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Orson Welles' Timeless Take on American Politics

08/22/2013 02:33 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013
  • Dan Siegel Writer and Social Entrepreneur on Politics, Film and Civil Society

Hearing Orson Welles' rich-timber voice in my ear as he dishes on his life, work and times near the end of his life is a belly-pleasing feast of summer reading.

In My Lunches with Orson, readers have a rare tableside seat at Ma Maison, Welles' LA restaurant hangout with his younger friend and filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Welles gave Jaglom permission to tape record their wide-ranging conversations -- on movies, theater, religion and politics -- between 1983-85 (Welles died that March). The tapes gathered dust in Jaglom's home for three nearly three decades until film writer Peter Biskind edited them into a book released in June.

My Lunches With Orson is full of juicy gossip on Hollywood royalty (Katherine Hepburn "laid around town like nobody's business" and Carol Lombard "behaved like a waitress in a hash house"). However, I was intrigued by the cinema masters' view of American politics, presidencies and foreign affairs.

Welles was a progressive idealist shaped by the events of the 1930s. He was a close ally of Franklin Roosevelt, and even wrote speeches for him. "FDR used to say, 'You and I are the two best actors in America'."

Others have written about and commented on Welles' politics and worldview. His masterwork Citizen Kane is the greatest film on political power and hubris in America. In The Third Man, Welles wrote his own memorable "cuckoo clock" speech on the ironies of political/cultural history.

Orson Welles' observations on American and world politics, even thirty years later, are relevant for our times. Here are a few highlights:

On the corruption of politics:
"I have all the equipment to be a politician. Total shamelessness."

"Well, a senator can be a poor person, but it's true, eventually he'll become a puppet of the rich. A senator used to be a tremendous office. Now it's really, more than it's ever been, what the money buys."

"Politics is always corrupting. Even saints in politics. The political world, in itself, is corrupt. You're not going to satisfy that urge to spiritual perfection in any political movement without being betrayed and without betraying others. Only service, direct service, say, helping a lot of starving kids in the Third World country, is impeccable."

On CIA murder plots
"Every president lies. What I couldn't believe was the CIA stuff, the plot against Castro. In my innocence, I didn't think that America, as a nation, was capable of planning murder as an instrument of policy. I didn't think that was in our character."

On America's image in the world:
"America has missed absolutely no opportunity, not only during the Reagan administration, but in my lifetime, to render it impossible for us to be anything but the deathly enemy of all Arabs, and, of course, all Latin Americans. We can never polish that image. I don't care how much money we pour into it."

On marijuana legalization:
"My theory is that everything went to hell with Prohibition, because it was a law nobody could obey. So the whole concept of the rule of law was corrupted at that moment. Then came Vietnam, and marijuana, which clearly shouldn't be illegal, but is. If you go to jail for ten years in Texas when you light up a joint, who are you? You're a lawbreaker. It's just like Prohibition was. When people accept breaking the law as normal, something happens to the whole society, you see?"

On the FDR years:
"They were glorious. Because you had a president who had made a hundred mistakes and never pretended that he didn't, and who was ready to try anything. And you had a fascinating cabinet--everybody around him. And it was a happy time, even with all the misery. People were starving, but he pulled the country together."

On Eisenhower:
"All Nixon and Reagan do is make me revise my judgment of the Eisenhower years. The economy was great. Eisenhower made the right decision on Suez. And Korea. Got us out. And at the end said, 'Beware of the military-industrial complex.' And he turned over the country, at peace, in 1960. Despite that, we were all groaning, 'Get us rid of this terrible president!' We've just got to admit that was a great eight years, you know?"

On LBJ:
"I just read Robert Caro's new biography of [Lyndon] Johnson, which will destroy him because it tells everything. There isn't one good word about him in the book. He comes out as a total monster. But I think LBJ was a great tragic figure. That's what interests me. A very tragic figure, with his monstrosity, and his energy, and his desire to be a president who counted. He gets almost no credit for the things he did domestically because of his gross behavior. After the Kennedy's, everybody was so used to Casals scratching the cello that Johnson's act didn't go over."

On Henry Kissinger:
"You know Kissinger also believed that America was on the brink of civil war during the Vietnam years. Who was gonna make a civil war? How can an educated man permit himself to put that down on paper? I hate Kissinger even more than I hate Nixon, because I just can't get over the feeling that he knows better, somehow. He must have talked himself into it. But he's a selfish, self-serving shit."

On how his films were received in Soviet Russia:
Welles: You know, not one movie of mine has ever been shown in any theater in the Soviet Union.

Jaglom: You would think they would love Kane, because they could interpret it as a big attack on capitalism.

Welles: But they don't have enough sense to understand it. The critics frothed at the mouth, because it shows the good side of the oppressor.

Jaglom: They thought you admired Kane, and his opulence?

Welles: The truth is, if any of them got to be the premier of Russia, they would be living in Xanadu themselves. The one they really couldn't stand was Touch of Evil, because that showed the final decadence of capitalism."

Jaglom: That's why they should love it!

Welles: But they thought it was my decadence. The Russians are a people of genius, you know, in every department. But instead of flowering under this great revolution, it all withered.

On Egypt:
"The great story is that Egypt was an incredibly closed society, which lasted longer than any society in the Mediterranean world, in a state of total rigidity. Egypt is like the Japan of the Mediterranean, elegant, cruel, inexplicable, and then suddenly opened up. Who by? Napoleon."