Political Play

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. The new title, a reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is far catchier and sexier than the original. It also tips us off to a truth about American politics that George Clooney wants us to recall as we watch his film: our political culture is little but a stage play for us to watch. It is a theatre for the masses; scripted, rehearsed, and contrived at every corner.

Clever poster.

This theme isn’t played out for the duration of the film, but it is established in its opening scene as Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) recites a key talking point to be used in Ohio primary debate later on that night. The talking point doesn’t belong to Meyers, though; it belongs to Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). Meyers is there to make sure that the audio sounds good, that the lighting is right, and that the stage is set perfectly for his man to score as many political points as possible. It’s a striking image that we should hold onto as we continue watching the movie, which will focus not on the play itself, but on all of the backstage drama. Clooney wants us to look at the skeletons in his fictional politician’s closet.


This approach would be highly effective if we were all as wet behind the ears as Gosling’s brilliantly played Meyers. He is a 30-ish handsome veteran of many political campaigns who truly (scout’s honor) believes in his man. Meyers believes in not compromising, he believes that Morris’s Democratic opponent really isn’t the man for the job, and he believes, perhaps most of all, that Morris can win. This is a young man who, despite being a campaign vet, is apparently so innocent-minded that he doesn’t see a big problem in meeting with the opposition’s campaign manager for a drink at the local bar. He doesn’t see how a little meeting like that could hurt Morris and everyone around him. He doesn’t see it as an act of betrayal; he sees it as, well…I don’t know how he sees it, because Meyers is so unrealistically naive that it’s difficult to imagine exactly what he might be thinking. And boy is Meyers shocked when he learns that Morris (SPOILER) has slept with the same hot intern (Evan Rachel Wood) that he just got into his bed! Gasp! Politicians use their power to screw young women?!

If you had the political power to get this woman in bed, you'd probably throw your integrity out the window, too.

The average American wouldn’t be nearly as foolhardy as Meyers. The average American already knows that politics is a game of backstabbing, sniping, and poaching. The average American has heard of Watergate. The average American is well aware of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The average American can tell you that sometimes the CIA is in bed with the wrong people. The average American sees that politicians often work to gain party points instead of in the interest of the country. How many political sex scandals have we had in the past 10 years? Enough to know that sex and politics mix on a regular basis. Is it any secret that power breeds recklessness?

The knowledge that the average American possesses makes all the revelations in The Ides of March seem like tepid bathwater. Promising family man candidate sleeps with attractive intern (who, for added measure, is pregnant and must get an abortion in order to keep the campaign going strong). Not really a shocker anymore, is it? Promising candidate is blackmailed into promising White House positions in exchange for political endorsement. Have you ever heard of Rod Blagoiovich?

It all makes sense now: Clooney is an Xavier man!

We are supposed to leave The Ides of March with the sense that behind the shimmering surface of the well-written play is a political universe of smarmy compromise and endless betrayal. It’s a place where you can’t be honest even if you want to and keeping your promises is a totally impossible task, because sooner or later someone is going to threaten you with the prospect of losing the race if you should hold to your ideals.

I ask you, dear reader: what’s new?

Clooney is working with a beautifully structured play and a scrumptious cast. His direction is clean, clear, and throughly entertaining. But his insights are D.O.A.

In The Ides of March, George Clooney aims for the zeitgeist, but misses. He thinks that the dominate sentiment of Americans is disillusionment when in truth it is apathy. We would be more shocked to find a politician who truly is a family man and who truly does work for the interests of his country. We would be dumbfounded at the sight of a politician who didn’t kowtow to the whims of the party. Would we even know what to do with an honest politician? Would we even be able to believe it if it were true?

This last question is at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.

Where The Ides of March is observationally stale, DFW’s slim volume is downright earth-shattering. It’s not that DWF observes anything we don’t already know, but that he is willing to ask some serious questions about what he sees. Even after riding with McCain’s campaign tour for a week, covering what he sees for Rolling Stone, DWF finds McCain just as inscrutable as he did before, perhaps even more so after being near the belly of the beast.

There are no hot interns, no campaign managers sniping each other, and no promises of White House positions. Instead, we get a nuanced vision of Senator John McCain in the year 2000. DFW paints McCain as a hero, correctly observing that few of us would have the balls to sit in a Vietnam POW camp, being tortured on a regular basis, just to uphold a military rule that says the first POW in should also be the first POW out. This was a man who was offered a pass, because he had rank in his family. If he had taken the offer, just about anyone would have understood; none of us would have blamed him. But he didn’t take the pass. This means that there is some real moral fiber in McCain; some character that can’t be found so easily in most politicians. DFW goes on to show us a man who has stretched his devotion to principles and ideas far beyond his war days. He has fought in the political battlefield, often holding positions against his own party. We might guess, then, that McCain would be willing to oppose people once in the White House; he’d be willing to take actual stands. But we must also face the fact that McCain, among other things, is a politician. That means that he’s always angling to get your vote. And maybe he’s using his anti-candidate status as a back door to being your candidate.

Throughout the book we are asked to imagine John McCain as a real person, despite the veil of PR that surrounds him on a 24-hour basis. We are asked to wonder if perhaps this man is working beyond the political machine while at the same time working within it. It’s a difficult paradox to keep in one’s mind, but if we are going to keep from wallowing in total cynicism, it’s a paradox that we must at least try to entertain.

The climax of the book takes place as McCain goes against George W. Bush (known as “The Shrub” in the McCain camp) in the 2000 SC primary. At the beginning of the campaign, Bush and McCain made a gentlemen’s agreement to not use smear ads against each other. As the race becomes tighter and the stakes get higher, Bush breaks the agreement and McCain fires back in a particularly nasty way, playing directly into the Shrub’s hand. And then at a town hall meeting in Spartanburg, SC, a 30-ish soccer mom gets up and tells this long story about how her 14 year old son took a call from a Bush push poll. The pollster told the young boy about how awful McCain was and how voting for him was anti-American. The kid was rightfully disturbed, and his mom and dad were also disappointed with this turn of events. She didn’t want to say anything to McCain other than just to tell him this story, perhaps as a subtle way to suggest that he should remove himself from the nasty smearing war that he’d been involved in. McCain’s reaction, as DFW relates it, is sublime. He does not lash out at Bush or the pollster; he apologizes and openly recognizes that it is difficult not be cynical in a political environment like this one. He says that he wants to be a candidate that young voters can believe in. McCain then promises the woman that he will call her son personally, and that he will also call The Shrub and ask again for him to relent with the smearing. McCain even goes so far as to absolve the Shrub from any personal responsibility by touting him as a good man with a family who probably doesn’t know what goes on with his push polling. Some tears even come out of McCain’s eyes, supposedly because he is truly grieved at the idea of a young boy being pushed into political disillusionment so early in life. After a few more questions from the audience, McCain claims to be so distraught by the story that he can’t go on any longer with the town hall meeting. He forgoes his normal closing lines and just leaves.

Just to read about this moment is electrifying. You feel your own heart start to sink, because it really is difficult to believe in politics with shit like that going down, and you sense that McCain’s reaction might actually be genuine; after all, this is a dude who followed the codes of his country even into physical brutality and then fought the Senate, etc, etc.

David Foster Wallace: not as sexy as Clooney, but he is more insightful.

But DFW doesn’t let it stand. The book is not a celebration of the McCain that we see in the that town hall meeting. Rather, DFW begs some questions that no one else seems to be begging, perhaps because they are so cynical that most people wouldn’t even want to ask. It would be too depressing. For instance: why would a push poll caller waste his time trying to influence a kid who can’t even cast a vote? Why wouldn’t he ask the boy’s age right up front? Would McCain really call the young boy? How would he get the phone number? And, the most jarring one of all: what if that woman was planted in the crowd by McCain’s team, and given a script to read so that McCain could react to it just as he did? What if everything was somehow orchestrated to make the Shrub look like an asshole and McCain look like a saint? Is it really that impossible to imagine? The idea is so dirty, though, that even I don’t want to imagine it. I’d be much more contented to believe that this was a real American woman who just wanted to voice her frustration in a public forum where she knew she’d be heard. And I’d much rather believe that McCain, no matter what his politics might be, really did feel bad for the woman and her son.

It's hard not to feel this way.

We don’t know the answers to these questions about that specific event, but we know that they are valid questions for the asking. Politics, among other things, is so much theatre that it is difficult to see the line between performance and principle. Politicians are trained like circus monkeys to give rote answers and to pose in certain ways; they tell the same jokes over and over again, and they regurgitate the same talking points ad nauseam. And sometimes they come off as so simplistic and cloying that you’d just rather ignore them, because they clearly don’t respect the intelligence of the American citizen. But then you have to think about how no matter the amount of posturing these people may do, they really are…people. Despite the gloss and sheen, they are human beings, just like us. It’s a scary thought, but it’s one that breaks through the cynicism now and then. You have to somehow imagine that beyond all the theatre there might be people who actually want to do the right thing, people who are trying to do the right thing.

George Clooney doesn’t seem to get what DFW does. The real depressing thing about American politics isn’t the obvious cheaters and blowhards, but the ambiguity of the ones who seem like they might be on the up and up. There’s no way of really knowing what goes on in a candidate’s mind. If you are inside a campaign, you might have a better idea of how the gears turn, but from the outside it’s so much more difficult to divine. There’s no clear way of discerning which moves are political plays and which moves come from the heart. Who is whispering in the candidate’s ear? What is he or she saying? What can we believe in and what can we dismiss?  How can one keep from being cynical and apathetic at times like these? Those are the real questions.

DFW doesn’t give us any answers, but he’s at least willing to ask sincere and important questions. Clooney is making a Hollywood movie, full of platitudes about politics that aren’t much better than the slogans and catch phrases we will hear in 2012.

3 thoughts on “Political Play

  1. Have you read the DFW piece about Roger Federer? Probably a stupid question; since you’ve read the McCain thing you probably already have, but if you haven’t and even if you don’t care about tennis, you should. It brought me back into the DFW fold after being overexposed to his way too precious for my taste short fiction by college professors. “Little Expressionless Animals” made me never want to read anything by him, or any writer working after 1950 or so, ever again, and only by the endorsement of basically every writer in the world I respect talking up the Federer piece did I realize he really was that good, and made me “get” the stuff I didn’t like before (though some of it I still didn’t really enjoy).

    Also, this may be pretentious of me, but isn’t naming a political drama “The Ides of March” really obvious and boring? Seems like naming a modern story about murder “Out Damn Spot.”

  2. Incidentally, the only thing I’ve read by DFW is this McCain piece. I quit reading novels a few years ago for the most part and hadn’t gotten around to him yet. I only read the McCain piece because a friend of mind who writes fiction was clearing out some of the dustier corners of his library and thought I might find it interesting. He was clearly right, and I’ll probably read other DFW works in the near future.

    Yeah, the title is a little obvious, but I think it was chosen for two primary reasons: 1. It’s far more recognizable to the average person than “Farragut North”, which actually is explained a little in the movie, but still… 2. Clooney has gone on record stating that this was like a little morality play in his mind. I think he wants his intentions to be obvious and not subtle.

  3. Also, I neglected to say this in my actual piece, because it didn’t really fit in with what I wanted to address, but The Ides of March, is actually a good deal of fun to watch. The performances are a blast. Clooney is an actor’s director with straightforward sensibilities about framing, blocking, and editing; and he was able to let a great cast just go out and do their thing. So, despite the tepid quality of the movie’s political observations, I still think it can be worth watching.

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