The Ideas of March: Return of the Cynical Political Fable

In Governing Fables, I outlined three American political fables: the cynical (Primary Colors), the pragmatic (The Candidate, City Hall), and the idealistic (Seven Days in May, The West Wing). The cynical fable – and I take the liberty to quote myself – includes candidates and their handlers who are “cynical power seekers, loyal to no ideology larger than self-interest.” In addition, “marital unfaithfulness/sexual license is a marker of moral failure.” Finally “the political system is a familiar witches brew of influence peddling, hypocrisy, special interest lobbying, self-seeking, and personal betrayal.” (all on page 135).

Through and through, The Ides of March expresses this view of politics. The two main characters, Ohio governor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney) and his junior and eventual chief campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), epitomize this fable.

Morris is a left-liberal Democrat who spouts the appropriate ideology (for example, with an energy independence speech taken almost verbatim from Tom Friedman’s New York Times columns). But he violates what the movie refers to as the cardinal rule of politics – “don’t fuck an intern” – and then engages in a coverup of the biological consequences. In pursuit of the presidential nomination, he submits to blackmail by reversing himself to agree to a mediocre senator’s demand to be Secretary of State as the price of supporting his candidacy.

Meyers is no better. While working for Morris, whom he describes as “the real deal”, he nonetheless agrees to a meeting with the campaign manager of the other Democratic presidential candidate, in effect opening the door to a bigger, better deal. When fired for his disloyalty, Meyers immediately crosses the street and offers himself to the other candidate. When he’s not accepted, he contacts Morris, using his possession of evidence regarding Morris’s dalliance to blackmail Morris into appointing him as campaign manager.

For both Morris and Meyers idealism or political ideology are nothing more than a patina. Politics is ultimately about personal ambition. Meyers, in particular, sheds his professed idealism so quickly that I see it as only a cover masking ambition, and his essential character as opportunistic.  The Ides of March presents the loss of political innocence much less believably than The Candidate. In the latter,  candidate Jim McKay’s (Robert Redford) loss of innocence is gradual and grudging, the subject of continual struggle between him and his campaign staff.

The dalliance-with-intern lacks plausibility because it results in her pregnancy. Though Morris is a lapsed Catholic and the intern a practicing Catholic, either one of them would have heard of party hats or the morning-after pill. The intern gets an abortion and, then, fearing exposure, commits suicide. This sounds like something out of the Fifties. In addition, it portrays on the intern’s part a mental instability entirely at odds with her behavior to that point. While the cynical fable of American politics is a well-known and legitimate one, I would rather have seen a plot built on more plausible premises.

I’m not happy to see the return of the cynical fable, particularly to narratives about Democrats. The West Wing presented a much more idealistic fable that, at least for a time, was culturally influential. While the Obama Administration’s story to this point has been ambiguous, in particular because of Obama’s difficulties in moving forward an ambitious agenda in the face of determined ideological opposition, it has not been marked by the same sort of lapses of personal morality as the Clinton Administration. So, even if The Ides of March were intended as commentary on the Obama Administration, it misses the mark.

The Ides of March is an adaptation of the 2008 play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, who wrote it after a backroom career in the office of Senator Charles Schumer and the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. It’s unfortunate that the play was another retelling of an archetypal fable, rather than a reflection of what he observed.

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