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Chris Kelly

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Rick Santorum Ruins The Best Man

Posted: 02/18/2012 2:21 pm

"One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country." -- Rick Santorum

Someone should take a group of women and make a frank and clear-eyed study of abortion. Specifically, the aftereffects of having to constantly re-win the political right to get one. Didn't we settle this? Why do we have to do this again? Half the people I know have spent the last week sad or angry -- each in their own secret way -- about the idea that it's 2012 and we don't just have to defend abortion, again, we have to defend birth control. The science is in. There is a link between abortion and suicidal depression. And that link is Rick Santorum.

He is our sin made pallid flesh. Our scarlet a-hole. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten his little head.

Maybe you're haunted by your brushes with birth control, maybe you're not. But we must have done something wrong -- as people, as a generation, as a nation -- to have to go through this hell again. Endlessly. The past mixing with Rick Santorum into a frothy toxic leachate of regret and déjà vu. Repression curdling into remorse, remorse into shame, shame into atrabiliousness, a word I should probably look up.

I'm grouchy because I've been looking forward to this revival Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway next month and Rick Santorum has ruined it.

You see, I like The Best Man a lot. The play, about a political convention in 1960, was hot stuff for its time, but now it's a period piece, and most of it has as much in common with a modern presidential campaign as Gypsy has with 2 Girls 1 Cup. At its core is a moral dilemma -- Can a good man do a bad thing to beat a bad man without becoming bad? -- that could fit in an episode of a Shatner Star Trek, and if you think I think that's a bad thing you don't know me at all.

(Vidal copped to the whole operation being a little dusty a decade ago: "The play doesn't have primaries, and it doesn't have fund-raising. I think if you were to do a play about how a president is made in the year 2000, I would start out in the board rooms of various large corporations as they audition senators and governors to decide which one they wanted to represent their interests.")

Which isn't to say The Best Man doesn't still work. It does. But you don't see it because it's about now. You see it because it's about then. And because it chugs along, like Disney's Hall of Thinly Disguised Presidents, with drinking in the afternoon, pencil skirts and canny bon mots about Joseph Alsop.

Except now it's not safely in the past at all. Look:

(The two candidates' wives are having highballs, whatever those are, with an important committee woman, whatever that is, and one slips in the knife... )

MABEL
You are wonderful and courageous. I always say Alice Russell is the most courageous woman in public life, don't I Sue-Ellen?

ALICE (curiously)
In what way, courageous?

MABEL
Why, that committee you were on!

MRS. GAMADGE (suddenly alert)
Committee? What committee?

MABEL (ready for the kill)
You know -- in New York City, the one where you did all that work for birth control.

MRS. GAMADGE (horror)
Birth control! I didn't know that.

ALICE
Well, it was 20 years ago. And of course I'm not supposed to mention it now... (to MABEL) as you know.

MRS. GAMADGE
I should hope not! You'll have the Catholics down on us like a ton of bricks. The rhythm cycle, yes (makes a vague circular motion with her hand) but anything else... is out.

MABEL
Of course I'm against any kind of artificial means of birth control except where it's a matter of health maybe, but believe me I think it took the courage of lion to be in favor of people using these contraceptive things when you're in public life. Of course I guess you didn't know then your husband would be running for president one day and when you do that you just can't afford to offend a lot of nice people who vote.


In 1960 Gore Vidal meant it as a sick joke. Mabel thinks Mrs. Gamadge is a rube and Mrs. Gamadge thinks the voters are rubes. Now it's not a joke anymore.

And where's the fun in that?