Having spent the prior two weeks soaking up the sun and scenery of sumptuous Italy, I returned to these shores on Friday to good news: Mitt Romney had retained and even built on the momentum generated from his decisive victory in the first presidential debate. Through the miracles of modern technology and my sister’s Slingbox, we were able to watch the second and third debates, happily acknowledging that Romney had managed to do himself no harm in the run up to the last few days before November 6.
So, after unpacking and checking out the latest polls, I decided I needed a shot of American TV. I eagerly gathered up my trusty remote and fired up TCM, where they were featuring a night of political films, featuring All the President’s Men and Seven Days in May, but beginning with one of my favorites, Advise and Consent. Although I have never read it, the movie is based on a book by conservative author Alan Drury and reflects his years as a U.S. Senate reporter for UPI; giving us the lowdown on the confirmation process of a fictional Secretary of State nominee.
Interestingly, both TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and his guest, Wolf Blitzer opined that the movie illustrates the contrast between the genteel relationships of senators of different parties in the 1960s and the supposedly toxic nature of those relationships today. Maybe this is the way liberals see it, but ask nearly any conservative what they think about Senate collegiality and they will no doubt recall with a shudder two words: power sharing.
Reading most modern reviews of the movie, one might never guess that it derives its plot from an anti-communist novel, but such are the ways of liberals. Indeed, maverick director Otto Preminger seems to have chosen to emphasize the more lurid aspects of the plot — primarily the attempt to blackmail one of the primary characters because of a wartime homosexual experience — while giving short shrift to the actual objections to the nominee: that he lied about past Communist associations and favors dialogue with, rather than confrontation of, the Russians.
The characterizations in the film are fine, with Henry Fonda predictably playing Robert Leffingwell, the perjury-prone yet noble nominee — “It’s a Washington kind of lie,” he tells his son on one occasion — whose Communist past is pooh poohed as a youthful indiscretion. Of particular interest is the character of Senator Fred Van Ackerman, a smarmy little demagogue and the movie’s clear heavy, who will stop at nothing to push his left-wing peace agenda. This is surprising, not because it is not entirely in character with the way radical liberals do business, but because it’s shocking to see it depicted as such in a Hollywood movie.
But it is the inestimable Charles Laughton, in his last and maybe best role, who steals the show. Playing Senator Seabrook Cooley, an irascible yet lovable Dixiecrat, the movie’s best lines are put on his most capable lips, as multi-syllabic imprecations wash over his numerous enemies. And his ripest target is Leffingwell, who makes this chilling statement: “We must not bind ourselves to outworn principles of the past when we find those principles standing in the way of affirmative action for peace.”
This prompts Cooley’s retort, which is eerily topical, especially considering the current occupant of the Oval Office: “Is our storehouse of gray power so impoverished for this office which could effect the destiny of our nation and the world? He will pursue a policy of appeasement. He will weaken the moral fiber of our great nation. He will bring destruction to our traditions.”
The movie concludes with somewhat of a surprise ending, and one that I will not reveal here; go out and rent the movie to see for yourself. But I leave you with Seeb Cooley’s final statement on Leffingwell; one that continues to resonate today and may very well presage next week’s election results:
His voice is not the voice I want to hear speak for America. It is to me an alien voice. Perhaps it’s the new voice of my country. These old ears aren’t tuned to these new sounds; I don’t know. I don’t understand much of what Mr. Leffingwell says. I don’t understand how principles of dignity can become outworn. Or how this nation can be represented without pride. I don’t understand these things.