The 1979 political drama The Seduction of Joe Tynan has been in the back of my mind as a movie I ought to watch just about forever. It’s early Meryl Streep, it’s a nerdy political procedure movie, it’s Alan Alda. But because, for whatever reason, the movie isn’t treated as part of the first tier of political movies, it was never high on my priority list. But with Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal percolating away, it flitted back into my mind, I checked Netflix for it, and there it was. And it’s really an excellent movie, both about political machinations and about the psychology of people who go into politics and find themselves unable to resist things they really ought to stay away from.
From almost the opening scene of the movie, we know Joe Tynan’s marriage is headed for trouble. “You know how many people have tried, and I got it passed,” he brags in bed, telling his wife about a public works bill. “I got clout!” She’s visibly bored, not just in this instance, but permanently. “I may not like politics, but I love you,” she tells him shortly after. The problem is Tynan is politics, and so when Meryl Streep slides on screen as a sultry Southern political operative with the goods on a Supreme Court nominee with a segregationist past, Tynan is toast.
It’s a sign of Andrew Breitbart’s influence that I spent much of the movie assuming that the goods—video of the nominee opposing integration obtained by a black woman running for Congress in the Deep South, who is using it as leverage to win support from local Democrats—was fake, and that was what would take Tynan down. It turns out that subplot’s really only a vehicle for the affair, and for Tynan’s decision to sell out his mentor, who would prefer him to oppose the nomination quietly, and use the nomination hearings as a platform to turn himself into a national politician and a presidential contender.
And the movie is very, very good at capturing the dual vanity that both leads men into affairs, and leads them into thinking they can lead the nation. In an eerie prefiguring of Weiner’s Congressional gym snaps, we’ve got Tynan working out with his colleagues when his mentor wanders by and declares “You look too good, you’re going to lose votes.” The Supreme Court nomination fight is a convenient cover for Tynan’s affair with Streep’s Karen Traynor, but their work, their common interests, her ability to and interest in making him a great man are genuinely a turn-on for the couple. “You remind me of John F. Kennedy,” Tynan tells Traynor as he seduces her. “When you get there, clip a rose from the Rose Garden and send it to me, okay?” she tells him later, simultaneously stroking his ego and keeping the possibility of their liaison alive for the future.
Even as it gets the dynamics right, the movie is anachronistic. As venal as our politicians can be in private, it’s hard to imagine someone behaving like Rip Torn’s randy lawmaker does, getting oral sex at his desk and sending away an aide who finds him mid-tryst, and declaring at a party “Goddamn hippies don’t even marry women who look like wives.” Similarly, Tynan and Traynor would never get away with their affair as long as they do in the movie, whether they’re getting recognized heading into hotels or crashing a golf cart into a pond. John Edwards’ audacity in running for president even as he was having an affair looks crazy as well as arrogant because we live in a world where public figures can’t cheat without being discovered, and more importantly, in an age where discovery inevitably leads to disclosure. But Tynan’s affair with Traynor doesn’t disrupt his march towards the presidency, and in fact, it becomes secondary to the question of whether he’ll be seduced by his love for power.
What does seem realistic is the moment when a press aide tells Tynan’s wife Ellie that he’s talked to a reporter and convinced her not to mention that Ellie is in therapy. “It’s your life. I’m not going to tell you not to talk about it,” he warns her. “You know what it costs to talk about it to reporters.” “Analysis is 5,000 votes,” she spits back at him bitterly. “Lithium is 10,000 votes…I know what things cost.” It’s not that we’re any more or less judgmental about our politicians’ behavior and the behavior of their families than we were in 1979. It’s that we catch them quicker, and broadcast their humiliation further and faster.