this is a reaction against his father (Melvyn Douglas), a seasoned political pro who was once the governor of the state. Because the Republican incumbent, Senator Crocker Jarmon, seems to have a lock on the upcoming election, the Democratic party hack played by Peter Boyle only needs to find a patsy to be Jarmon’s token opponent. He persuades Bill to run by pledging he’ll have full independence to state his own views.

But wait! Bill captures the public’s fancy, and soon Boyle’s character is reshaping him into a bland but attractive golden-boy who can steal the Senate seat from the ageing silver fox currently holding the office. It’s made clear, especially in a televised debate scene, that neither of them is going to go beyond platitudes and nice-sounding slogans. At times Bill fights against his makeover (which includes a trendy new haircut and wardrobe), but everyone, including his loving wife, is soon pressuring him to play the game. He reluctantly accepts his father’s involvement, though he cringes at Dad’s proud acknowledgment that he’s become a politician.

In an age when the differences between Democrats and Republicans are marked by deliberately divisive rhetoric, it’s fascinating to recognize that there was a time, among national  political candidates, when bland was beautiful, when the whole point of campaigning was to bank on personal appeal. It often worked: an acquaintance of my mother was a big supporter of Vice-Presidential candidate Dan Quayle because she found him “cute.” Good looks and personal magnetism are still, of course, highly useful in politics. But what’s striking about The Candidate is that neither man dares to really express an opinion. After seeing the film, I checked on the actual U.S. Senators who represented California in the 1960s and 1970s, discovering that most of them were an undistinguished lot. Though the serious and hard-working Alan Cranston held one of the California seats from 1969 to 1993, the other passed through the hands of Pierre Salinger (JFK’s former press secretary, who served less than a year), George Murphy (a Hollywood song-and-dance man), John Tunney (a young lawyer with Ivy League cred), and S.I. Hayakawa (a noted linguist and university president who entered the Senate at age 71). Hayakawa, who was embraced by conservatives after he came down hard on student protestors at San Francisco State, is best remembered for dozing off during Senate hearings.

It’s Tunney who comes closest to Redford’s character. The son of champion heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney, he was propelled into politics by name recognition, a Ted Kennedy link (they were law-school roommates), and clean-cut youthful good looks. What did he accomplish? Not much.

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