There’s a scene in Primary Colors (1998), one of my favourite American movies, that keeps coming back to me as I read about the current presidential race in the USA. Jack Stanton, a Southern governor in pursuit of the Democratic nomination for president, is beset by scandal. His great strength is his empathy with ordinary folk; his great weakness is his libido.
Stanton gives a speech to a crowd of working class Democrats in a shipyard town that has hit hard times. He sets his audience up nicely with some folksy, self-deprecating talk, then launches his big surprise.
You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna do something really outrageous here. I’m gonna tell the truth.
Applause and laughter follow. Stanton’s aides look on nervously, wondering what the truth might entail. Stanton goes on:
OK, here’s the truth. No politician can re-open this factory, or bring back the shipyard jobs, or make your union strong again. No politician can make it be the way it used to be. Because we’re living in a new world now, a world without economic borders. A guy can push a button in New York and move a billion dollars to Tokyo before you blink an eye. And in that world muscle jobs go where muscle labour is cheap – and that’s not here. So if you all want to compete, you’re gonna have to exercise a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.
One Stanton aide murmurs to Henry Burton (the conscience of the film, played by Adrian Lester), “He’s lost them”. Burton replies, “F— them. He’s got me”, wide-eyed at Stanton’s vision of the new world America will need to face up to, and the strategies needed to do so.
It’s not clear whether the audience has taken in the message or not. In the original novel, by Anonymous (subsequently revealed to be journalist Joe Klein) it suggests they have been left deep in thought. Otherwise the scenes in book and film are very similar, indeed Primary Colors the film is notable for being almost word-for-word identical to the novel (Elaine May wrote, or perhaps the word should be pruned, the script). Where it differs is that exchange between the aides, which is only in the film: one worried about the impact, the other lost in the message.
The scene captures a pivotal moment in American life, a call to face up to the fact that the world had changed and that there was no turning back. But did they hear? Stanton wins the nomination, and we must assume that he goes on to become president, because he is so obviously based on Bill Clinton. But does he win on the strength of the argument? The film doesn’t suggest so. Instead it focuses on what it means to speak the truth. Stanton’s rival for the nomination is Freddy Picker (played by Larry Hagman), a former Florida governor who joins the race at a late stage when another candidate falls ill.
Picker is the dream politician. He is gently-spoken, without rancour, treats his opponents with courtesy, refuses to engage in negative campaigning. He is an absolutely honest person. He speaks the truth that America wants to hear. Stanton may speak the truth in a common voice, but he is always putting on an act, always calculating. Picker is the absence of calculation. His is an idealism not of politics but personality. In a cruel twist, we learn that Picker has a sordid past and withdraws from the contest, Stanton proving himself noble if pragmatic in how he lets Picker know what is known about him privately. Stanton goes on to win, but his victory is one of survival, not of message.
You sense that Freddy Picker would storm to victory were he a presidential candidate today, simply for being the antithesis of a politician. Donald Trump might have learned some lessons from him, were he a man capable of learning any lesson. But Picker has no political message – at least none that we get to hear about. He simply represents an attitude. In truth he is as calculating as his opponent, indeed he is all calculation, an absolute performer. Stanton is all performance as well, but he has something to say, and believes in what he says.
Primary Colors is a clever film. It sets up Jack Stanton as this wonderful guy, a little rough at the edges but an inspirational force for good, someone we all want to vote for. It then taunts us as we learn of his infidelities, lies, cynicism and cold calculation. Then when we have forgiven him because others have done so, and are still minded to vote for him, it presents us with Freddy Picker and has us wondering what it is that we really want.
The answer is that we want and need politics. Primary Colors presents the political process as a courtship: from attraction, to infatuation, to crisis, to acceptance, to understanding, and on to something that might just last. It sets out the the dilemma between idealism and realism, asks us what we want of the truth, but ultimately it’s a romance. It celebrates the extraordinary drama that is the American primary and presidential election process, and as dispiriting as the current contest has sometimes been, it’s still the same story. Whether, after the courtship, we can live with its consequences, we will find out soon.