Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The American President

The idealized image I see for governmental politics is distilled in the Rob Reiner film, The American President. In a somewhat unusual story, a widowed and very popular Democratic President Shepherd (Douglas) becomes romantically involved with a contracted environmental lobbyist Sidney Ellen Wade (Bening) with former ties to ACLU-related protests such as flag burning in front of the South African (and at that time apartheid-based) embassy. This is used as fuel in a smear campaign headed by Republican presidential hopeful Bob Rumson (Dreyfuss) - bearing an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney - to show that Shepherd has dubious moral character in light of his extramarital relationship and his questionable support of a critical gun control bill.

The fictional President Shepherd is someone who we would hope any President aspires to be: popular, attractive, close with his kids, friends and subordinates, and deeply in love with American principles and freedoms. At the same time, he's a man who deeply misses his late wife and is trying to find love in a position where every aspect of his personal life is under a microscope. He wants privacy, and realizes that the public at large doesn't care since any indication he's a man with wants and needs is seen as weak character.

The climax of the film, culminating in him playing politics to win a bet with Wade over her environmental reform bill vs. his crime bill, combined with outside attacks on his character that weaken his approval rating (going into the election year for his 2nd term) and wrecking his relationship with wade, is a heartfelt speech which I think explains several key points about why America, great as it is, is not an easy place to live in:

1) Freedom of Speech: America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free".

2) Political puffery: I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she's to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore.

I keep going back to this film because in many ways it's an American presidency I'd like to see. It's a guy standing up for his right to privacy and love as much as his right to govern as he sees fit. The downside is that it's a Hollywood presidency, and even in light of the spinoff that resulted (The West Wing) which appealed to many liberals and was the bane of right-leaning viewers, it's unlikely such a person could be elected today. Yes, it's idealized to a degree, but it still gives curmudgeons like me a feeling of hope in electing representatives we can respect as both a leader and an individual.

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