The Ides of March, George Clooney’s adaptation of the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, is the kind of movie that will be mistaken for a profound meditation on the state of American politics. This strikes me as deeply unfortunate, not just because it’s not a particularly good movie, but because what few ideas it has back up a reactionary idea of what makes someone good at governing. Spoilers to follow.
Gov. Mike Morris, the Democratic frontrunner, may be the silliest Hollywood conception of a politician since The American President. He is, apparently, a veteran of President Bush’s Gulf War, an opponent of President Bush’s son’s incursions into the same reason, a genius who’s managed to dramatically improve the educational performance of Pennsylvania students (take that, skeptics of education reform!) and balance his state’s budget in a recession. When he’s asked about how he’d feel about the death penalty if his wife (the always welcome but woefully under-used Jennifer Ehle) were murdered, Morris says he’d kill the killer himself and then accept the consequences. These are no positions that have a basis in political reality. If Andrew Shepherd’s speech and declaration of ACLU membership in The American President is a parody of liberal dreams of progressive toughness
the idea that a candidate could declare in a debate “I’m not a Christian…my religion, what i believe in, is called the Constitution of the United States of America,” and win over an electorate that isn’t even close to electing a Jewish president, that’s skeptical of a Mormon, much less an atheist, is just woefully out of touch. Saying, as one character does, that “we know they’ve nominated a jackass,” in response to a question about whether Democrats have nominated an atheist is not an answer to that plausibility problem. It’s just smug.
Morris is a paper man, composed of position papers rather than blood and guts, and that’s a problem when we’re supposed to believe that a moment of marital infidelity is utterly damning. We have no idea what his relationship with his wife is like. If the movie made an argument that Morris’ relationship with his family is a repudiation of an idea that Christianity is a necessary guarantor of values, his decision to sleep with an intern might be momentous. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors and the movie adaptation of the novel made the argument that the emotional profligacy that led fictional candidate Jack Stanton to sleep around was also critical to his success because it bound potential supporters to him for life. But we have absolutely no sense of what Morris is like as a human being, so it’s hard to know what his infidelity means. Is his aura of control a facade? Was it just a stupid mistake? Do we actually want to promulgate the idea that your personal life is a litmus test for your ability to do meaningful political work?