May 13th, 2008
11:12 AM ET

A cure for idealism

Hunter S. Thompson said it best: “How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”

"The Candidate," starring Robert Redford, earned an Oscar for Jeremy Larner's screenplay.

See, it happens every four years: A host of presidential candidates start out with the best of intentions –- well, many of them do -– but before you know it they’re stuck coping with the media’s horse-race mentality, a focus on pointless minutiae and the sound of rough, human edges being polished to a sterile gleam by a raft of consultants.

So I try to arm myself with two works that expose the gears and sludge of our political process, a book and movie that remind me that it’s always been this way: Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” and the 1972 film “The Candidate.”

“The Candidate” gets much of its attention for its central performances: Robert Redford’s turn as Bill McKay, the idealistic lawyer and governor’s son who gets pulled into an allegedly hopeless U.S. Senate race; and Peter Boyle’s work as Marvin Lucas, the hard-charging campaign consultant who turns McKay into a winner – at the cost of McKay’s willing soul.

Both are excellent, but “The Candidate” is full of terrific elements, from the name of McKay’s Republican competitor (Crocker Jarmon, played by the great character actor Don Porter), to Michael Ritchie’s deliberately ragged, verite direction, to -– best of all -– Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which offers both brilliant set-pieces and cool detachment.

Indeed, Larner (like most screenwriters) is too often the film’s forgotten man. The former Eugene McCarthy speechwriter knew what he was writing about, and his bitter knowledge shows in every frame. (One of these days, I’ll get around to reading his 1970 political memoir, “Nobody Knows: Reflections on the McCarthy Campaign of 1968.”)

Amazingly, “The Candidate” only has one DVD edition, a bare-bones job from the late ‘90s. Talk about a movie that deserves the full-on Deluxe Special Anniversary version.

And then there’s Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing ’72,” which put the good Dr. through the election-year wringer as Rolling Stone’s National Affairs Correspondent. Thompson was the perfect man to chronicle the circus. He hadn’t spent years on the Washington cocktail-party circuit, so he could look at the campaign as a jaundiced outsider -– but he also cared, deeply, and his passion burns on every page. When McGovern loses to Nixon, nobody takes it harder.

Exchange the typewriters for computers, and all too much of what Thompson wrote 36 years ago is still true today: idealistic supporters clashing with craven deal-makers, bleary candidates watching their plans turn to ashes, and mints of money flying out the window.

Let that be a lesson to all of us.

So, as McKay asked, what do we do now?

Well, we make our way through the next six months. And me, I’m going to read two new books - Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” and Thurston Clarke’s “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.” Because I always need to learn the lesson over and over again.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer


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