Consider these two scenarios:
A political novice with sweeping blond hair shoots from the hip and connects with a pensive electorate to beat the establishment candidate. Or: An establishment candidate becomes president during a deeply divided time for the nation, but faces a congressional reckoning sparked by scrappy investigative journalism.
Whether any aspects of these setups transpire is up to history, starting with the results of Tuesday’s election. But beforehand, they’re the plot lines of “The Candidate” and “All The President’s Men,” two movies screening this weekend as part of the Walker Art Center’s Robert Redford retrospective.
Each film is still strikingly relevant, if not prescient, despite dating back to the 1970s. “The Candidate” in particular foreshadowed today’s age of media image superseding substance, and how sometimes even idealists identify the perceived need to curb rhetoric (and, at times, compromise values) in order to win.
Yet despite the surface similarities, Redford’s character, a committed community organizer turned accomodating Senate candidate, actually resembles Hillary Clinton (if not Barack Obama) more than Donald Trump.
“Structurally it was prophetic in terms of what a candidate could actually say,” said Amy Taubin, a veteran film critic who will conduct a culminating onstage dialogue with Redford at a Nov. 12 Walker event. “You can see in the wariness of Hillary Clinton what this looks like 40 years down the line.”
Another reversal are the emotions each film summons.
Despite the device of an idealistic outsider, “The Candidate” isn’t Capraesque but cynical about politics, if not the country. In fact, far from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” earnestness, “The Candidate” is fundamentally pessimistic. “It says we all want power, but what we have to give up for power is a thing that in the end will defeat us,” Taubin said.
That lesson was lost on Richard Nixon until it was too late. But as shown in “All The President’s Men,” which Taubin termed a “great adventure-investigative thriller,” America’s essential institutions — particularly the press — worked. So while Watergate, which became a catchall for corruption, may not evoke filmmaker Frank Capra, “All The President’s Men” actually inspires old-fashioned optimism.
It also inspired some to study journalism in the hopes of becoming Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who unraveled the scandal. Indeed, in an inversion — or Bizarro World, in Superman parlance — it was the Clark Kents who were virtuous, if not heroic.
That’s not the image of journalists today, at least not at Trump’s rowdy rallies, where the candidate’s disrespect for the press is picked up by attendees who often hurl insults, epithets and even anti-Semitic slurs at media members, many of whom have needed Secret Service escorts. And the vile invective extends into the virtual world, too; at least 800 journalists have been the subject of anti-Semitic tweets, according to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League.
Watergate was invoked following the last week’s October surprise. “This is bigger than Watergate, in my opinion,” Trump, at a rally, said of the FBI’s renewed interest in Clinton’s e-mail issue. Bernstein offered his opinion via tweet: “No way HRC emails ‘bigger than watergate — or close. Watergate was about a criminal Potus & 48 aides/co-conspirators found guilty.” Bernstein then tweeted: “Not to minimize her reckless and mendacious handling of email-server matters — but altogether different league than watergate.”
Not prosecuted, but profound among Watergate’s crimes, was an erosion of trust, as the scandal scarred countless voters into not believing their leaders.
The 2016 campaign seems to have committed a more fundamental offense: eroding trust in the process of selecting those leaders. A new Pew Research Center poll states a striking 35 percent of overall voters express “not too much/none at all confidence that the presidential election will be open and fair.” Among Trump supporters the percentage is an astounding 56 percent.
But soon there will be a President Trump or President Clinton. Then, the last line in “The Candidate” may have newfound relevance. (Spoiler alert, albeit for a 44-year-old film).
Redford’s character, amid his raucous victory party, quietly asks, “What do we do now?” Which is a good question for the next president, and for us.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.