May 2012: My review of Gore Vidal’s ‘The Best Man’

This column was published today at CONSTRUCTION.

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man: Theater Review

Infidelity and homosexuality. Or: love outside wedlock and love that’s been made impossible inside wedlock. These two themes play out like a broken record in American politics.

Not that former President Bill Clinton loved Monica Lewinsky or that former Senator Larry Craig loved that undercover male cop. Just that the Democrat and the Republican were each victims, in a sense, of America’s obsession with heterosexual infidelity and homosexual promiscuity. (They were also acting stupidly, but that’s another column.)

It makes for rocky politics and good theater. Fifty years ago, the essayist and novelist Gore Vidal played off the competing themes with his Broadway production The Best Man, which was revived this year to coincide with the 2012 presidential campaign and, serendipitously, an unprecedented voice in support of gay marriage from the sitting U.S. president.

Vidal dared big things for The Best Man, including casting the 1960 president as a black man. But he didn’t dare to believe that American politics would become even more obsessed with infidelity and homosexuality. These themes drive the news to an unhealthy degree. Like, of course there is a problem when a ranking politician tweets a naked photo of himself to thousands of innocent Americans, but what are we when we start digging up private photos of that politician and showing them everywhere? Where is the line between hardball politics and despicable politicking? When is it fine to set aside high-minded values and get pragmatic about winning an election?

That’s the idea behind The Best Man. I attended the play recently with my mother, who was also eager to see the all-star lineup of actors on stage together.

“James Earl Jones plays the president,” I told a friend.

“James Earl Jones is still alive?” he said.

“Apparently. Candice Bergen (aka Murphy Brown) is also in the play, and so is Angela Lansbury, the lady from Murder, She Wrote.”

“Wait, has she come back from the dead?”

The cast is old, to be sure, and much slower-moving than what you usually find on Broadway. But it’s appropriate because the story also portrays an older, slower-moving style of politics than we have today. The plot and dialogue can seem quaint.

“The world’s changed since I was politickin’,” James Earl Jones says in a conversation about religion. “In those days you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.”

But you still gotta pour religion like ketchup even today. Except now this ketchup is locally made, from organic tomatoes.

The setting is 1960. Days before the Democratic National Convention has to pick a presidential nominee old-school style (the way that Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul pushed for this year’s race to go, but which hasn’t actually happened since 1952), a young upstarter (considered to be a portrayal of John F. Kennedy), played by Eric McCormack, digs up some dirt on a weathered establishment frontrunner (considered to be a portrayal of Adlai Stevenson), played by John Larroquette. The upstarter blackmails the womanizing frontrunner, and the frontrunner is forced to either quit or play hardball: either drop out of the race or accept America’s obsession with infidelity and homosexuality and blackmail the upstart politician with some gossip about a past gay encounter.

What’s the right decision?

John Larroquette initially strikes you as upstanding, his promiscuity innocuous. But in his refusal to play hardball for, arguably, the greater good of the electorate, he comes across as a hypocrite, someone who is willing to selfishly break a vow to his wife but unwilling to justifiably break a vow to his idea of civil political discourse.

It’s also a criticism of Barack Obama’s first year in office: He was too friendly, too acquiescing, too anchored to “that hopey changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin put it.  The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, in his January article “The Obama Memos,” notes that Obamaism was originally marked by an idea of transformative post-partisanship. Such was ill-fated:

“Predictions that Obama would usher in a new era of post-partisan consensus politics now seem not just naïve but delusional. At this political juncture, there appears to be only one real model of effective governance in Washington: partisan dominance, in which a President with large majorities in Congress can push through an ambitious agenda. Despite Obama’s hesitance and his appeals to Republicans, this is the model that the President ended up relying upon during his first two years in office.”

Playing nice didn’t work for Obama, and you can guess how it works for John Larroquette’s character in The Best Man. Unlike Obama, who pivoted, John Larroquette’s character ultimately decides he would rather sacrifice his own candidacy than unleash a little incivility. Kudos to him. But if I have to chose my politician, then I’d rather take the guy who will uphold a vow to his wife (a living person with feelings that can be crushed!) but is willing to skirt the edges of civility (whatever that is) when necessary to strike a bargain, find a political solution, and win. Even if that means replaying the infidelity and homosexuality card.

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