The reel and the real

Seeking a midsummer change of pace for the Sunday print column, I came up with a retrospective riff on a famous political movie. The version below has been tweaked and expanded. Meanwhile, I did a Live Chat today.

Let’s go to the movies – not merely to beat the heat, but to swap today’s toxic Washington for a more innocent bygone era.

Our film today is Advise and Consent, the 1962 political potboiler that purported to blow the lid off the U.S. Capitol dome. Having just watched the DVD – and you can record it in the wee hours of August 15, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies – I believe that it works better than Advil if one is suffering from an overdose of Tweets and TV shrieking heads.

A dying president taps a controversial nominee (Henry Fonda) to be Secretary of State, triggering  a roundelay of Senate intrigue and chicanery. But really, folks, this is the feel-good film of the summer. In the very first scene, pedestrians on Capitol Hill, unencumbered by any anti-terrorist traffic barriers, find out about the nomination by buying the newspaper and reading it. Really, the newspaper. The newsboy can't hand 'em out fast enough.

Then the Senate Majority Whip (Paul Ford) stuffs the paper under his arm and hails a taxi. All by himself. Without an entourage of crazed staffers thumbing their Blackberrys, without a phalanx of security hunks scanning the avenue. He meets up, at a hotel, with the erudite Senate Majority Leader (Walter Pidgeon), to discuss the president’s nomination – whereupon the Majority Leader picks up the phone, and take a guess who he dials: The Minority Leader. Of the other party.

Seven minutes into the film, and the Senate leaders of the two parties are already conversing with each other. Imagine such a thing today. Harry Reid, tasked by his president to defend a controversial nominee, would rather gargle nails on day one of a crisis than converse with Mitch McConnell.

And, unlike the two celluloid party leaders, it’s hard to imagine Reid and McConnell playing cards together late into the night, taking comfort in their nonpartisan conviviality. During the ‘90s, Democrats and Republicans were so personally estranged from each other that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill sponsored seminars to teach everyone how to put aside their political differences and get along better. No seminars have been conducted since 2003. If real senators today were half as chummy toward the opposition as the reel senators, they’d probably be assailed in the partisan precincts of the blogosphere as treasonous sellouts who deserve to be ousted in the next party primary.

These reel senators of yesteryear have no such fears. They never fly home on weekends to beg for fresh infusions of campaign money. They don't have any blue-chip lobbyists dogging their heels or ambushing them with TV ads sponsored by anonymous front groups. These senators never have to worry that a poor choice of words will wind up on YouTube, or that one errant vote will be condemned, in a partisan interest group’s email blast, as a dire threat to the republic. They can attend the White House Correspondents Dinner and take on good faith the reporters’ stated assurance that everything is off the record (unlike today, when the reporters bring along celebrity eye candy, and the whole affair can be watched on your iPhone). Heck, a senator in this film can even board the DC-to-NY shuttle...and discover the vice president of the United States sitting in coach all by himself, like a shower-curtain salesman en route to the home office, and eager to converse about weighty plot points without any of the passengers caring a whit. 

Nor do these reel senators have to worry about being dissed by a Tweeting ideologue sitting a few desks away in the Senate chamber. Indeed, the Senate depicted on film has only one ideologue (George Grizzard), a left-wing, pipe-smoking Machiavellian loony who smears a colleague in order to aid Henry Fonda’s nomination and further the cause of world peace.

Nobody likes this senator, because he undermines the dignity of the institution. The Majority Whip tells the Majority Leader, "He doesn’t belong here. Sooner or later, you’ll have to cut him off the vine." Later, the Majority Leader gets fed up  with the true believer’s behavior and tells him, "You have dishonored us...Fortunately, our country always manages to survive patriots like you." Then the Majority Leader and the Majority Whip deliver what they consider to be the ultimate insult: They twist slightly in their seats, and...are you ready for this...they turn their backs.

At this point, today’s cinema lover might actually crave something a tad more dramatic – say, Tom Cruise suddenly tearing through the chamber on a motorcycle, wearing cool shades and blasting the ideologue to smithereens – but this is 1962, the pace is stately, and high drama is derived from body language. Suffice it to say that the bad apple is suitably shamed. He slinks away into exile, thereby purifying the rest of the barrel.

Indeed, almost everyone in this celluoid world is a sensible centrist comfortable with shades of gray. As Allen Drury wrote of Washington, in the ‘59 novel on which the film was based, "there are few absolute wrongs or absolute rights, few all-blacks, or all-whites, few dead-certain positives that won’t be changed tomorrow." But Drury, a political reporter whose first fictional foray won the Pulitzer Prize 50 years ago this spring, would surely be astonished by today’s polarized Senate, which is increasingly populated by those who believe in absolute wrongs and rights.

True, we are reminded by the book and movie of the horrific Joe McCarthy days; Fonda’s character lies under oath about a youthful dalliance with communism, if only to thwart a red-baiting southern windbag (Charles Laughton). Apparently this was somewhat shocking in 1962; Bosley Crowther, the New York Times film reviewer was positively aghast that the filmmakers exhibited "a cynical attitude toward the actions of politicians." But as the film neared its climax, the red-baiting windbag - instinctively seeking that sensible center - apologizes for his excesses; and the Majority Leader, in a high-minded moment of magnanimity, decrees that all senators in his party are hereby freed from the constraints of loyalty to instead vote their conscience on the Fonda nomination. If Harry Reid tried to pull something like that with the Elena Kagan bid, the party base would revolt and he’d wind up back in Vegas working as a croupier.

Drury in his book referred to Washington as "fantastic," as "wonderful," as "a city of dreams," but, given our current distemper and the city’s frequent dysfunctions, few of us probably hew to that view. But hey, that’s why we go to the movies, to indulge in dreams - to live in art, if only for a few hours, what we lack in life.