Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Things can only get better?

Somewhere around the house/in a box in the attic/garage Malcolm has the script of Gore Vidal's 1960 play, The Best Man. Others may have come across the 1964 filmed version (also scripted by Vidal), which seems to be what's behind the ever-so-slightly salacious cover (left). Malcolm fondly recalls seeing this movie, on its first run, in one of Dublin's O'Connell Street cinemas.

The plot involves five men (this is 1960, after all) competing for the Party's nomination at the Convention. The leading contenders are William Russell (Henry Fonda in the movie) and Joe Cantwell (played by Cliff Robertson).

Russell is the East Coast intellectual with principles, largely based on Adlai Stevenson. His extra-marital involvements have alienated his wife, whom he now needs back on the scene for a veneer of respectability. Cantwell is the machine politician, a Nixonian conniver, who gets one particularly-memorable scene: as he drives the LA boulevard he flicks a pack of index-cards, listing the Convention delegates: "Buy him... burn him.".

In retrospect, Vidal seems to be depicting the two sides of John Kennedy. Apart from being a close Kennedy associate (until, typically, he fell out with brother Bobby), he had other means of insight.

Hugh D. Auchincloss (i.e. Standard Oil, so Malcolm draws a line to the Rockefellers and Bushes) had a second marriage to Nina Gore Vidal, and so became step-father to our lad. Auchinloss’s third marriage was to Janet Lee Bouvier, and so he serially became step-father to Jackie O. To shrink the East Coast political scene even smaller, Malcolm notes that:
  • Gore Vidal, through his mother, is a distant cousin of Al Gore; and
  • one of the Auchincloss-Lee Bouvier daughters dated a young John Kerry (whose mother was a Forbes, and his second marriage to a Heinz).
Back to The Best Man: both Russell and Cantwell need the endorsement of the aging, indeed dying President Art Hockstader (a hybrid of Eisenhower and Truman, and an Oscar-nominated rĂ´le for Lee Tracey). Malcolm now sees that Ronald Reagan came close to playing Russell on Broadway. Melvin Douglas got the part when Vidal over-rode his producers' proposal:
"I’m responsible for Ronald Reagan,’’ Mr. Vidal whispered... ‘’I turned him down for the part. They came to me and said, ‘What about Ronald Reagan?’ I said, ‘He is good, but I don’t think he’d be credible as a presidential candidate.’ I have always thought that if I had cast him, Melvyn Douglas would have become president. It’s been on my conscience ever since."
This long, boring circumlocution is Malcolm's build-up for the scene in which Russell approaches Hochstader. Hochstader presses Russell on his religious observance. Russell admits agnosticism. Hochstader has a devastating line which Malcolm recalls as: "Son, when I went into politics, you had to pour God over everything, like tomato ketchup."

On which note, now let’s see: so far the Campaign for 2008 has thrown up:
  • a Methodist married to a louche Southern Baptist (Hillary);
  • an indefinable liberal “Christian” who was registered as a Muslim at one of his schools (Obama);
  • a Mormon married to the daughter of an opponent of organised religion (Romney);
  • the usual quota of tub-thumping Baptists in Paul and Huckabee;
  • a clutch of Romanists in Richardson, Biden and the babe-magnet Giuliani (who has managed two divorces, one of which was a hot ticket for the scandal sheets, one annulment, two RC church marriages, spectacularly-public affaires, a gloriously dysfunctional family life ...);
and, possibly, even hopefully, despite the New Year’s Eve denial:
  • the statutory Jewish representation in the person of Mike Bloomberg, self-made ($11.5B+) but yet another Bostonian.
It surely cannot get weirder, but all is compatible and tickety-boo with the First Amendment ("no law respecting an establishment of religion").

So not too much has changed, which is why the play seems regularly to be revived, on or off Broadway, in Election years. A review of the 2000 revival hailed the performance of Christine Ebersole:
Her bellwether take on the scheming wife of Senator Cantwell is an ingenious blend of Pat Nixon’s studied looks, Lady Bird Johnson’s disarming delivery, Nancy Reagan’s rapacious loyalty and Hillary Clinton’s chilling ambition.
When Malcolm looks for resonances in the script and the film, he finds an obvious one is the use of the Ambassador Hotel, on Wilshire Boulevard, as the film's body-double for the play's Philadelphia setting.

This must have qualified as the most cinematic hotel on the face of the planet: IMDB cites no fewer than 89 titles. It was here, in Room 568, that Mrs Robinson (the delectable Anne Bancroft) exchanged body fluids with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). The Ambassador, of course, is no more: because of competition, modern fire and earthquake regulation, it closed in 1989; stood derelict until it was felled (excepting the Cocoanut Grove building) in 2005. Eventually, it may become the site for a school campus.

The Ambassador's political involvement included stays by seven Presidents: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. It accommodated Khrushchev on his 1959 trip. In 1968, off the Embassy Room, where Bobby Kennedy had just acknowledged his success in the California and South Dakota Primaries, Sirhan Sirhan booked his place in the pantry-corridor of Infamy. Later, the Ambassador housed the Jury during the nine long months in 1971 of the Charles Manson trial.

As it gets down-and-dirty in Iowa and New Hampshire, Malcolm celebrates the shenanigans with another speech from the failing President Hockstader: ''Oh, I tell you Bill, I feel wonderful!'' he says to Russell. ''Up all night -- on the go all morning, seeing delegates -- I tell you there is nothing like a low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks.'' Sphere: Related Content

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