The Candidate (1972)
Written by Jeremy Larner
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Marvin Lucas is an election specialist looking for a viable Democratic candidate to oppose incumbent California Republican Crocker Jarman. Lucas finds his candidate in Bill McKay, a lawyer, and advocate for some liberal causes (labor, desegregation, environmentalism). McKay is promised that Jarman will inevitably win and the young man can speak his mind. Lucas just wants an opposing voice in the race. However, McKay begins to find himself being tweaked and shaped by a political machine that is interested in appealing to an open center. This results in the lawyer speaking platitudes he fundamentally disagrees with. As the countdown nears to election day, McKay finds himself increasingly at odds with Lucas and his poll numbers rising.
The Candidate is a creation of its time. This exists during the first Nixon term, so before Watergate. It’s happening in the wake of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and in the moments when post-Kennedy, the external became vastly more important in politics than actual policy. None of the movies I’ve watched up to this point spent much time on the campaign process. The closest we got was Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, but that was merely a couple days at a political convention. Here we have an exploration of how little in control the actual person running is during their campaign. Lucas brings in a host of advisors, speechwriters, and PR men all of whom could care less who the person running is. This is politics as a mechanized industry.
Bill McKay is the sort of candidate a progressive like myself wants to see running for higher office. He is genuinely idealistic and dedicated to the cause. During a meeting where he is shown a series of commercials for himself, it is evident that his remarks to residents of the Watts neighborhood and young beachgoers on a polluted coast have been edited to fit a particular predetermined narrative. What is the most upsetting is how easily McKay bends. He is promised by Lucas at the start of this endeavor that he will lose so all the details don’t really matter. However, when McKay gains traction over Jarman in the polls, the entire team is focused on winning this one. McKay never seems fully onboard, yet there is a broad ambition in him.
Don’t think McKay is some sort of liberal saint though. On the surface we see him compromising his views with each campaign stop and each promotional. Going on in the background is an unspoken affair with an unnamed woman, we see her at least three times, and through their performances, we know she and McKay are an item. Not once does his wife, Nancy, seem to be aware of this dalliance. She is happy to be at her husband’s side and actually likes seeing him show ambition for more than his cramped office social justice law work. Their relationship is one of the largest enigmas in the movie, and I think we are intentionally left without all the details.
Crocker Jarman, a Republican senator from California, is a prominent stand-in for then-President Richard Nixon. The Candidate was released only a week after the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, so the collapse of that particular administration was a couple years down the road. However, the youth culture pretty much despised Nixon from the get-go. He represented everything they were against, mostly the military-industrial complex that perpetuated Kennedy and Johnson’s Vietnam War. The climactic televised debate between Jarman and McKay serves as a standoff between the Nixon-ian Conservative ideology and the progressive liberalism of the youth culture. However, writer Jeremy Larner, a former speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy is a smarter person than to see things as so black and white.
Earlier in the film, as McKay is touring Watts, his campaign team decides he should enter a fenced-in basketball court to be filmed shooting hoops with some black youths. When the young black children see a horde of white people in suits with cameras ambling towards them, they drop the ball and get the hell out of there. McKay is a man who grew up privileged, his father is the former governor of California. This wealth of opportunity is pointed out sometimes, and it is evident that some of his campaign team humors him when he espouses beliefs about the poor and minorities. The Candidate is a very cynical and honest film about what it means to be a politician in the modern age.
1972 was the same year that the McCarthy Commision changed the course of the Democratic Party forever. As the DNC surveyed the political landscape, they found that young urban professionals were growing in prominence and favored social liberalism but also more conservative pro-capitalist economic policies. Taking for granted the blue-collar, labor base that had been the lifeblood of Democratic campaigns going back to FDR, the party began courting the future yuppies of America. This appeal to upwardly mobile professional youth turned its back on unions and led to the Dems and GOP practically tripping over each other in a race to denigrate labor in favor of Wall Street in the 1980s. This sea change in Democratic politics saw its culmination in President Clinton who oversaw some of the largest cuts to social programs and the rollout of a profoundly oppressive crime bill. His reason for this was that his aides and handlers saw an ideological shift the Right in the wake of 1994 mid-terms. Clinton would have been a youthful campaigner for Bill McKay based on the time period. McKay was the bridge between these periods of Democratic politics.
We leave the soon to be senator in a hotel room having asked the big question, ‘What do we do now?” Lucas can’t hear him over the roar of reporters and celebratory campaign staff. The point was to win, no one ever put in the time to think about what to do after election night.