Late on Sunday night (August 24), Turner Classic Movies aired “The Best Man,” the 1964 film based on Gore Vidal’s 1960 play about a power struggle for the Presidential nomination. The movie stars Henry Fonda playing Secretary of State William Russell, an intellectual in the Adlai Stevenson mode (Vidal said JFK was part of the blend) and Cliff Robertson, who plays Joe Cantwell, a brash Senator running as a populist who is maneuvering to stop Russell from winning the nomination (some reviewers think he’s “Nixonian.”)
Neither candidate has enough delegates on the first ballot, so watching this film is like experiencing “deja vu all” in many ways.
Along the way, the viewer witnesses all sorts of political shenanigans, which includes the hiding of a broken marriage, an attempt at blackmail through the threat of revealing a medical history of one candidate, and the revelation of the homosexual past of the another. (Cheating on a wife, however, is of little consequence in the scheme of things, unlike today.)
There are some great lines in this flick, many coming from the dying former President Hockstader who is reinvigorated by the battle for his endorsement; at one point he says, “There’s nothing like a low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks!” One of the best scenes involves Hockstader and Cantwell. Cantwell, who believes the ends justify the means of getting into office, including taking his positions based based on polling, is told by Hockstader that “there are no ends, Joe, only means.” Hockstader also tells the stop-at-nothing Cantwell that if he begins to believe his own “myth” and then gets to the Oval Office without having any real ideas of his own, he’ll be creating a recipe for disaster. As the plot unfolds and Cantwell threatens to reveal a secret from Russell’s past, Hockstader has another great line: “It’s not that I mind your being a bastard. . . . It’s your being such a stupid bastard, I object to.”
At another point in the film Hockstader, reflecting on how times have changed since his campaign days, observes that when he ran “you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.” Back in 1960, the issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism came up, but today, we’re really back to the “ketchup” days with religious groups being pandered to by the Democratic Party like never before.
Howard K. Smith, then a real network anchor, appears in the scenes covering the Convention which makes it seem even more realistic. This is a real rough-and-tumble affair…and the votes swing quickly at the surprise ending. This film sure made me wish that we were back to the old-style conventions! As a kid, I remember Mike Wallace prowling the conventions and the genuine excitement on the floor. There was much less polish and a damned site more more grit and excitement.
You’ll see how little has changed in nearly 50 years with respect the status of women in the Party beyond the lack of concern over the philandering of a candidate. Ann Southern plays Mrs. Gammadge, who despite here flighty image, is a savvy women’s leader who knows all the players and knows her own power as she drops hints to the rivals about how they should appeal to women. But the scene at the pre-Convention dinner clearly displays where the REAL power lies. During his pre-Convention speech, Hockstader says to the delight of the men in the crowd that after the Party takes care of a couple of constituencies, which includes the “colored” folks, “then we’ll take care of the downtrodden majority, the ladies” to a roomful of appreciative laughter.
Last on the list then…and last on the list now…So, have we really come a long way, baby??? If you ever get to see “The Best Man” you’ll probably say, “NO!”
If the delegates could tear themselves away from the trendy “eco-food” for a couple of hours before tonight’s fake “roll call” to view “The Best Man,” they might be in for a shock and realize that they could use their power to right a ship that’s taking on water. But they’d have to really face themselves and be brutally honest about who they’re all falling in line for. Sadly, as they struggle to stay in the “no-fry” zone and eat their fruits and veggies, they won’t have time to really think about doing the right thing, which tonight should be nominating “The Best Woman.”
For an excellent rundown on the plot (which doesn’t give away the ending), check out this essay.
If you want to know who actually wins the nomination, check here.
For a brief bio on Gore Vidal which explains his family ties to both the Gore and Kennedy families, and his runs for the House and Senate, see here. Gore Vidal actually ran for Congress in 1960, the year “The Best Man” was first produced on Broadway. For a picturesof Gore greeting JFK when the latter attended a performance as President-elect, click here. According to historian Michael Bechloss, Kennedy “blinked nervously at the references to Russell’s infidelities, which he (correctly) presumed to be based on his own.”
Filed under: Current Politics | Tagged: Adlai Stevenson, Ann Southern, Cliff Robertson, Democratic Party, former President Hockstader, Gore Vidal, Henry Fonda, Howard K. Smith, Joe Cantwell, John F. Kennedy, Mike Wallace, Mrs. Gammadge, populist, presidential nomination, Secretary of State William Russell, The Best Man, Turner Classic Movies |