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The Ides of March and the Politics of Distraction

A Movie Warns Us

by SAUL LANDAU

Occupy Wall Street activists everywhere agree: the system has become dysfunctional. The angst – or anger — among citizens reaches beyond economic collapse and the government’s inability to improve the situation. Frustration and puzzlement persist: why do Presidents keep initiating wars in remote places? Why does Congress back them? Its Members, like robots, then pledge support for our troops – about whom few give a damn. Where is integrity, honesty, courage? Not in politics.

Most Americans don’t vote – a sign of indifference, or distaste for politics. In school I learned politics determines who gets what from the budgets. Our teachers taught us to consider this when we vote for mayor, city council and on up. Democracy!

In June, 16 percent of Miami’s 1.2 million voters cast ballots for mayor. In St. George, Utah, 12% voted in the recent primary elections. In 1996, 49% turned out for the presidential election.

The US uniquely holds elections on Tuesday, during the working week not like other countries who use Sunday; Friday, the holy day in Muslim countries). Republicans like low-voter turnouts. They don’t want the poor and working classes to vote. Democrats have difficulty convincing those classes they represent them.

We read about politicians in brothels, taking money and favors from special interests, or just diddling in the Oval Office. The media inspects the private lives of elected public officials, but does not scrutinize their ideas or principals. Compare the attention given to Clinton’s Monica romp with his decision to de-regulate banks. The former had nothing to do with us; the latter cost us dearly.

The media has reduced politics to personalities, but much of the nation still craves a candidate with integrity, like those our grade school and high school teachers imagined when they glowingly explained our superior political system.

George Clooney’s new film takes us beyond school-taught political science and into the reality of murky deal-cutting arenas (dark rooms and bedrooms, a large office space with three men huddled around a bridge table), the sets for the putrid dialogue of political campaigns.

“The Ides of March” – poor Julius Caesar — warns us: the US electoral system faces danger. Rot has penetrated into the crevices of the structure – beginning with the primary election process, the choosing of presidential candidates.

The film shows how a bright aspirant for President faces tests of integrity, more difficult than those God placed on Job to prove his faith. He — no one — cannot pass them.

Clooney’s and Grant Heslov’s script pits two Democratic rivals and their veteran campaign managers in the key Ohio primary. The winner gets the nomination.

We hear noble speeches, but out of public view we see that morality and virtue have no place in the series of demands made on the candidates. Integrity, truth, and honor – indeed any esteemed values – have little to do with decisions on winning elections. The candidates must dance between ambition and loyalty, powerful lust for young women and family values. Emotional betrayal becomes one price paid for victory.

Power! Political contenders and staff enjoy abusing it, while mouthing lofty words. In this back room of US politics Governor Mike Morris’ (Clooney) campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) proclaims: “I value loyalty over everything.” Paul illustrates this moral high ground stance with an anecdote about how his loyalty “paid off.” Indeed, no character in the film holds allegiance to another person, much less an ideal.

“The Ides of March” uses traditional plot-grammar of Hollywood to dramatize the lowly details of a broken political system. Press aide Steve Myers (Ryan Gosling) sees Governor Morris as the idealistic and realistic answer to the issues. As his media spinner he promotes the man he believes in, while Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times campaign-trail reporter, scoffs at Steve’s innocence. For her Morris is just one more politician.

We all now know about heroic candidates who disappoint as Presidents. The movie dispels illusions by showing the sewage heap surrounding candidate selection, a setting that rules out “honesty” and “integrity.” The candidate sells a line. Eager Americans yearning to satisfy their democratic sensibilities see the candidate as the agency to heal the citizens’ wounds: endless wars, terror threats, diminishing liberties, widening wealth gap, declining education, eroding infrastructure and climate change.

A real Mike Morris? Hey, we have one in the White House, a tolerant liberal who can’t deal with aggressive right wing attacks. The film even refers to Rush Limbaugh and fellow radio bombasts calling for Republicans and Independents to vote in the Ohio Democratic primary so the more beatable candidate will emerge.

Sex, of course, also enters the plot – flashes of Bill Clinton! Discovering that his innocent babe (intern) has something going with their boss, Myers loses his zeal – for the boss and his job. In fact, the film shows Myers’ true character emerging from his unpleasant finding. He uses idealistic rhetoric to cover the sordidness hidden in his heart and soul. The character flaws coincide with the image of Democracy drowning in the muck of money and media madness. Baseness at the foundation of politics, The Ides of March cautions, disguises real political choice – long before presidential elections.

The deal triumphs over the ideal. US democracy in action means, as one film character says, “A president can start wars, lie, cheat, drive the country into bankruptcy, and in general do anything he wants — but he can’t fuck an intern.”

What a job description!

Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP screens at the University of North Carolina on November  9. DVDs available from cinemalibrestore.com. Counterpunch published his BUSH AND BOTOX