“Don’t underestimate him,” former Secretary of State Bill Russell (John Larroquette) says towards the end of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, after he throws a wrench in his party’s convention and elevates an unknown to the presidential nomination. “Men without faces tend to be elected president.” It’s the kind of biting sentiment that would apply equally well to Mitt Romney’s flip-flops as it did to the politicians of 1960, when Gore Vidal’s biting play The Best Man, about a party divided by competing visions making a critical decision not on the merits but through a scandal-mongering arms race, was first performed on Broadway, where it snagged six Tony nominations. The production currently on stage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in New York is full of excellent performances. If you have a choice, seeing it live — or reading Vidal’s play or watching the 1964 movie adaptation — is likely to be a vastly more edifying experience than watching any of the official proceedings staged at the Republican convention in Tampa this week.
Much of what’s revealing about watching The Best Man is its reminder of the longevity of some of the least attractive facets of our political climate. “Yes, he was fired from the City College of New York,” Russell remarks of one of his intellectual influences. “But only for moral turpitude, not for incompetence as a philosopher.” The former, of course, is what most of the people covering the campaign and observing it care about. Bill’s campaign manager Dick Jensen (Mark Blum) warns him “Not a word of Darwin. Evolution is out of bounds.” Bill bemoans the rise of smear tactics in politics, observing with an air of exhaustion that “In the South, a candidate for sheriff once won election by claiming his opponents’ wife had been a thespian.” Representing the budget mendacity of the current Republican party is Bill’s opponent, the young Senator Joe Cantwell (played here with nerve and snake oil by John Stamos). “So you think we can increase defense spending while eliminating the income tax?” a reporter asks him. He pivots away from the question flawlessly. His wife Mabel (Kristin Davis) tells a number of other political women “I’m against any artificial means of birth control. Unless it’s a matter of health. Maybe.” “We are all interchangably inoffensive,” says Russell’s wife Alice (Cybill Shepherd).
And at a time when a stunning contempt for women’s issues has been at the forefront of much of this year in politics, the women of The Best Man may be relegated to drawing rooms, but their role is vital, and the double-standards they face persistent. Bill describes Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge (Elizabeth Ashley) as “The national committeewoman, the only known link between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan” — drawing rooms sometimes have connecting doors that go where the official hallways don’t. But her connections don’t prevent men like Jensen from condescending to her. “Talking to you is like talking to the average American housewife,” he says. It doesn’t help that Sue-Ellen has as much to say about style as substance. “Of course, Mabel Cantwell dyes her hair. But she does such a bad job, the women feel sorry for her,” she declares at one point, then pivots to say, “Don’t do too much, like Mrs. Russell. The women don’t like that.” Alice and Mabel may not think much of Sue-Ellen as a self-appointed spokesman for “the women,” but they aren’t above to making the same kinds of judgements that she does. “Even with no chin, I still look better than Alice Russell,” Mabel bucks herself up while getting dressed for a dinner. “My is she a chilly-looking woman.” And Alice, frustrated both by Bill’s infidelities and her role at the convention, declares “I must say I’m beginning to like politics. Especially when Mrs. Gamadge told me I’m an inspiration to American women, in my way.” While women are navigating their newly expanded role in the party, the former president, Artie Hockstader (a marvelous James Earl Jones) is negotiating his diminished stature, and contemplating how to use the power he has left to endorse either Russell or Cantwell. Reminiscing on Russell’s couch, Hockstader recalls that after he saw William Jennings Bryan speak as a boy, he decided “I am going to be a politician and get folks wound up and eat all the barbecue and chicken at picnics and have all the pretty girls.” He contrasts himself to both Russell, the urbane intellectual, and Cantwell, a slick media darling as a way to excuse his indecision. “You’re a fancy Dan from the East. But the great age of the hicks to which I belong is over,” Hockstader tells Russell. “It gets awful lonely in the White House. Worse for me than it was for you. I never lived in a big house with a lot of servants like you.” But hick or not, Hockstader’s afraid of disappearing before imparting the lessons he wants Russell to absorb. “I don’t fancy being nothing,” he says, shifting from jocularity to gloom in a moment. “Just a pinch of dust.” Hockstader
The most important of his lessons is to fight. “Power is not a toy we give to good children. it is a weapon. And the strong man take it,” Hockstader warns Russell, who has become squeamish about slinging mud to counter Cantwell’s allegations that Russell is mentally unstable. But Russell has a few ideas of his own. “There’s no immediate need to start a class war,” Russell warns Cantwell, who has risen rapidly in the Senate. “There’s a certain suspicion of the self-made man…The self-made man often makes himself out of the pieces of his victims.” And whatever side of the class divide you’re on, Bill tells Joe that he despises him because “you have no responsibility to anything or anyone. That is a tragedy in a man and a disaster in a president.” It’s a sentiment to remember, 13 conventions after the one Vidal first conjured onto the stage.