Shattered Politics #30: The Candidate (dir by Michael Ritchie)


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“What do we do now?” — Democratic senate candidate Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

When I reviewed Advise & Consent, I mentioned that if anyone could prevent billionaire Tom Steyer from winning the Democratic nomination to run in the 2016 California U.S. Senate election, it would be Betty White.  Well, earlier today, Tom Steyer announced that he would NOT be a candidate.  You can guess what that means.  Betty White has obviously already started to set up her campaign organization in California and, realizing that there was no way that he could possibly beat her, Tom Steyer obviously decided to step aside.

So, congratulations to Betty White!  (I would probably never vote for her but I don’t live in California so it doesn’t matter.)  As future U.S. Senator Betty White prepares for the next phase of her career, it would probably be a good idea for her to watch a few movies about what it takes to win political office in the United States.

For example: 1972’s The Candidate.

The Candidate would especially be a good pick for the nascent Betty White senate campaign because the film is actually about a senate election in California!  California’s  U.S. Sen. Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is a Republican who everyone assumes cannot be defeated for reelection.  Democratic strategist Marvin Lucas (a heavily bearded Peter Boyle) is tasked with finding a sacrificial candidate.

The one that Marvin comes up with is Bill McKay (Robert Redford, before his face got all leathery), a 34 year-old lawyer who also happens to be the estranged son of former Governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas, whose wife Helen ran for one of California’s senate seats in 1950).  As opposed to his pragmatic and ruthless father, Bill is idealistic and the only reason that he agrees to run for the Senate is because Marvin promises him that he’ll be able to say whatever he wants.  Marvin assures Bill that Jarmon cannot be beaten but if Bill runs a credible campaign, he’ll be able to run for another office in the future.

However, Jarmon turns out to be a weaker candidate than everyone assumed.  As the charismatic Bill starts to close the gap between himself and Jarmon, he also starts to lose control of his campaign.  He soon finds himself moderating his positions and worrying more about alienating potential voters than stating his true opinions.  (In one of the film’s best scenes, Bill scornfully mutters his standard and generic campaign speech to himself, obviously disgusted with the vapid words that he has to utter in order to be elected.)  The film ends on a properly downbeat note, one that reminds you that the film was made in the 70s but also remains just as relevant and thought-provoking in 2015.

Written by a former political speech writer and directed, in a semi-documentary style, by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate is an excellent film that answer the question as to why all political campaigns and politicians seem to be the same.  The Candidate is full of small details that give the film an air of authenticity even when a familiar face like Robert Redford is on screen.

Whenever I watch The Candidate, I find myself wondering what happened to Bill McKay after the film’s iconic final scene.  Did he ever regain his idealism or did he continue on the path to just becoming another politician.  As much as we’d all like to think that the former is true, it’s actually probably the latter.

That just seems to be the way that things go.

Hopefully, Betty White will learn from Bill McKay’s example.