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11/02/2014 12:25 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

The Candidate : Election Season Classic May Ease Pain as It Entertains

"Some good souls found The Candidate cynical. I wonder what they'll think when they read this portrait of the real-life Jerry Brown... This is the book that could force the little fox into the open." -- Jeremy Larner, author of the Academy Award-winning screenplay of The Candidate

Some people watch It's A Wonderful Life at Christmas time; I watch The Candidate at election time. Not because it's all that uplifting, although it's gotten more uplifting over time. (Robert Redford's Bill McKay, callow as he was in 1972, looks better today. He's a beacon of candor and integrity by 2014 standards even at his worst.)

No, there are no angels getting their wings in The Candidate, just a great deal of insight and incisiveness around a long-shot campaign for U.S. senator from California. The Candidate, crisply directed by Michael Ritchie, is frequently amusing and highly entertaining. And highly recommended for Democrats and independents dreading Tuesday night's results, which look bad for Democrats nationally, though very good for, er, California Governor Jerry Brown, now on the verge of a record fourth term. Some spoilers follow.

Speaking of Jerry Brown, obviously the main though not only model for Bill McKay, and more about that later, the set-up is this. Political consultant Marvin Lucas (a terrific Peter Boyle), leaving an ashen "victory party for on the failed anti-Vietnam War 'New Politics' candidates of the time, tells ace media consultant Howard Klein (an uncanny Allen Garfield) that he just might have something going in California. A potential shot at the Golden State's seemingly unassailable Republican power broker Senator Crocker Jarmon. All the established Dems are afraid to take him on, but Lucas knew a guy at Stanford who might just catch on with the infusion of new young voters coming into the process, the outspoken maverick son of California's legendary former Democratic Governor John J. McKay (a fantastic Melvyn Douglas).

Vote once, vote twice... Robert Redford's maverick U.S. Senate candidate Bill McKay cuts loose.

And so it begins.

Lucas flies to SoCal and we quickly meet the 35-year-old McKay, in action doing "the legal aid bit" helping farm workers and the environment. McKay quickly tumbles to what Lucas wants. He's sardonically resistant but intrigued, full of acerbic asides about his famous father's political career. But his ambitious wife is quickly into it.

In a classic scene, Lucas makes a very good pitch. Take a year and use the Senate campaign as a vehicle to lay out his views and really make a name for himself. McKay knows better. You can't do that in a political campaign. Sure you can, assures Lucas, to reel in his catch. He scribbles on a matchbook and hands it to McKay. "Here's your guarantee." It reads: "You lose." That's right. McKay doesn't have a chance against the senior senator, no matter his last name. You can say what you want, Lucas insists. If you've really got something to say.

Eschewing any contact with his father, young McKay instead heads to a Jarmon event to have a word with the senator. Who makes, let's say, a big error. Mistaking McKay for an ex-college jock, he asks the much younger man about "the old throwing arm."

Convinced that Jarmon is full of it, McKay announces for the Senate. He's rough as hell, but there's definitely something there, a spiky charisma with insight and integrity. Media consultant Kline picks up on it right away.

So we see McKay growing into the role of candidate, learning about the issues, the media, how to try to say whatever it is he's trying to get across. More of a budding iconoclast than ideologue, though clearly liberal, he's pretty compelling even when he clearly has little idea what he's talking about. Meanwhile, Klein's cameras follow him, gathering raw material for TV ads McKay hasn't yet authorized.

Speaking at a big party banquet, with real life Dem heavyweights crowding the dais, McKay perfectly channels early Jerry Brown, waxing philosophical about impersonal societal forces increasingly overwhelming the individual. Maybe you can't talk about such things in a political campaign, but he's going to try. He may not have the answers but he's going to focus on important questions. He's going to bring a New Spirit... Okay, McKay doesn't say that.

McKay breezes to a big, easy win in the Democratic primary. Then Lucas lowers the boom, in a men's room chat with McKay away from the victory party. Brandishing new polling data, he says McKay has gotten a big win over a no-name field but he's only at 32 percent against Jarmon. McKay will be wiped out, humiliated. Since that's decidedly not the idea, McKay declares that he will quit. But he can't, as Lucas tells him, because he's now the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator.

"You say that like it's a death sentence," blurts McKay. Oh, but it doesn't have to be. He's just reaching the folks who already agree with him. Averting disaster will just require some, well, adjustments in the campaign's approach.

Like, say, the very slick, dynamic, and catchy new TV ads Klein shows off the very next day. It's not a "New Spirit," it's a "Better Way." As in "For A Better Way, Bill McKay."

And for another adjustment, there are some trims on the sharp edges of that spiky McKay candor and fuzzing up some difficult specificity on troublesome issues.

As Jerry Brown put it in the early '70s, "a little vagueness goes a long way in this business."

And so Bill McKay, still frequently balky and acerbic about the campaign and politics in general, is seduced into becoming a more conventional politician. (And a more effective politician.) After some amusing campaign mishaps, before the candidate has found his stride, "those giants of journalism, Evans and Novak" (real life problems for libs), issue a column which says that McKay's famous dad is really for Jarmon.

So McKay has to go hat in proverbial hand to "Governor John J" to fix it.

It's a particularly great scene in a film full of great scenes, funny, telling, and poignant. The old governor is a hack, yet deeply shrewd and highly effective. He may have been too focused on paving over the Golden State, but he clearly has no love for the Jarmon's conservatism. And he's very intrigued by his suddenly ambitious son and his different ways.

After the old man's snappy statement denying the column, McKay starts making real headway. His speeches become more focused and less alternative while the ads slam home the slick imagery. He's closing in on the once untouchable senator.

Is McKay selling out, as Redford originally conceived the character, according to the screenwriter's discussion in a recent Redford biography? Or is he getting carried away by the energy and drama of it all, as Larner saw the character?

Or is he simply engaged in a real world to win election to an office in which he might actually be able to make some difference?

Forty years ago, the debate was between the first two positions. Today, the answer looks like it lies somewhere in the midst of all three positions.

The film, in a mordantly amusing way, depicts how sheer humanism doesn't really work in a political campaign, getting lost in the shuffle and give and take. At least with regard to winning. The politics of symbolism may be much shallower, but it's also effective.

Of course, a somewhat unresolved sort of character is best suited for this. McKay has some intriguing and incisive ideas. But aside from a few core specifics, his basic program is more a set of notions than an actual governing philosophy and set of policies.

In fact, he may not even believe that real governing is possible.

Is he right about that?

Does any of that make him a bad guy?

Probably not if he's retaining core values as a stranger in this strange land.

With his huge lead evaporating toward the vanishing point, Jarmon is forced to drop his pose of brushing off McKay. He agrees to a debate.

Slickly coached and prepared, McKay executes the debate game plan with a ruthless sort of charisma. He has the debate well in hand as he begins his canned closing statement. Which he drops after the opening phrase, departing from the tactical trimming of difficult issues to note how the debate has smugly ignored issues of race, class, violence, and divisiveness that can end up tearing the country apart.

Whereupon Jarmon attacks him for advocating violence as the debate ends in chaos. McKay's consultants are beside themselves till Governor John J sweeps in to the studio to make his first campaign appearance with his son, declaring the debate a great victory.

When the two men are alone, the old man congratulates his son on a great performance ... right up till that closing statement. "I wonder if anyone will understand what I was trying to do," the candidate forlornly muses. Don't worry about it, counsels the legendary governor, it won't make any difference.

Bill McKay goes off script at the end of the big debate.

From there, the film moves inexorably and excitingly toward an ending you can guess, at least in large measure. The father telling his son as the results flood in: "Son, you're a politician." And, of course, the son, frankly more archly than plaintively, asking his campaign manager: "What do we do now?"

And after all the bunting has fallen and the celebratory music faded, a more ironic hint of "Hail to the Chief."

The real irony, of course, which the filmmakers could not have imagined in 1971 and 1972, is that Bill McKay is of he generation that, for all its glamour, promise, and prowess, looks like the first in America history not to produce a president.

While a Senator McKay, like others in his cohort -- including Redford's 1980s candidate for president, Gary Hart -- would go on to be a prominent figure in a group of politicians who helped bring down an alarming presidency and end a disastrous war, those and subsequent victories did not lead to ultimate electoral power in America. Unless Jerry Brown somehow contrives to become president in 2016, a feat which might require cloning.

So is he the main model for Bill McKay? Of course. The filmmakers have long played it a little coy, but Larner gave away the game with the quote you see at the top of this article. It's a blurb for a little-known 1978 book by an ex-Brown aide who is shocked, shocked to find symbolism being practiced in Jerry Brown's politics.

The book, Jerry Brown: The Man on A White Horse, is actually entertaining and quite insightful in its way. Except for the author, nonetheless, not really understanding Brown. Or politics.

Brown didn't want to appear to be embracing a big, expensive jobs program. Which author James Lorenz didn't actually advocate in a fatefully controversial memo. He just (foolishly) made it sound like a big, expensive jobs program. (This year, Brown allocated, with hardly any fanfare, billions more for a vastly expanded state health care program called Medi-Cal under the fullest fledged form of Obamacare. An incredible number of Californians are eligible. But Brown isn't running on that, so...

Bill McKay isn't exactly Jerry Brown, of course. In real life, Brown -- who met screenwriter Larner in Senator Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam War 1968 presidential campaign, for which Larner was a speechwriter and Brown organized the California slate -- made himself a politician, spiky anti-politics observations and all.

Back in the day, there were other potential McKays. Like California Senator John Tunney, for whom I served as a U.S. Senate intern while a UC Berkeley undergrad. And New York Mayor John Lindsey, a Redford friend, who segued from liberal Republican to liberal Democrat before flaming out in the 1972 presidential primaries.

Tunney honcho Nelson Rising even co-produced The Candidate. While Tunney, Ted Kennedy's ex-law school roommate, kinda looks the part and won the same office, he never really talked like McKay. Lindsay, who I didn't know, had the McKay look but seemed a bit too, well, East Coast fatuous for the part.

What about Governor John J. McKay? Is he Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown?

Ironically, I knew Pat Brown before I knew Jerry Brown. He appeared at a dinner where I received schoolboy honors largely arranged by Brown's close ally Roger Kent, state Democratic Party chairman throughout the Pat Brown governorship, and his brother Sherman Kent, best known as "the father of strategic analysis" in the CIA.

My experience of Governor Pat, which included vacationing with him, working out of his suite of offices in LA's Century City, and lunching with him the last year of his life, was almost alarmingly positive and cheery. He usually was not the rather ruthless, if good-humored, power player of Melvyn Douglas's depiction. And of course he wasn't divorced from his wife, in real life the coolly brilliant Bernice Brown.

But he certainly wasn't just the big teddy bear he enjoyed playing in retirement. And he was happy that his son, whom he frequently didn't understand but did work seriously at appreciating, embraced "the family business," albeit in his own intriguing way.

"Son, you're a politician." Indeed.

Today, we're all politicians. Or we're not relevant. Most Americans are too disengaged and/or distracted for an "educational" campaign to make much difference. The question is if the practitioners have enough integrity and imagination to be more than pointless hacks.

The Candidate has held up very well. It's mostly missing the toxic fundraising and media cultures which plague American politics today, but the gamesmanship, partisanship, consultant culture, and flavorful if frequently shallow dynamics advertising-oriented campaigning are all there.

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