I had the opportunity the night before last to re-watch a film I had seen before but not in some time. The film was ‘The Candidate’ starring Robert Redford. Redford plays an idealistic young lawyer in California and the son of a former governor. He is recruited by a Democratic operative to run for the US Senate seat in California against a three term popular Republican. The Democratic operative played by Peter Boyle tells Redford in their first meeting that he is destined to lose but the reason to run is to get the issues he cares about on the table for wider discussion. The film is enjoyable on several levels but I was struck by two issues in the film. Now keep in mind that this film was released back in 1972.
My first take away was just how little we, as a society, have accomplished in forty-five years. The issues central to the Senate race in the movie are the economy, unemployment, race relations, police misconduct, government overreach and abortion. Sound familiar? Perhaps these issues will always be central to any and every election but you would think after all this time, something on one of these fronts would have been settled. These are the same issues that are central to the 2016 Presidential race. It is sad that as much effort as goes into our government, very little is accomplished.
The second impression of the movie is the fact that even though young Bill McKay (Redford) is assured to lose, he becomes intoxicated by the polling and the race for its own excitement and agrees to be “handled” by the political pros for the sake of the contest. There are a couple of conversations alluding to the fact that in the political landscape of modern times (the 1970’s) a candidate must somehow hide who he really is and what he really believes from the voters in order to get elected. It’s not so much that a candidate must reinvent himself but more that he must obfuscate his beliefs in order to please the voters. In some ways it is a very cynical film because it suggests that the public is far more interested in the horse race aspect of the campaign that any substantive issues.
Sadly, I fear the film hit on a truth of politics today. We hear on a daily basis how much Donald Trump wants to talk about the issues but yet he rarely does. He is too busy defending himself about his personal life or attacking those who have criticized him. Hillary Clinton is not much better. Many of her speeches center around what outrageous thing Trump has said or why he should never be elected President. To be fair to both of them, there is some policy thrown into the stump speeches but primarily it is giving the people what they want; attacks and a horse race. I suspect that speaks more about us as a society than the candidates themselves. In terms of hiding who the candidates really are, I think Donald Trump has done a much better job of that. Even though he is believed by very few, Donald Trump will tell you that he is the least racist person you have ever met or the best person ever to champion women’s rights or he will be the best person to protect immigrants, believe him. No specifics, just belief. Talk about shielding your true self from the voters! Hillary, on the other hand is almost an open book. Because of her long history in the public eye, the never ending investigations that reveal nothing and now with her private campaign e-mails floating around in the public sphere, no one can say we don’t know who she is and what she believes. You may not like her personally and you may take issue with some of her policy stances but we have never had a more transparent candidate for President and I, for one, find that refreshing.