"Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man" - Bertrand Russell.
You wouldn't need to have the brains of ol' Bertie Russell to work out why Gore Vidal's 1960 play The Best Man, about a bigot and a charlatan who makes a run for the US presidency, has been enjoying a revival of late. You would, however, need to be even brighter than him to fully understand the reasons why this happens and what can be done about it.
The Best Man is set in a very beige, very nondescript, hotel in Philadelphia during the run up to the 1960 US election but Vidal's script dispenses with topicality, for the most part, and replaces it with a more generic concern for what politics is, who politicians are, and why they do what they do. It's another reason, except for ol' pussy grabber himself, that it stands up so well fifty-eight years later.
In one suite we meet the East Coast patrician William Russell (Martin Shaw, yeah Doyle from The Professionals) and his estranged wife Alice (Glynis Barber, yeah Makepeace from Dempsey and Makepeace). Russell considers himself a paragon of moral virtue, a man whose only sword in a battle is the one of truth, and can come across as rather high-handed and aloof as he quotes William Shakespeare and his namesake Bertrand. As a former Secretary of State he's well respected, if not exactly loved, and ahead in the polls to run for the presidency. Which party him and his opponent are standing for is never explicitly signposted suggesting, perhaps, that Vidal, like many before and after him, saw them as all pretty much the same.
Russell's rival, the aforesaid bigot and charlatan, is populist Joe Cantwell (Jeff Fahey, whaddyaknow, an actual American actor). Cantwell's a committed Christian, a one woman man, a teetotaller (much like Cheeto face himself) and someone who'll stop at absolutely nothing to become president. As WB Yeats said in his incredibly prescient 1920 poem 'The Second Coming':-
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity".
This was as true for the fictional Cantwell then as it is for the only too real Tweeter-in-chief now and, in The Best Man, Cantwell's plan is to reveal, at the last moment, to cause maximum damage to his rival's campaign, that Russell had suffered mental health problems in the past. Nobody wants a mental, or suicidal, president is his, rather unfortunately unimpeachable, logic.
Whilst Cantwell and his rather poorly sketched blonde wife Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks does marvels with such a one dimensional character) are the very picture of fierce aspiration and social climbing, the nuanced portrait of Russell and Alice and the decisions they both must make in the face of these vulgar parvenus make up the emotional core of the play so it's vital that they're pitched just right.
For the most part they are. Shaw's American accent may occasionally find itself drifting across the Atlantic to Belfast but he plays Russell as a deeply principled figure who is only too aware of his personal moral foibles and, beneath his statesmanlike veneer, is as wracked by doubt as any moral person must be. When he's presented with a chance to fight fire with fire, to use the same underhand means that Cantwell utilises, he hesitates and in politics, as in life it seems, he who hesitates has lost.
Both contenders are also trying to win over the backing of outgoing, in more senses than one, president Art Hockstader (played by Jack Shepherd (Wycliffe for nineties television fans) as a mix of homespun Southern sage, doddering old drunk, and Patrick Troughton's Dr Who if he'd let himself go a bit.
Hockstader admires Russell's rectitude but despairs of his indecision. Equally he's enamoured by Cantwell's certainty but sees his hair trigger temper as a sign of weakness, a political liability. Maureen Lipman is cast as Mrs Gamadge, one of those matriarchal society figures of American politics who seem to hold great sway on account of having been in the right places, with the right people, at the right times in the past. She gets to lay out some of the exposition while at the same time providing some vintage flavour by dressing like she's attending her eldest son's Bar Mitzvah.
The set is minimal, just one hotel suite pretending to be two. The press reporters, campaigners, and doctors that make up the rest of the cast all provide colour more than they flesh out the story but the leading players are all excellent, the script is tight, the dialogue snippy, and if it a sags a little in the middle (the play is more than two hours long) that's made up for by a couple of twists towards the end that I genuinely didn't see coming.
It's an incisive and insightful look at the way political deals are made, the way political careers are broken, and the way, often, compromises may play out to nobody's advantage. So caught up in their political manoeuvrings are these people that it's very rare indeed that the electorate, those that pay for them, vote for them, and can ultimately get rid of them, even get a mention. In that it was a wonderful skewering of the political process. Vidal was neither a fan of JFK nor Richard Nixon and having died in 2012, he never got to experience the presidency of a petulant game show host and boastful sexual assaulter.
When this play was made Joe Cantwell and William Russell represented two of the worst choices for America. A snake oil salesman who'd trample his own grandmother to death to get in to Pennsylvania Avenue or a career politician who considered normal people mere details in his path to glory. Sadly, we all know only too well now that there are far worse monsters out there. You can read their tweets any time you like.
"You have no sense of responsibility toward anybody or anything. That is a tragedy in a man and it is a disaster in a president". - William Russell.
"I am here to tell you that power is not a toy that we give to good children. It's a weapon, and the strong man takes it and he uses it". - President Art Hockstader.
"To be blunt people would vote for me, they just would. Why? Maybe because I'm so good looking" - Donald Trump.