Jack Ohman

What would 'The Candidate' look like with Jerry Brown as the star?

Last night, I watched the movie The Candidate.

For those of you who are not, say, under 55 or so, this movie, starring Robert Redford and his spectacular hair, is about a fictional 1972 U.S. Senate race in California. This film is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the interior of a political campaign ever made.

As a newly minted Californian, I was particularly interested to watch this film for contemporary California resonance. Written by Jeremy Larner, a former staffer to Eugene McCarthy (the late senator from Minnesota and 1968 Democratic presidential candidate), the movie traces the reluctant bid of the son of a former California governor named John J. McKay, who was heavily reminiscent of former Gov. Pat Brown, the father of the current governor. 

The present Gov. Brown had just been elected as California's Secretary of State in 1970, and was certainly looking toward higher office while the screenplay was being written. In The Candidate, the idealistic son, Bill McKay, runs a legal aid clinic and views his father as an anachronistic hack, saying of his movie governor father, "He got to be Governor John J. McKay. I don't know what good it did for anyone else."

In the present Governor Brown's emotional makeup, there are some light parallels, but he obviously reveres his father. Brown's political trajectory was so meteoric in the mid 1970s that Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter are the only two analogous careers I can think of (I exclude Sarah Palin because she lost, and Dan Quayle, who had served considerably more time in congress as preparation than he was given credit for) where a candidate exploded so quickly onto the national stage. Incredibly, Brown was about 37 or so when he started running for president in 1976. 

Bill McKay is talked into running against an entrenched, gray-haired GOP incumbent named Crocker Jarmon (chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) by a canny political consultant named Marvin Lucas, played by Peter Boyle. McKay tells Lucas that he's happy running a legal aid clinic.

He responds, "You're happy. Clams are happy. Meanwhile Jarmon carves up the air, the water, and the land. Have you seen him? Have you seen how he operates?"

But McKay wants to run the race his way. "I get to say what I want, do what I want." Lucas says, "You haven't got a chance, McKay, so you can say what you want. Here's your guarantee." Lucas hands him a matchbook with the words, "You Lose," written on the inside cover. McKay asks Lucas what's in it for him. Lucas says, "An air card, a phone card, a thousand bucks a week."

Heh. A thousand bucks a week. How quaint.

First off, in today's environment, I doubt there are any reluctant candidates. The system doesn't permit it; it's self-nominating and self-promoting all the way. Second, the big boy consultants and media buyers can makes hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in a state like California, where they get a percentage of the media buys. It's all about the media buys. I do not exclude the odd idealistic candidate of the 21st century, but mostly it's a bunch of multimillionaires who have been compulsively running for offices since third grade. 

As the movie progresses, McKay realizes that he actually wants to win, and has no intention of becoming a sacrificial lamb allowed to spout off progressive dogma. He turns to his father for help when a rumor is put out that John J. McKay actually is supporting Crocker Jarmon. He crawls to his father's mountain cabin, in a charmingly reluctant and golden-haired manner, and asks his father to put out a statement disavowing his support of Jarmon. After a bit of toying with his son, the elderly former Governor agrees. This opens the door to his father's re-entry into politics, and the grand old man spends the rest of the movie greasing the skids for his son.

At this point in the film, I wondered what kind of conversations Jerry Brown might have had with his own father. I suspect there was no begging for an endorsement. 

In the film, our political landscape is lightly discussed, and the old California model of the conservative southern part of the state and liberal NorCal dynamic is mentioned. Now, of course, in a state with every single statewide elected official elected as Democrats as well as 38 out of 55 members of the California congressional delegation, it's hard to see where that has any currency now. 

Naturally, some of the old rules hold true today, such as the need for massive television campaigns featuring political commercials that seem like they were written by Don Draper on a particularly cynical alcoholic bender: James Madison Avenue. 

The film concludes with a come-from-behind McKay victory. The famous ending scene in The Candidate depicts McKay plaintively asking Lucas, "What do we do now?" But the more important scene very near the end is of Gov. McKay gleefully telling his newly-elected son, "You're a politician," and chuckles like a guy who just told a joke about a farmer's daughter. Sen.-elect McKay looks like he wants to pass out/throw up/resign. 

If, in his entire life, Jerry Brown has asked anyone, "Now what do we do?" I would view that with a great deal of skepticism. I think, unlike Bill McKay, Jerry Brown has always known precisely what he wants to do and how he's going to do it. 

I think, more appropriately, if there is some aspiring GOP Bill McKay lining up to take a shot at a now-venerable incumbent Governor Brown in 2014, he or she should be asking a lot more than "Now what do we do?"

More like, "Where can I get a political consultant for a thousand bucks a week?"