Election season is upon us with a vengeance – a vengeance more bitter than most elections I can remember. I am planning to vote, because I believe in exercising my right to have a voice in my government, however small. (I am also mindful of the decades when women could not vote in this country, and of the millions of women around the world who still have no say in either their governments or their lives.)
But I spent a recent evening enjoying a different angle on politics. J and I watched The American President, the witty and romantic 1995 film in which Annette Bening plays a sharp-tongued, sparkling-eyed lobbyist who falls in love with Michael Douglas as he plays the sober, thoughtful and warmhearted President of the United States.
(Image from imdb.com)
I watched this movie as a teenager, when some of the political commentary went over my head, but I loved the clever interplay between the President and his staff members, and the tender (if complicated) love story. Watching it as an adult, I’m struck by how not dated it is. The banter is still brilliant and utterly quotable; the power suits are still (mostly) the style in the halls of power; and the overarching concept that “politics is perception” has never been more relevant.
The movie is set in an election year, with the President trying to keep his job while sending two important bills to Congress (the issues at hand are gun control and the environment). A likable, urbane widower (with a teenage daughter whom he adores), he has been consistently popular, until he starts dating Sydney Ellen Wade, a lobbyist hired to help the environmental folks push their agenda on the Hill.
Despite his attempts to keep his personal life private, the President finds his ratings sliding, and as congressional votes on his bills also start slipping away, he must decide which issues to support. Sydney isn’t sleeping with him to get votes, but the pundits – and his opponent – pounce on the potential for scandal.
This President is an intelligent, well-informed man who carefully considers his decisions (the scene involving an attack on Libya under the guise of “proportional response” is one of the film’s best). He struggles, privately and deeply, with the power and influence accorded him as the leader of the free world. He listens to his staff’s advice (the supporting cast, including Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, is outstanding), but in the end he makes his decisions alone. And crucially, he has the courage to admit his mistakes.
The movie’s climax comes when the President finally steps up to address the White House press corps, refuting multiple accusations brought by his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). Whether or not you agree with the political statements herein, it is an incisive, rhetorically dazzling speech, and it begins with this statement:
For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character. And although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I’ve been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being president of this country is entirely about character.
I am more weary than I can say of the mudslinging, name-calling, pandering, dodging and mean-spirited comments that pervade the political ads, debates and social media sites in this country. I am not suggesting that a romantic comedy holds the solution to these problems, nor am I suggesting that it is quite that simple.
But I do believe we would all benefit by remembering that this country can be best led by people of character, whatever their political affiliation or stance on certain issues. And I also believe we ought to act as people of character toward our friends, coworkers and fellow Americans, even (or especially) when their political views don’t agree with ours.