The image of politics isn’t a particularly flattering one, at least as far as Anglo-American politics go. Since Tony Blair’s dubious invasion of Iraq and 2009’s expenses scandal, the British public have taken a dim view of politicians. The recent success of Jeremy Corbyn, who preached the politics of hope and secured the role of Labour leader, might overturn people’s trepidations though even he is perhaps set to receive a high level of opprobrium in the coming months. The poor image of politics may have something to do with the politics of image. The image of politics has suffered because the politics behind conserving and constructing the image of politicians—endless machinations that steer their charges towards adopting centrist populism and not delivering their policies with conviction, all overseen by pernicious, meddling “advisors”—has taken precedence over policies.
It’s an issue explored in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972), a sharp, satirical drama starring that stalwart of Democrat-friendly political cinema Robert Redford—an interesting state-of-affairs given his refusal to align himself with either the Republicans or Democrats in his personal life.
The film makes light of the disparity between the principles of candidate for the U.S. Senate Bill McKay (Redford) and his media-savvy rhetoric, or lack thereof. The schemes behind McKay’s campaign are administered by Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle, and yes, that is the crotchety dad from Everybody Loves Raymond).
The alliance between Lucas and McKay does not bode well from the very start: one of McKay’s friends makes a cutting remark when Lucas comes with his offer: “This stuff you call politics – politics is bullshit.” The image of politics is already weak from the outset. Lucas’ proposal is that McKay stand for Senate against hard-line Republican Crocker Jarmon; he won’t win, as Jarmon is predicted not to lose, so it is encouraged he speak freely. “The question is whether you can put your ass on the line,” Lucas quips. “No,” comes McKay’s retort, “the question is whether it’s worth it.”
Jarmon isn’t necessarily McKay’s biggest problem. He’s a familiar foe, a staunch laissez-faire Republican of the old school, a non-believer in social welfare, espousing libertarian values (“individuals are responsible for themselves”; “more enterprise, more industry, more jobs”): the cosy, fatherly right-winger. The real obstacle is winning over the public and, in turn, the media. His first encounter with the prickly press serves to cut him as a standoffish figure. Political aide Howard Klein (Allen Garfield) admits there’s “a lot of work to be done” to craft a more palatable media image. Jarmon’s direct political broadcast is praised on account of his ability to “look straight in the camera without coming off shift-eyed”. Jarman ostensibly exudes sincerity: a party broadcast voiceover tells us “people trust Crocker Jarman”. He is even seen playing with the obligatorily cute little tyke. Lucas tells McKay “the idea is to get [him] in completely natural situations”, a sentence that upends the very nature or suggestion of natural: if Lucas and his team are to provide or engineer “natural situations”, can they be considered to be natural at all?
McKay’s campaign is based on naturalism, honesty and integrity; a new, refreshing form of politics, the politics of realness. McKay’s image is an image that trades on his authenticity, but that’s far from the truth. The truth is McKay’s political campaign is like any other: laboured over with painstaking precision, a machine that weighs the pros and cons, which means scrapping a poor bit of promo that takes place in a clinic: a trio of women, all African-American each with screaming infants, are subjected to McKay’s political promises. One woman seems unconvinced that McKay will do anything—he’s just another politician, what does he know? It echoes Lucas’ warning to McKay that he “can’t say too much on TV”; he must say everything “in the right way and at the right time”. The campaign isn’t above opportunism. McKay’s team seize a nearby crisis—“a fire in Malibu: it’s perfect,” says an enthusiastic aide—to get more votes and win public affections. However, despite McKay’s team arriving first, Jarmon heaves into view almost immediately—in a slick helicopter no less. It doesn’t help that Jarmon speaks in disingenuous and rehearsed, yet incredibly effective, media-trained babble: the talk of identikit politicians. He is as quick to leave as he when arrived.
At one point, Lucas assures McKay that he is getting through to the public: “The point is you’re showing your face – that’s what we have to sell first.” This is a rather telling remark, implying that politics needs to be sold, and thus its ideologies bought wholesale, by the public. Earning people’s trust and confidence is not enough; the electorate is depersonalised and turned into nothing more than potential votes.
Lucas’ coaching pays off when McKay becomes a legitimate threat to Jarmon, virtually scuppering Luca’s original deal. “You’re the Democratic nominee for senator,” says Lucas. “You make that sound like a death sentence,” replies McKay. Aside from a perilous moment during a televised debate between himself and Jarmon in which he unexpectedly speaks his mind, McKay begins to style himself, however reluctantly, as the slick, well-dressed, media-ready politician. He cracks wise, his suits and quips are crisper and sharper, his hair clean-cut and his message more prosaic by the day. McKay ends up disillusioned with it all. When McKay’s father, a former governor, applauds his electoral success (“Son, you’re a politician”), you can just about see McKay’s/Redford’s face blanch as the grave enormity of his newfound responsibly dawns on him.
Then there’s the immortal ending. McKay pulls Lucas away in vain from the jubilation of his victory to a quiet place to ask a central question that goes unanswered when the cheering mob eventually find them: “What do we do now?” It is a scene that speaks volumes about the nature of politics. The Candidate is as much a cautionary tale as a resigned acceptance at the way things are.
Jacob Bernard-Banton is a journalist. He writes regularly for Dazed.