Sunday, April 20, 2008

Primary Colors and political morality

I do get a bit behind in my film reviews, or my film viewing - sixty-two years behind in the case of Dragonwyck, but only ten years in the case of Mike Nichols's Primary Colors, but with this latter, the subject at least is not out of date, and we find it in every political campaign. In the recent federal election campaign, Rudd's one-time visit to a strip club, and a tenuous link with WA inc's notorious [I'm not entirely sure why] Brian Burke, were just two attempts to bring the scandalous and salacious into the political fray.

Primary Colors takes aim at the most magnetic of recent politicians, Bill Clinton [magnetic especially in attracting scandal], by creating a fiction with obvious parallels. Presidential hopeful Jack Stanton [John Travolta] and his savvy wife Susan [Emma Thompson] have a way of sucking people into the stream of their ambition and enthusiasm, and the film is largely seen from the perspective of one such sucked-in character, Henry Burton [Adrian Lester], who becomes Stanton's campaign manager. It's an extremely well-written film, and the performances of Thompson and Travolta, and Kathy Bates as a torrential and formidable campaign force who joins up with the Stantons after years of questionable absence, are a joy to watch.

I'm not going to review the film, though, as such. I'm more interested in the dilemmas raised. I should start with my general view, which will of course soon be qualified, that having sex more often, and with more people, is a Good and Healthy thing.

First qualification, or problem, is that most people don't agree with this statement, or at least with the 'more people' bit. Fidelity and loyalty are viewed as a positive, and Robert Manne amongst others has emphasized this. My own view is that having sex with a variety of people isn't necessarily proof of disloyalty, and that there is a confusion between sex and love, though admittedly the road of promiscuity is a hard road to hoe for a genuinely loving and loyal person, given human jealousies and possessiveness. And to travel that road under the spotlight of a political life is essentially impossible, unfortunately.

While a lot more could be said about the above confusion [about the meaning of sex in the context of human relations], I'll leave much of that to my online fiction which tries to explore many of these issues. Another matter dealt with in Primary Colors is that of sex and power. The high-flying Presidential candidate who takes advantage of a friend's bedazzled daughter, the Governor who has no trouble and no compunction about seducing his secretary, etc. As the film shows, these issues cut more than one way - the secretary may have no compunction about exaggerating a dalliance into a full-blown affair, for the purpose of extorting money or favours. Jack Stanton tries to 'clear his name' via DNA tests and such, but some might feel that this misses the point, which is that Stanton shouldn't use his personal charisma or political status to exploit the vulnerable and naive. On the other hand, there seems to have been enough people willing to turn a blind eye, or even to have been quietly approving of his behaviour, for him to have gotten away with it [sorry, I'm switching my thinking here from Stanton to Clinton, though Stanton too was successful in the Presidential race].

One possible explanation for this is that people are aware [however consciously] of the harm principle, and that the question of the harm caused by a few, or even more than a few, dalliances in the context of a marriage the openness of which is itself an open question, is at the very least difficult to determine. One of the problems for me, I confess, is that the Stantons/Clintons would never admit to their marriage being an open one, if that's what it is, for fear of losing the support of vast numbers of more conservative voters. This is one of the points of the film, of course - how pragmatic are we allowed to be, in order to get elected? If Clinton's 'closed' - and close - marriage is a sham [but note that the pair are still very much together], what about, say, his religion? After all, we all know that, more than in any other country, the USA's leadership aspirants have no option but to be practicing Christians. So is Clinton really a god-fearer? How much is sincere, and how much pretence?

These issues are perennial for all campaigners in all democratic elections, and they come with the territory of representative democracy. You could even say it's the poison at the heart of this system. Is this candidate/incumbent saying what she's saying in order to get into/stay in power, or does she really feel and believe it? Did Howard throw money and resources at the tax payer because he felt they deserved it, or to get re-elected? Were his actions re Aboriginal communities and the abuse of Aboriginal children a matter of sincere conviction or political expediency? Some of these question are much more easy to answer than others.

The Clinton warts-and-all Presidency was something of a victory for flawed, ambitious humanity, though I see the flaws rather differently from most. In the film, someone commits suicide because she has ideals that the Stantons don't live up to - but nobody can be expected to live up to the ideals of others, or even to be aware of them. As it happens, the Stantons are by turns exploitative and compassionate, as we all are. I suppose the best way to judge them is also the most painstaking - to analyse who gets hurt and who benefits, how many and by how much.
It's essentially a never-ending process.

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