Presidential Death Match 2000
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NOTICE: This article contains scenes that may not be suitable for mature humans. Discretion is advised. However, it also contains reviews of current productions, like Fistful of Moolah, starring George W. Bush; Millennium Man, with Al Gore; and Mission Improbable, an indy party road movie. Plus, a preview of what could be the next blockbuster political/action hit.
After Zippergate and the Starr Report, could politics get any more warped? You wouldn't have thought so. After all, in little more than a decade, we'd gone from arms for hostages, covert war in Latin America, and prime time bombings in Iraq to the wall-to-wall circus that placed the president's penis in the center ring for a constitutional trapeze act. But then the corporate pimps, media sycophants, and political fixers who convinced voters to put a B-grade actor, a drugged-up Yalie, and a world-class narcissist (you know who they are) in charge of the world's only superpower came up with a blockbuster not even DreamWorks could have packaged.
Yes, it's a title bout for the new millennium. Presidential Death Match 2000. You don't need a ticket to get a seat for this $2 billion fatal distraction. But there's no way out until the last pundit sings.
When he retired from the US Senate, that great white hoopster Bill Bradley, who offered up his "authentic inner core" early in the presidential race, said "politics is broken." But it's worse than that. If George "Dubya" Bush and Al Gore are any indication, it's become a rite of succession that makes the presidency look more and more like an inherited crown.
Deep Pockets, Demagogues, and the Democrat's Big Sleep
The two crucial traits that apparently endear Dubya to GOP stalwarts are his fundraising prowess and family pedigree. It's certainly not his IQ or way with words. Sure, he's also a governor -- in a state where the job is as taxing as hosting a celebrity golf tournament. Mainly, he's taken credit for reforms that were already in the legislative pipeline. But then again, Texas does rank first in executions, proving at least that the younger Bush has the killer instinct essential for any "compassionate conservative." And he was the brains behind Texas' "war on sex," a proposal with a $9 million price tag to "encourage young people to save sex for marriage."
Despite his rocky start, nagging questions about basic brain power, and an unexpected challenge by John McCain, power-starved Republicans have rallied the stalwarts and suppressed their doubts. Clearly, they'd rather back a born-again frat boy with a fat bankroll than face the reality that their rescuer has the moral compass of a turkey buzzard.
Meanwhile, the Democrats barely stayed awake long enough to see whether their incumbent vice president, who supposedly had the nomination wired before the race began, could stave off a half-hearted challenge from the politician formerly known as Senator Sominex. Pundits called the Gore-Bradley contest a legitimate horse race, but it was more like watching pelicans mate in slow motion.
Even when these two raised "serious" issues, the goal was to talk tough while taking as few risks as possible. How else could you explain Gore's lame attempt to turn his concern about sprawl into a bold departure? Then came Elian Gonzales, the boat boy whose saga took on the qualities of a Nativity scene in Little Miami. Gore changed his tune faster than you can say 25 electoral votes. And I hate to disillusion people who thought Bradley was actually fighting for universal health coverage, but subsidies for the poor and tax breaks for the middle class -- two major chunks of his "big idea" -- wouldn't have fixed the mess created by HMOs and insurance company bean counters.
So, forget the issues. The real question was whether Bradley's awkward warmth and celebrity status could overcome Gore's effective exploitation of patronage and federal pork to win early support from elected officials and party hacks. It was an image battle in which both contestants badly needed a personality transplant. The outcome surprised no one: nagging predictability defeated high-minded tedium.
Meanwhile, as if this isn't strange and sad enough, Reform -- Ross Perot's facsimile of a party, linking naïve populism with potentially dangerous nativism -- has featured the most contentious nomination fight of all. Many Perotistas looked to Jesse "the gov" Ventura, the most cheeky demagogue since Huey Long. But Ventura, who doesn't hesitate to trash religion and revel in junk culture, wanted no part of this smackdown. Instead, he threw out sacrificial lambs like Lowell Weicker and Donald Trump. In 1990, Weicker, a former GOP senator, did wage a successful third-party campaign for governor of Connecticut. But he was yesterday's news. And running The Donald? That would have been like spraying the party with voter repellent. As it turned out, Trump was just promoting a book -- or himself, and Ventura stormed out of the party instead.
Which brings us to Pat Buchanan: Nixon apologist, CNN commentator, and the man who declared our current "culture war" during his 1992 bid. At the time, columnist Carl Rowan called Buchanan's convention speech "the closest I have ever heard to a Nazi address."
After his second presidential run in 1996, Buchanan's status changed dramatically, from right-wing avatar to potentially "radioactive" weapon of GOP destruction. The poison pill turned out to be Pat's isolationist take on Hitler and WWII, which brought his other mutant ideas into focus. George Will, the conservative spear-carrier who trained Ronald Reagan for his 1980 presidential debates, came close to calling his fellow tele-columnist a fascist. He and other conservatives hoped Bushanan would just disappear, uncomfortable having him either in or out of the Republican Party.
But Pat had other plans. Determined to debate Dubya and whoever bored the Democrats least, he jumped ship for the Reform nomination. Perot initially welcomed the attention, but it was the last straw for Ventura. Scorned by most Republicans, with the mysterious exception of Dubya -- who appears to live by that old Mafia proverb about keeping enemies close -- Pat is primed to lead his pitchfork brigade on a hostile take over of Reform.
The guy is like some tenacious alien creature that can only be killed when projected deep into outer space. And maybe not even then.
Looks are Everything
Sometimes the political process comes across like some sort of conspiracy, a made-for-TV event designed by media moguls to boost ratings and transfer escalating production costs to campaign contributors. They're already the beneficiaries of federal matching funds, which largely go toward paying for TV ads. Think about it: US media is basically controlled by a handful of conglomerates, and the key players probably all pee on the same tree at Bohemian Grove. Since they're forced to cover presidential candidates anyway, maybe they just decided to handle the casting and plot points as well.
But no, they're not that clever. And anyway, not even the WB would air a series in which the callow son of an ex-president is challenged for the nomination by the wife of a former nominee. That's pushing suspension of disbelief too far, isn't it? And yet, there they were for a while -- Dubya and Liddy Dole -- living proof that the US does have a political aristocracy. The only thing left is a royal wedding at the GOP convention. Imagine the ratings for that.
Still, this has been the most media-driven campaign ever. For example, the first question about every candidate was how he or she came across on the tube. The next -- long before we knew much about their positions -- was whether they were capturing sufficiently high ratings to get picked up for the second season. Cokie, Sam, and the rest of the punditocracy talked about each candidate's fundraising ability as if that was the main qualification for office. Surrendering to this logic, Dan Quayle admitted he dropped out essentially because Dubya's $60 million war chest proved he was the best man for the job. So much for ideology.
To make an impression, most candidates turned themselves into stereotypes. If they didn't do it, talking heads and late-night hosts would. The name of the game was image management. Steve Forbes thought he could even buy an image and, perhaps, the presidency itself. He was wrong. No amount of money could compensate for his pervasive nerdiness, not to mention eyes that made you wonder whether his father, the even more bizarre Malcolm, had Steve built in an underground lab. Luckily, the US isn't yet ready to elect someone with the affect of an android -- with the possible exception of Gore.
To paraphrase Billy Crystal's Fernando, it's better to look presidential than actually say too much. In a way, the less revealed the better. Having learned that lesson, John McCain -- the GOP's anti-Bush -- was long on anecdotes and vague reform talk, but short on specifics and ready to avoid tough stands. (After dropping out, he apologized about the latter, then proceeded to campaign for GOP incumbents who oppose his own reform agenda.) During the tour of his "straight talk express," he mainly dripped sincerity whenever given the chance to talk about God and country. His mantra was simple: As a war hero, I love America so much it's simply my duty to be president. McCain didn't often have to mention being a POW. He knew the media would make the connection, and play clips of him in captivity so often many people wanted to invade Vietnam all over again.
As image took center stage, it almost seemed logical to conclude that the best candidate was really just the best actor. Perhaps that's what made Warren Beatty's brief flirtation with running something to consider. He was certainly telegenic, and he'd been playing roles for 40 years, including an effective turn as a suicidal senator in Bullworth. He knew how to raise money for big productions, and also understood the importance of marketing an image. Plus, he wanted public campaign financing, which would at least make this show a more balanced ensemble piece.
But alas, Warren opted not to appear for his call back.
Until money is removed from the equation, we might as well think of primary races as a series of TV pilots, each competing for the best advance notice. From Stiff Neck Productions, for example, comes Fistful of Moolah. It's a modern-day Western in which Dubya plays the Man with No Scruples, blowing away bible-slinging rivals like Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes with tough love and silver bullets. Even Pat Robertson sacrifices his principles before Dubya's altar of expedience. The Moral Minority gang doesn't have a prayer -- until the Man ultimately discovers a philosopher named Jesus and realizes that El Dorado is place called Family Values. In Moolah II: The Arms Race, Bush and Charlton Heston team up to bring compassion back into the death business.
Empty Promises Unlimited has a science fiction saga, Millennium Man. In this US-Chinese production, Gore is cast as The Chosen One, a loyal cyborg who struggles to overcome his programming by returning to the heartland. But his mission is briefly, yet perhaps fatally undermined by the arrival of Morpheus, a famous athlete-turned-preacher with the power to lull the masses into a false sense of hope. At the preview I attended, most people didn't believe either hero could save the nation from terminal ennui.
But primary season's surprise hit turned out to be Mission Improbable III, produced by Oddball Enterprises in association with a consortium of casino owners, environmentalists, and the World Wrestling Federation. In order to save the world, highly-decorated misfits wage psychological warfare on the two major political parties. The problem is that they can't resist trashing each other. Ralph Nader has a cameo -- but too few lines, while Buchanan gives it his brilliant but evil best. Perot makes a surprise appearance as the cranky team leader, who gives incomprehensible assignments and can't help upstaging his own men.
For a while, Beatty considered launching a series called The Paranoid View. But he couldn't develop a story line in which he wasn't assassinated.
Diehard on the Campaign Trail
If I were in tinseltown, I'd pitch a political thriller that takes all this insanity to the next level. The timing is perfect for a high concept property ripped from the headlines, I'd explain. Just give it the green light, and I guarantee this will make Air Force One look like a trip to the mall. Sorry, Harrison.
Here's the pitch: Set in the near future, the story revolves around a three-way campaign for the presidency. It opens on the Republican convention, where the front runner -- played by Michael Douglas, doing his Gordon Gekko thing as a well connected governor with a huge war chest -- has just locked up the nomination. He's born to rule and totally ruthless. In the opening sequence, there's an assassination attempt by some lone nut. Manchurian Candidate stuff. The crowd goes wild, the nut becomes Swiss cheese, and the candidate gets a huge sympathy bump. It's all very convenient. After the smoke clears, Michael fires up the delegates with a killer acceptance speech about courage, the virtues of greed, and crushing any "extremists" who get in the way.
But he has a problem -- and it's not his major party opponent. I see Kevin Costner for that role. He's perfect to play a former basketball star turned politician. (It's fiction, remember.) So, he's kind of Mr. Smith in Washington, full of principles, but no instinct for the jugular. Even friends say he's charismatically-challenged. No, Michael's real trouble is the growing support for a third party insurgent, a tough-taking former talk show host and Dubya-Dubya-FU pro wrestler. The part has Schwartzenegger written all over it. But we need to move fast, since Arnold may run for governor of California if his next projects bomb. (The other way to go is Gary Oldman as Buchanan, but that would be way too dark for an October release.)
Back to the story. Michael is obviously worried; the way things look, he could lose the race to a jock, either way. He isn't about to let that happen.
After the usual complications -- Kevin cheats on his wife but regrets it, Arnold has a crisis of confidence when his campaign is dogged by dirty tricks -- we get to the big debate. What Kevin and Arnold don't know is that Michael, who maintains secret ties to Islamic fundamentalists through the Christian Right, has struck a deal with a charming but insane terrorist. Think John Malkovich. The plan is that Malkovich's hit team will take out Arnold right on TV -- shades of Network -- clearing the way for Michael to ride the ensuing tidal wave of paranoia into the White House. Malkovich's reward: Afghanistan. Michael promises to pin the blame on Ghaddafi or Saddam, and bomb their patsy's nation back into the Stone Age.
The plot misfires, of course, and Arnold goes on the warpath, hunting down Malkovich in some Middle Eastern hell hole, and eventually cornering Michael in his high-security estate. Plenty of kick-ass executive action. In the end, Michael is either indicted or impaled on a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Depends on how the test screenings go. In any case, Kevin becomes president. But Arnold doesn't mind. He's realized that self-respect is more important than popularity.
Of course, Arnold delivers the film's catch phrase -- just after smashing some fundamentalist thug's head through a camera lens. "Smile," he growls, "you've just been nominated."
The title? Momentum. And below, in the ads: "Some people will do anything for it." Ain't that the truth. And the beauty part is that the movie's bound to cost less and entertain more than the real thing.
Greg Guma is a Vermont editor and author of The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. If Momentum doesn't fly, he's already working on post-election comedy, The Big Lewinsky.