“Politics is bullshit.”
The other day I completed the same ritual I do every four years: watching The Candidate, the 1972 Michael Ritchie movie starring Robert Redford and Pete Boyle about how the political machine works.
Even being over a quarter of a century old, this movie still feels relevant to me. Probably because the system hasn’t really changed all that much in the decades since it was just released, just got faster and slicker. And you could make the argument that while a lot of us got smarter and savvier, a good deal more of us let ourselves become stupid and lazier.
The plot is simple: Boyle’s character is the democratic operative who’s tasked with the unwinnable mission of unseating a popular Republican senator from California. Knowing that he absolutely can’t win, he seeks out Bill McCkay, Robert Redford’s character, the good looking son of a former governor who couldn’t care less about politics, and instead works as a lawyer for liberal causes. But Boyle’s hard sell to Redford’s character isn’t all that hard: He can’t win, everyone knows that the Republican will win, so therefore he can out there and say whatever he wants and to a much larger audience than he has now. Mckay accepts, but on the condition that he can say whatever he wants and that he can keep his father, whom he’s had a falling out with, out of the campaign and do this on his own.
From the get go, his political staff is crafting him to be your typical candidate with cheesy commercials designed to make their opponent look old and out of touch, and ridiculous slogans that don’t mean anything (“McKay: The Better Way”), but McKay sticks to his guns delivering speeches about things no one wants to talk about like abortion rights, welfare, and environmental regulations. He easily wins the primary (no one else is stupid enough to run in it), and then realizes through his polling projections that he’ll get destroyed in the general election. Losing is one thing, but being flat out humiliated is another and at this point, he can’t back out.
So as they get closer to election day, McKay starts playing the game. His liberal statements erode away and his speeches become nothing but the same old clichés and empty statements as everyone else. He ignores what’s in his heart and follows what he’s told to do. But then he has a new problem: Since his father has stayed out of the campaign up to this point, the media takes that as a silent endorsement of the opponent. McKay goes to his father to make a comment to the contrary, but his simple statement that he doesn’t endorse the republican only makes it worse. Regardless, McKay is still moving up in the polls, not by much, but enough that his opponent is getting concerned and agrees to a debate.
The debate itself is a pretty sad affair, with prepared answers and generic barbs being traded. But right as it’s ending, McKay’s conscience forces him to let out an outburst about how nothing was said in the debate, how none of the real issues such as race and poverty were addressed, and his campaign staff is mortified. This could cost him the election by making him look liked a hot headed nut job, but it’s saved at the last moment as his father shows up and gives him a loud and resounding endorsement, so that the media only reports the reemeergence of the father and not on McKay’s political gaffe.
The day of the election comes and the vote is gotten out. There’s a nice little montage of some of the tactics employed, such as getting the homeless to vote with the promise of free booze, and McKay is left with the fact that he’s completely sold out his values for political victory. I’m going to spoil the ending for you here and tell you that he wins. But it’s a confusing victory and in the movie’s famous last scene, McKay pulls the Peter Boyle character away from everyone else to ask him simply, “What do we do now?” But before Boyle can answer, the throngs of their overjoyous supporters and the excited media show up, hungry for celebration in the heat of their victory and McKay never gets his answer.
The movie could use a remake because of how raw and unpolished it is, but that’s part of what makes it feel so authentic. And it does feel real, with the campaign’s heavy emphasis on image and wealth and almost hated chagrin of substance. It almost feels like it’s painted out a majority of how politics has played out since then (McKay is apparently having an affair with a supporter at one point, just to show that even idealistic men all have vices, it would seem). I remember reading that Redford was considering a sequel/remake back around 2000, but sadly nothing’s come of the talk.
Oh, and Dan Quayle has been quoted as saying that this film is one of the reasons he went into politics.
But then there’s the thesis of the movie: Politics is bullshit. It’s what Redford’s character tells Peter Boyle’s character at the start of the film when he realizes what he wants from him. What do you think? Is politics bullshit? Personally, I’d say yes, it is, but only about 60% of the time. Real, honest change for the better can be accomplished by people who actually want it and strive to make it happen. And by you when you vote. Think your vote is meaningless? Frustrated because yours is just a small drop in a large pond? Well, it is. But you’re still in that pond. It’s still your fault if someone comes and takes a piss in that pond and you don’t do anything to try and stop them. Or, as William E. Simon said, “bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote.”