I remember vividly the elation of one of my oldest female friends when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. She liked Bill, and she was an even bigger fan of Hillary. She liked the modern nature of their marriage, that both husband and wife worked but still managed to be such obviously committed parents to their daughter. And my friend really liked that the Clintons considered Bill's political career a partnership. Most of all, my friend liked the fact that people of our generation, people who had come of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had now risen to the highest level of national leadership. My friend was a little more taken with the Clintons personally than was I, but I largely shared her optimism. Bill and Hillary had indeed been forged in the same fires of civil rights and Vietnam, had made their marriage in the midst of an emerging women's movement. They had mourned the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and they had worked for George McGovern, just like I had. These were people with whom I had things in common, people for the most part I presumed I could count on to approach issues as I and so many members of my generation would. Today, however, more than five years into Bill Clinton's presidency, I am less confident about sharing attitudes central to his nature. And this has little to do with what I have learned about the infamous nature of his alleged sexual habits. Rather, it has to do with what I have learned about myself.
Twenty years ago now I discovered my capacity for naivete, I was raised the son of a Southern Baptist minister. Ours was a teetotaling family and a teetotaling religion. My parents did not teach me that the consumption of alcohol was a sin. They laughed at the old Baptist canard that the wine Jesus drank was actually grape juice, explaining instead that the lack of refrigeration in Biblical times required the consumption of wine because grape juice would spoil. They advocated abstinence from alcoholic beverages, they assured me, because it was a sound health practice. And since they were my parents, I believed them. Moreover, I believed that the families of all the Baptist boys and girls with whom I went to Sunday School were teetotalers just like we were. And I believed that fact until I was thirty years old, long after my Lutheran classmates at Valparaiso had introduced me to the pleasures of a cold beer. In the late 1970s, however, while in graduate school at UCLA, I became friends with a fellow student from Alabama. He too was raised a Southern Baptist, and just like me, with his family he attended worship services twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night. He shared these details with me as we were drinking margaritas at El Cholo, our favorite place in Los Angeles. I laughed that two Southern teetotalers like ourselves had developed such a fondness for tequila and lime juice. But he responded that his family had never practiced the Baptist prohibition on alcohol consumption, nor had any of the other families with whom he went to church. He presumed that genuine abstinence was practiced only by the clergy, and so his family had an emergency hiding place for their liquor where it could be quickly put out of sight should the preacher come to call.
I thought all my naivete had been exposed that night. But it hadn't, not by a longshot. Far more was exposed in the months after my father's death last year when my mother revealed that all through my childhood he regularly drank at social gatherings with his other friends in the Baptist ministry. But none of these men (with the exception of that mighty iconoclast Will Campbell, who never ratted them out) ever admitted publically even to their own children that they liked a glass of wine or beer. Mine certainly didn't, anyway. And as I talked with my mother about my lost father, I felt a profound sense of being the village idiot, the only one who believed that people meant what they professed to mean. But my conversations with my mother were far more unsettling than that. For she also revealed my father's long record of sexual indiscretion, dating back to the early days of their marriage. Yes, I was shocked. But I had been shocked before, to learn of the dalliances of Bill Clinton's hero, John Kennedy, or those of mine, Martin Luther King. Now, the list of unfaithful husbands included my own father. And my sense of shock was dwarfed by my sense of foolishness for believing that people adhere to the principles they espouse.
I had experienced this sense of foolishness previously. When I was a student at Valparaiso, I underwent a fairly common crisis of faith and personal identity. By the time I was graduating from college, the non-violent idealism of Martin Luther King had given way to the militarism of the black power movement and the armed revolutionary rhetoric of the Black Panthers. The natural patriotism of my Southern rearing had been eroded by the disastrous politics of an illegal war drowned in the blood of atrocities like those at Mai Lai. But then, as I joined the throng of young Americans in anti-war activism, I found myself confronted with people who advocated violence in the name of peace. This inconsistency did not transform me from dove into hawk, but it did give birth to a disillusionment that I'm not sure I've ever overcome. I reflect on these things, my foolishness and my disillusionment, as I reflect on two prominent films that have arrived on movie screens this spring.
Fighting the Power
I was a senior at Valparaiso when America's disastrous intervention in Vietnam reached its crisis point. Richard Nixon ran for the presidency in 1968 as a peace candidate with a secret plan to bring the war to a speedy conclusion, but in May of 1970 he ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia. The war was widening, not winding down. Our nation's campuses, hotbeds of anti-war activism for a half decade, exploded. The rallying cry of young people across the country became, "No more business as usual. Shut down everything." But instead of the general strike we wanted as a tool to end the war, we got soldiers on campus. And shortly, demonstrating students were being gunned down at Kent State and Jackson State. Student leaders at Valparaiso asked for a moratorium on classes, to match the moratoria that had been called at campuses from Princeton to Stanford. When school officials resisted, privately citing concerns about the reaction of our conservative alumni, we called a rally and talked openly of organizing a sit-in demonstration to occupy the administration building.
And then for many of us the world changed. While we talked, someone set Kinsey Hall on fire, and the conflagration spread to Bogart Hall next door, burning both to useless shells. Musical instruments, works of art, several personal libraries and at least one copy of a doctoral dissertation-in-progress were among the many casualties. A nightwatchman who was inside the building barely escaped with his life. I had been among the speakers at the rally who urged all our actions to be non-violent, even non-violent against property. But because I had been a speaker at the rally, I had the police at my door the next morning. I was innocent of any crime, but I was threatened with charges of arson, inciting to riot and conspiracy. I have never been so scared. And I have never forgotten the grilling I endured that day. This week I recall that episode with particular vividness because I have just seen Bruno Barreto's somber and insightful Four Days in September.
Set in Rio de Janeiro in 1969 and based on real events, Four Days in September is the story of a student leader who is harassed for making speeches against his totalitarian government. An aspiring young journalist, Fernando (Pedro Cardoso) lives in a far worse world than the one I lived in during the same years. Brazil's military junta has suspended civil rights and abolished freedom of the press. When police begin to arrest the leaders of student street demonstrations, Fernando and his friend Cesar (Selton Mello), a seminarian, decide to join an underground revolutionary group, the MR-8, dedicated to the restoration of democracy. Almost immediately, however, these two young idealists come to recognize the danger and the impotence of their situation. MR-8's first action is to rob a bank (think Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty "Tanya" Hearst). Cesar is wounded, captured and tortured. And because the junta controls the media, the country doesn't even know that MR-8 exists. In frustration, Fernando proposes a far more daring operation: the kidnapping of Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin), the American ambassador.
To execute this plan, the MR-8 are joined by two seasoned revolutionaries from Sao Paulo, Toledo (Nelson Dantas), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and Jonas (Matheus Nachtegaele), a young firebrand who instantly declares himself commander of the unit and threatens to kill anyone who refuses to obey his every order. Just as we saw in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom and Warren Beatty's Reds, the revolutionary cell quickly embraces the notion that the goal of democracy cannot be pursued via democratic means. Under Jonas' leadership the ambassador is kidnapped, and the revolutionaries warn the government that they will kill him if a group of political prisoners, including Cesar, are not released within 48 hours. And so we see the swiftness of Fernando's descent from fervent spokesman for freedom to bankrobber and prospective murderer. The especial insanity of the MR-8's plan is revealed when Ambassador Elbrick turns out to be a man of profound decency, a liberal who opposes the war in Vietnam and believes that the American government should withdraw recognition from all countries that have overthrown democracy. As the clock ticks toward the 48-hour deadline, Fernando knows all too well that he has summoned a circumstance by which he must murder an innocent man who is actually his ideological ally. Meanwhile, Elbrick tries to conduct himself in a way that sustains his dignity even as his life hangs in the balance on a scale weighing forces completely beyond his control.
It would seem, then, that all our sympathies would lie with those opposed to the MR-8, namely the state security forces trying to locate the revolutionaries' hideout. But those very security forces are the men conducting a campaign of torture against opponents of the junta, opponents that include Fernando's friend, Cesar. In this way Barreto achieves the magnificent effect of making us feel two ways at once. We don't want the security forces to capture Fernando and the other members of the MR-8 whom we understand to be merely misguided. But we certainly don't want the violent and pitiless Jonas to force (as he's pledged) Fernando to kill Elbrick. Where's the way out?
I can nitpick at a handful of details in this film. The whole structure of the MR-8 remains frustratingly unclear. It seems to exist prior to Fernando's involvement, but no superstructure is ever made manifest. Toledo and Jonas make their sudden appearance, but sent by whom we never learn, and they make clear from the outset that they are not members of something so amateurish as MR-8. Later, the sequence in which Fernando's lovely, sad-eyed comrade, Renee (Claudia Abreu), seduces the head of Elbrick's security unit doesn't really wash. That she could actually get him into bed as detailed seems unlikely enough; that she could get him to reveal useful information seems purely preposterous. Near the conclusion, once the location of the ambassador has been ascertained by police, the actions of both the revolutionaries and state security officials seem inauthentic, too calm by the former, too casual by the latter.
But on the whole, this is a film I admire a great deal. Throughout, it displays a tremendous humanity. It disapproves of the methods of the MR-8 without ever condemning its young membership. Comparably, it condemns the tactics of the state police without losing sight of the humanity of its officers. In a particularly insightful moment, the picture allows a security official to explain why torture is unavoidable. His explanation is all the more chilling because of the sense it makes within the context of his objectives. Thus, he can feel bad about what he does, even as he defends it as necessary.
Elsewhere, Four Days in September demonstrates how careful we must be not to let our ideals cannibalize themselves. In America, some who started out as non-violent opponents of the war in Vietnam drifted into the Weathermen who staged the notorious "Days of Rage" or joined other organizations that blew up research facilities or burned two buildings on the Valparaiso campus. In Brazil, as elsewhere, it led people to countenance murder as a political tool. Four Days in September also illustrates how personal agendas inevitably influence the actions of organizations, even those organizations ostensibly committed to something as noble as overthrowing an illegal, oppressive government. There's nothing ideological about Jonas' dislike of Fernando; it's purely personal. And as Trotsky learned in the aftermath of Stalin's ascent, it's dangerous to become the enemy of a man who has already convinced himself that killing is acceptable.
In the end, this picture has the good sense to realize that it is wrestling with problems to which there are no easy answers. We may come to care about the individual members of the MR-8, but they are no heroes. Still, the ruthless government they oppose is most certainly villainous. The path taken by the MR-8 is the wrong one. It targets innocent people. And such terrorism simply does not work. What was achieved by blowing up the Pan American jet over Scotland? Or holding Americans hostage in Iran? What has been accomplished by the countless bombs of the IRA? Barreto makes the ultimate pointlessness of such violence absolutely clear, even as he sympathizes with the ultimate objectives of the MR-8. In the end, as has been repeated by myriad revolutionary organizations elsewhere since, the MR-8 is reduced to trying to gain freedom for their own incarcerated membership, members captured in earlier terrorist operations, some, of course, staged expressly in hopes of freeing still other captives. It's a vicious cycle leading exactly nowhere. Barreto doesn't make clear why the junta finally falls. But two decades later it does, just as the Soviet Union fell, along with its iron-curtain allies in eastern Europe. And terrorism plays no part whatsoever. Those whose frustration has ever led them to contemplate violence ought ponder the desperate admission of Maria (Fernanda Torres), the MR-8's original leader, that she would prefer to live in jail rather than die for her revolutionary cause. For those of us blessed to reside in a country with a more entrenched commitment to civil liberty, those who have been falsely accused and those who haven't, it is imperative that we recognize how fragile our institutions and freedoms can prove. Our best protection against terrorism is an unwavering commitment to justice.
Feeling the Pain
The issue of ends and means is raised in a different way in Mike Nichols' Primary Colors, the story of a presidential candidate fighting scandals on his march to the Oval Office. Based on Joe Klein's novel (officially authored by "Anonymous"), Primary Colors tracks the efforts of a relatively obscure Southern governor named Jack Stanton (John Travolta) to capture the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. The story is told through the eyes of a young black political strategist named Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) who surprises even himself when he agrees to join the Stanton campaign. Burton is a seasoned political professional, but he aches to believe in something the way his famed civil-rights-leader grandfather did, and he decides to place his faith in Jack Stanton and Stanton's attractive, no-nonsense wife Susan (Emma Thompson). Stanton is a man unafraid of his own emotions. He cares about the plight of the common American, the factory laborer who has lost his job, the single mother struggling to make ends meet on a small salary, the fast food worker trying to scrape by on minimum wage, the black barbecue cook trying to raise a decent family in the trailer behind his shack, the functional illiterate owning up to his disability and attending adult reading classes. And Burton is moved by Stanton's obvious and genuine caring.
Unfortunately, Stanton's gifts do not include that of self-control. He is brilliant and charismatic, a hard man not to like. But in many ways he's like a precocious junior high school student, smart but still childish. Stanton whines when he can't get cable TV and smashes things when he can't get his way. Most of all, he's like a horny teenager. His record of extramarital liaisons is so vast, his longtime political associate Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) has been driven to the point of despair. Now, just as Stanton begins to rise in the polls, Susan's former hairdresser Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides) comes forward to claim that she had a long-term affair with Stanton and has taped conversations to document their relationship. Later on, damaging rumors begin to circulate that Stanton has fathered a child by an unwed black teenager.
Burton is disappointed to learn that Stanton is such a faithless husband (who seems to love his longsuffering wife even as he routinely cheats on her), but Burton's real crisis about working for Stanton doesn't come until he sees what Stanton will do when he's backed into a corner, how for all his protestations about running a positive campaign, he's willing to go negative when necessary. Worse, perhaps, Burton is forced to witness how quickly Susan and Jack both can fashion intellectual defenses. They don't invoke the phrase, but they both argue that the ends justify the means.
It's unfortunate that Jack and Susan Stanton are so obviously based on Bill and Hillary Clinton, that Billy Bob Thornton's Richard Jemmons is James Carville, that Cashmere McLeod is Gennifer Flowers and so forth, for these connections to a real President still besieged with sex scandals (even in the aftermath of a federal judge's dismissal of the Paula Jones lawsuit) distract us from the more probing things this picture wants to contemplate about the American political process. The film obviously condemns the smear tactics that are now commonplace in campaigns from dog catcher to president. It raises serious questions about a political ethic that places victory above all else, above such seemingly higher priorities as honesty and fairness. And the picture worries about the health of a political system that has become so ruthless as to intimidate those without a white-hot ego-need to be in the spotlight, a political system that by its very operation may drive away those far better able to lead than those from among whom we finally have to choose.
Primary Colors is successful purely as entertainment. Elaine May's script is often howlingly funny. Some scenes are mostly throw-aways, like the one in which Stanton makes a guest appearance on a Florida talk show called Schmooze with Jews or another in which an attempt to talk seriously with Susan about Jack's womanizing breaks down into ridiculous confusion over a metaphor about being charged by a wild boar while out hunting doves. Other moments of comedy are more revealing, such as the scene where Stanton, Jemmons and other aides sit around drunkenly discussing their mothers while an impervious Susan tries to fashion strategy with Burton. When Burton wants to incorporate Stanton into the policy session, Susan observes that "Jack will be in that mommathon for the rest of the night." We laugh, but all the while we see both Jack's astonishing capacity for empathy and Susan's relentless political focus and clear-headed grasp of her husband's nature. And, of course, it's fun to think how much we're seeing inside the Clintons' relationship. Travolta's performance is practically an impersonation of our current president. It's a very savvy impersonation because it manages to personalize what we think we know about the public figure, a man so many of us find immensely likable and infuriatingly irresponsible. Thompson's work isn't quite so closely modeled on the public Hillary. The two don't look or sound the same. But Thompson does most certainly render Hillary's reputation for political toughness and capacity for recovering from her husband's endless series (alleged anyway) of infidelities.
The standout performance is given here, though, by Kathy Bates. Her Libby Holden is the film's quirky but ferocious conscience. Sexual license may be disgusting, but it's not a fatal flaw in Libby's eyes. Libby stands ready to forgive almost anything save trampling on the ideals of human decency that she presumes to have shared with the Stantons since their youthful work together in the 1972 McGovern campaign. It is Libby who recognizes how Jack's indiscretions have caused a lesion on Susan's soul, how Jack's ambition has clouded his view of why he went into politics in the first place, and how together they have come to see victory as the only way of justifying themselves, victory that must be obtained at whatever cost. Libby is coarse, foul-mouthed, hard-nosed and willing to play rough. But as the film goes along we come to see that she stands for something whereas, she concludes, the Stantons finally stand only for themselves. In this regard the film seems to veer abruptly away from its own implications. Just as Libby seems to suggest that the Stantons have lost their way (a premise with which the book ends), May's script reintroduces the plausibility of Jack's argument that politics requires compromise and that great accomplishments require the power to act. Thus the film closes with an exertion of Jack Stanton's compelling personality, the concession by Henry Burton that his boss may be right, and a concerted attitude of hope. The Clintons will be pleased by this at least.
Well produced and enjoyable as this picture is, its end leaves me profoundly uncomfortable, not because I'm Clinton hater—I'm not at all—but because it finally seems to accept the Stantons' arguments that in today's climate of dirty politics you have to be willing to get down in the mud if you seriously want to win, and that to pursue worthwhile objectives you must first win. The end of winning, therefore, justifies the means of dirty tactics. Mike Nichols no doubt sees such an attitude as realistic. And I well remember that Jimmy Carter (a man I admire rather more than Bill Clinton) told friends when he ran for governor of Georgia, "Watch what I do when I'm elected, not what I say to get elected."
Until late in the 20th century, Americans were in the habit of idealizing the men they elected President. George Washington was the "father of our country," a man who "could not tell a lie." Thomas Jefferson believed in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Abraham Lincoln was "the great emancipator." And so on. The press was a conscious collaborator in the establishment and maintenance of presidential myth. They willfully kept from the nation that Franklin Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair and that John Kennedy brought call girls into the White House. Historians long knew the foibles of the men who led the nation, that Virginians Washington and Jefferson never escaped the taint of slaveholding, that Lincoln suffered frightful bouts of depression, that Woodrow Wilson continued to hold office after becoming almost completely incapacitated, that Roosevelt and Kennedy were womanizers. But until the age of CNN, the average man remained ignorant of the baser natures of his presidential heroes. Today we are limited in what we know about our Presidents only by the revelations that the media will make tomorrow.
In All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren says "There is one thing man cannot know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him." I have long been fascinated with that observation. Would we be better off not knowing of our heroes' sins? Does the knowledge of their failed example weaken the resolve of the rest of us to strive for virtue? I have certainly thought I might be better off not knowing the extent to which my father was unfaithful to the rules he proclaimed from the pulpit and by which he taught me to live. But just as I am about to embrace the blessedness of ignorance, I slam up against that other of Penn Warren's observations: "The end of man is to know." The knowledge we have already cannot be erased. Our heroes stand before us naked in their evident hypocrisy. And we will not go back to a time when the reporters of CNN don't tell us more than we want to know about those who would be president. So does that mean Jack and Susan Stanton are right: Nasty as it is, the ends do justify the means?
I find my answer in another favorite text, in the answer Joseph Heller provides at the end of Catch-22 when Yossarian faces the logic that he can only save himself from the evil machinations of Colonels Cathcart and Korn by endorsing the machinations of Cathcart and Korn. "It's a way to save yourself," Yossarian's friend Major Danby proposes. "It's a way to lose myself," Yossarian responds. Yossarian seems faced with two unacceptable choices. So he refuses to choose. He invents a third way. He changes the rules. He acts not realistically but religiously. He strikes out on a course paved purely by faith.
I have already confessed my naivete. And now I embrace it. If I were realistic I would know what is true and concede to it. But I would rather have faith in what ought to be true. And so instead of recognizing that there's dirty laundry in everybody's closet, I believe that a candidate of virtue and principle exists and that America would relish, for instance, electing such a person President. We can know the past. But we can make the future. And in the future I would make, we would hold our public officials and the processes by which they come office to the highest standard. It's a slippery slope if we don't. For once we have conceded that the ends justify the means, we will find those willing to employ means we think that we would not. And the nature of the mud we have to wallow in will grow filthier still.
And that's when we're lost indeed.