The Best Man (1964)
Written by Gore Vidal
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
The political convention of an unspecified party is underway in Los Angeles, and the party’s next nominee for president of the United States will be decided in twenty-four hours. The frontrunners are Bill Russell, former Secretary of State and noted intellectual wit against Senator Joe Cantwell, a Midwesterner from poor beginnings that is ultimately ruthless when it comes to his opponents. Russell has been seeing other women behind his wife’s back yet she shows up at the convention not so much to support him but because she wants to be the first lady one day. Meanwhile, Cantwell’s team uncovers information that Russell had a nervous breakdown years ago and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Cantwell plans to use these to torpedo Russell’s chances and secure the nomination. Between these two men is the current and ailing Commander-in-Chief Art Hockstader who appears an enigma, playing these two men against each other for own personal reasons.
From the start, The Best Man feels like Gore Vidal is talking. The character of Russell, while based on Adlai Stevenson, is more a mouthpiece for Vidal’s famous bon mots. I have to admit I felt a little irked by the adorations of his cleverness the character around Russell were heaping. The expository dialogue of the opening scene is pretty on the nose with his campaign manager outright stating information for the audience in an unnatural way. However, once Cantwell is brought into the film, I began to see that Vidal intended to overemphasize the academic stance of Russell and start to ask if this was a weakness, not a strength.
Cantwell, based on Richard Nixon, is a vicious character whom Vidal has no sympathy for. He is determined and unwavering in his goals. He engages Hockstader in a back and forth where he admits his personal ideology is that “ends justify the means.” Hockstader shoots back that in life and politics there are no ends, only means. Cantwell is unphased by this retort. This exchange comes back later when Russell’s staff uncovers some personal secrets about Cantwell, and he is reluctant to share them. The soon to be former President admonishes Russell telling him he can’t let Cantwell have a chance at taking office, which reveals that his view of the ends not being essential is possibly be a lie.
Vidal was always remarkably prescient in his writing and, while he was thinking about the politics of the 1960s, The Best Man feels incredibly relevant for our own time. The mental health shaming Russell is threatened with is all too painfully real. In 1972, Democratic candidate George McGovern encountered problems on the campaign trail when his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was revealed to have undergone electroshock therapy for manic-depression in the early 1960s. Eagleton never disclosed this to the McGovern campaign and even had to admit that he was taking the antipsychotic Thorazine at the time of the race. Polls showed that 77% of Americans said it would not affect their voting, but the story was kept alive in the press. Eagleton resigned in the middle of the presidential election and McGovern was forced to find a new running mate.
Even today, mental health among politicians and your average citizen is a taboo subject, particularly with men. Despite the progress made on address psychological and emotional health, men are still told they have to “tough it out.” The fallout of this is seen in the tragic suicide rates of veterans who have returned to their civilian lives with untreated PTSD. I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone to know that being in a high-stress position of power, whether it be a soldier or a lawmaker could lead to mental health problems. Wielding such remarkable power is inevitably going to wear a person down. Yet, with almost certainty, this would be used against a candidate in an election, proven or merely alluded to. While I would never consider myself a supporter of President Trump I have been genuinely disgusted by how some on the Left have tried to make jokes about his mental health. I am no doctor, so my words should be taken as such, but I do believe he shows signs of certain narcissistic disorders and early onset dementia, I don’t think any of that is suitable for a laugh. The energy should be behind getting him the help he needs, not turning it into fodder for ridicule.
This very notion is what Bill Russell is faced with when a figure from Cantwell’s past emerges ready to spill the beans on a past indiscretion. Neither Russell or Hockstader express any genuine moral outrage over what they learn, Hockstader continually pushes that the American public will turn on Cantwell and ensure Russell wins the nomination. Russell’s previously joked about moral uncertainty comes to the forefront at this moment, and he is forced to contemplate what sort of person he would be to drag his opponent’s name through the mud. To do so would show Russell as a hypocrite in light of his progressive platform, smearing Cantwell for something the former has no real qualms with.
Vidal wants us to think about the type of person that is most qualified for the highest office in the land and what qualities are actually inherent in that sort of person. Hockstader questions Russell after his mental health issues come to light, asking, “You’re aren’t crazy are you?” to which Russell replies, “You’d have to be crazy to run for President.” There exists a strange balance the voters expect between the honorable statesman and the aggressive zealot, and throughout the life of the United States, the majority have moved all along this spectrum. Of all the movies I have watched so far in this series, The Best Man stands as the one that feels the most relevant to our current times, how the presidency is not often held by the person of the highest virtues or strongest morals, rather the person who most skillfully plays dirty to win. As Hockstader remarks, “To want power is corruption already.”