You know them—these clichés of modern politics. There is the front-runner, William Russell, a decent, thoughtful patrician—a former secretary of State who travels with a dictionary and drives his adviser nuts by quoting Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell. There is his hungry young challenger, Sen. Joe Cantwell, a conniving conservative opportunist who spouts platitudes about God, honor, and country but for whom winning is worth more than all of them combined. There is Russell’s weary, estranged wife, Alice, whose lingering admiration for her philandering spouse but disdain for politics has led them to live discreetly separate lives. Mabel, Cantwell’s ambitious wife, his female bookend, is a southern belle Barbie who would happily kill a competitor without batting one of her long false eyelashes. Art Hockstader is the ailing but wise, whiskey-swilling former president, a quintessential pragmatist whose endorsement will sway his party’s undecideds. And there is television, a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of an amoral press that loves nothing more than a political death-match with close-ups of the mortally wounded.
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play about the descent of American presidential politics into gutter warfare, was written over 50 years ago. But it is all too prescient as another presidential election cycle intensifies. The play’s characters and themes feel utterly familiar in this striking revival at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Vidal, an American literary and cultural icon, the last literary descendant of the silver age of Edmund Wilson, seems to have foreseen it all—the rise of the Tea Party, negative campaigns, PACs and super PACs, the growing dominance of money in politics, battles over privacy and the disclosure of medical records, strained political marriages (real and those of political convenience), and the growing importance of such issues as women’s rights, abortion, and birth control. The images on TV monitors on the theater’s stage and the balcony may be black-and-white, but they resonate no less powerfully than those broadcast on today’s hi-def screens in living color. The politics on display, too, have become all too depressing: from the canned smiles and empty phrases to the incessant populist pandering to ever lower common denominators, and finally, to the nonstop polling. “I don’t believe in polls,” says Russell, an early tip-off in this tersely written political drama that the play’s intelligent, principled hero is doomed.
But if Vidal’s work feels disturbingly contemporary, there are striking differences between today’s politics and those of 1960 when the play opened, to great acclaim.
For one, there are no Jews in Vidal’s play—no Jewish candidates or political advisers, no references to the importance of attracting the Jewish vote or Jewish money. The state of Israel is never mentioned. The Best Man, as drama, is utterly “Judenrein.”
That, of course, was not quite the case in 1960. Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant and Bill Clinton’s pollster who saw the revival with me, notes that Abe Ribicoff, the Connecticut Democrat who was John F. Kennedy’s great friend and supporter, was being mentioned as a long-shot vice-presidential nominee and wound up as Kennedy’s first appointment to his Cabinet during the play’s initial Broadway run. There was also no shortage of Jewish donors, party leaders, and Jewish political figures under Kennedy, Schoen maintains.
Yet Vidal’s omission of Jews in a political drama was neither a serious reportorial nor dramatic lapse. Nor was it a function of Gore’s alleged anti-Semitism, as some critics would later argue (more on that later). Jews were not nearly as well-organized or politically powerful in 1960 as they are today. While Jews were integral to party machines in the cities, they were largely confined to Jewish law firms, investment banks, and the entertainment industry. They were not integrated into America’s broader culture. Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd wasn’t published until the late 1960s.
Only in the mid-1970s did Jewish activism, money, and organizational skills transform modern American politics, thanks, largely, to the perceived need to protect and defend Israel.
AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, barely existed as a political force when Vidal’s play appeared on Broadway. Though founded in 1951, it remained a one-man-band throughout the 1960s, not achieving the “financial and political” clout needed to sway congressional opinion until Jimmy Carter’s presidency, writes Michael Oren, now Israel’s ambassador to Washington, in his history of the Middle East.
There were no pro-Israeli PACs in Vidal’s day. The first was formed only in 1978. CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, dedicated to combating anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli bias in the media—was founded in 1982.
Jewish voices may have been heard in the early ’60s, but Jews still weren’t admitted to many of the elite social clubs and circles to which Vidal belonged. They were also rare in the upper ranks of the White House and the notoriously pro-Arab State Department. Though overrepresented in terms of their overall population, they were relatively uncommon in Congress, too. While Jews account for some 6 percent of representatives and 12 percent of senators in the current Congress, they were only 2 percent of representatives and 1 percent of senators in the 87th Congress in 1962.
America’s political landscape has indeed been transformed in other ways since Vidal last hobnobbed with the Washington establishment. In the current revival, former President Hockstader is played—brilliantly—by the incomparable James Earl Jones. That a black man would lead America was unthinkable in Vidal’s day. Yet after Barack Obama’s election, the casting of Jones in the role seems natural. And given the standing ovations that Jones’ play-stealing performance has received, theater critics, political mavens like Schoen, and audience members the night we saw the play, found the casting utterly plausible.
The play has a few anachronisms, to be sure. Take nicotine. Most of Vidal’s characters smoke cigarettes. The drama of a brokered convention, despite the GOP’s sequential flirtation with a series of deeply flawed alternatives to the now front-running Mitt Romney, seems impossible. Finally, if Vidal were writing that play today, Schoen argued, he would have undoubtedly created a character like Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s loony campaign afloat. Today’s Best Man, in fact, would be all about money—a modern-day Merchant of Venice, perhaps.
Vidal’s play endures because he knew not only what made Washington tick, but also what makes people tick. The plot revolves around the race between Russell, whom the playwright clearly favors (played with stately if slightly tedious elegance by John Larroquette), and Sen. Cantwell (played with charismatic raw energy by Eric McCormack). To defeat the more-experienced, contemplative Russell, Cantwell seeks to publicize some documents he has bribed a hospital to obtain that describe Russell’s nervous breakdown many years ago (shades of Thomas Eagleton, who was briefly George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate in 1972). If Russell refuses to withdraw from the race and steer his delegates to him, Cantwell threatens to distribute the report on Russell’s medical frailty to convention delegates and to the piranha-like press.
But Russell’s adviser, a role superbly played by Michael McKean, has dug up some dirt on Cantwell too—a homosexuality charge that could sink the senator’s presidential bid. But should Russell use it?
Ex-President Hockstader thinks the choice is clear. In such mortal combat, using such material is essential, he counsels. But Russell resists. “This is exactly the kind of thing I got into politics to stop,” Larroquette’s character says, much to Hockstader’s consternation. Ethics in such life-and-death struggles is a quality that winners, and by implication, Vidal argues, America itself, can ill afford.
Candice Bergen is compelling as Russell’s elegant, understated, witty wife Alice—type casting, to be sure. Angela Lansbury, like Jones, a legendary stage actor, is memorable as the powerful party committee woman whose southern upper-crust charm barely conceals the steely soul that politics demands.
The play is beautifully written, filled with witty observations about life and politics that still resonate. Cantwell is described as having “every characteristic of a dog—except loyalty.” Former President Hockstader recalls the era when one had to “pour God over everything, like ketchup.” Russell moans that “the terrible thing about running for president is you become a compulsive talker, forever answering questions no one has asked you.”
Gore Vidal, the self-described “border lord” in the “dying kingdom of literature,” is nothing if not provocative—worthy of a play himself. It was his disdain for Israeli policy and neoconservative Jews that led to one of those bitter contretemps in which he revels. Writing in 1986 in The Nation, Vidal attacked neo-conservative icon Norman Podhoretz—accusing him of “divided loyalties” and slamming most American Jews as “Israeli fifth columnists.” Podhoretz shot back, denouncing not only Vidal but The Nation for publishing such outrageous allegations.
A decade later, Vidal, having called Judaism in an interview “an unusually ugly religion,” accepted an invitation to appear at New York’s celebrated Young Men’s Hebrew Association, to promote a new book. Still fuming, former Mayor Ed Koch denounced those who had issued the invitation as either the “most forgiving Jews ever, or schmucks.”
But Vidal, predictably, made news, defending director Roman Polanski, the Polish Jewish director then under fire for having raped an underage girl, as a victim of anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitism is very strong out here,” Vidal told the Atlantic magazine, referring to Hollywood’s film industry. “Even though this is a Jewish business.”
The WASPish Vidal is a bundle of contradictions. A man who has reveled in his aristocratic lineage—a senator’s grandson, Eleanor Roosevelt’s confidant, a relative of Jacqueline Kennedy—he spent much of his adult life with a male companion: Howard Austen, a Jew whose mother was a hat-check girl at the Copa.
In a review of Vidal’s 1987 book Empire, political journalist Steve Waldman, a former editor of the Washington Monthly, urged Vidal to forgo his love of histrionics, shun the talk shows, and just “shut up” and write.
“Vidal’s novels are so well executed that you forget he’s the same loon you just saw on Dick Cavett,” Waldman complained.
The same is true of his plays, especially The Best Man. Nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play, the original version played for 520 performances. In 1964, Vidal adapted it into a memorable film. Given Broadway economics, this revival, directed by Michael Wilson, will have a shorter life. It ends July 1. No matter how you feel about its author, if you love politics, or especially if you hate politics, don’t miss it.
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