George Clooney’s new film, The Ides of March, is an absorbing story about a telegenic, attractive and idealistic Democrat running for high office, and the political arts – high and low – that his campaign team deploy to get him there.
If it sounds a bit like Robert Redford’s classic political film The Candidate, that is because it is a bit like Robert Redford’s classical political film The Candidate. At their core, they are both tales of sacrificing ideals for power. Or what those who trade in obduracy might ignorantly mistake for pragmatism.
The two films inhabit different political worlds – 1972 v 2011 – but those worlds’ methods have remained starkly the same. Like comparing you and me with cavemen, our tools are different but we still have to eat and compete. As with life in general, so in politics, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme. Perhaps that is what Clooney was thinking when he named the film after the most famous political conspiracy of them all.
I watched The Candidate serendipitously last weekend. I’d had the DVD for donkey’s years but somehow never got round to it. And I can’t help thinking that I have seen the films in the wrong order. The Candidate sits in a less polished and more innocent political landscape. The Ides of March is slick and urbane; depicting a more intensely professionalised form of politics. Governor Morris’ is mature industry, striding down Pennsylvania Avenue in a well-fitting suit; Bill McKay is the one blinking uncertainly into the bright lights of television studios, with rugged back-of-beyond good looks and slack-knotted ties.
And yet, the political scene in The Ides of March film is the one full of naïve immaturity. Redford’s winsome Bill McKay avoids reality until it is too late – reality creeps up on him. Clooney’s cold Mike Morris is so absorbed in his own merits, he mistakenly assumes that he creates reality, simply by force of personality.
So these two very similar films are allegories of their time. Politics can be driven only so far by personalities and ideas. Campaigns are machines and machines have formulae that you follow. It becomes a game of positioning, not policy; listening to more polls than people. Advisers with more nous and gumption than the politicians. And for the professional political hacks behind the scenes, in the absence of guiding ideologies, what you are left with is loyalty. Who do you trust? Or, who will win, and therefore guarantee your next job?
Except if The Ides of March has a base lesson it is that even trust won’t get you anywhere anymore. Morris’ campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the old hand with a generation of campaigns behind him, tells his smart, ambitious assistant (Ryan Gosling) that all he values is loyalty. In politics, “loyalty is the only currency there is”. And yet for Zara, his loyalty turns out to be as worthless as a Greek IOU.
What caused Liam Fox not to see the impropriety in his association with Adam Werrity? Loyalty. More than ambition and greed, what drove Adam Werrity to exploit so wretchedly his friendship with a powerful man? Loyalty. What prompted David Cameron potentially to ruin his own career by standing by a discredited former colleague, Andrew Coulson? Loyalty. What held Alistair Darling back from removing Gordon Brown? Loyalty.
Why do prime ministers, such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, surround themselves with tight circles of close friends and colleagues in office? Loyalty. Demands that Mr Cameron ‘widen his circle’ are worthless. In politics, you surround yourself with people who you think you can trust. Loyalty is the only currency there is, however blindly it is grasped when you have it, and bitterly derided when you don’t.
Alan Clark was right. There are no true friends in politics, just sharks circling for traces of blood. The difference between The Candidate and The Ides of March is that in the former, suspicion is bred out of ideas and the naïve attempts to express them. Bill McKay is silenced for what he thinks. In the latter, which I strongly urge you to see, politics is rarely about what you think, rather what people think you think, or what you think people think you think. In a vacuum of discussion, people find new ways to eat and compete. It is a crude and unforgiving dichotomy, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less chilling.
Loyalty is dead, long live loyalty.