Saturday, November 06, 2004

Just a General Interest

Been re-reading the Pulitzer Prize winning play State of the Union, by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Like most of the plays and musicals by this prolific team (Life With Father, The Sound of Music), it's well-structured, efficient, and about as deep as a wading pool. As always, Lindsay and Crouse characterize not so much by personality type as by function: Jim Conover (Minor Watson) is The Political Hack; Grant (Ralph Bellamy) is The Hero Who Must Choose Between Integrity and Political Success; Mary (Ruth Hussey) is The Estranged Wife Outraged By Political Hackery. Every point in the play is condensed into a little fortune-cookie motto, e.g.:

CONOVER: The people have damn little to say about the nomination. You two have lived in this country all your lives. Haven't you got that through your heads yet? You're not nominated by the people -- you're nominated by the politicians! Why? Because the voters are too damned lazy to vote in the primaries! Well, politicians are not lazy!

SPIKE: These educated apes who are coming here -- Grant can't be nominated without their support, and in the election they can deliver a lot of votes.
MARY (scornfully): How can you deliver the votes of a free people?
SPIKE: Mary, lazy people and ignorant people and prejudiced people are not free.

MARY: Everybody here tonight was thinking of the next election. Well, it's time somebody began thinking of the next generation!

And so on. The politics of the play's lead character are pretty vague, deliberately so; opening right after the end of World War II, it presents its hero as the ideal politician to keep the country united in the postwar era, a guy who throws off the shackles of party affiliation (it's implied at the end that he might run as an independent or else remake the Republican Party in his own image) and special interests to Tell It Like It Is to labor and big business alike. He's given a few political positions -- he's in favor of full employment bills -- but basically he's an early representative of American pop culture's obsession with independents, mavericks, and people who claim to render the categories of "right" and "left" irrelevant. It's not a big surprise that the play was filmed by Frank Capra, whose Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is a great political film about a character with no discernible political affiliation.

But that's the fun of reading a play like this (aside from the fun of some of Lindsay and Crouse's snappy/corny lines, like Mary's explanation of why she broke off her affair with an army officer: "When he was a Major, he was a major interest, but now that he's a General, he's just a general interest"), that it shows how little has changed in stories dealing with politics: the idealistic maverick is always exalted over the guy who plays politics. Whether this makes sense is another question; I think there's a good argument that the demands of political hackery are a welcome brake on the dangers of too much political idealism (remember, the people you disagree with are often idealists too). But I don't think there's been a successful play or movie celebrating a political hack. Maybe that's something worth trying.

The other thing about State of the Union is that because it came out just before the Cold War (tm) really got started, it still has vestigal traces of the Popular Front attitude of pre-WWII plays; it has this in common with another hit of the same season, Born Yesterday, which is full of dire warnings about incipient fascism and more or less equates an uncouth businessman with Hitler. Most embarrassing moment in State of the Union, when Grant has just been meeting with some John Birch-ish group:

MARY: Oh, that crowd! Against war -- but we may have to fight the Russians!
GRANT: Exactly! I wound up making a campaign speech for Stalin.

Yeah, that'll show 'em.

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