Forget the polls. Forget what the pundits think and what the ordinary Joes interviewed on the street have to say. The best barometer of how we view politics and what state politics is in surely comes from fiction, from the bumbling leaders of Yes, Minister to the spin-doctored puppets of The Thick of It.
Nowhere is that more true than with regard to American presidential politics. When Americans have faith in their commander-in-chief – or wish for a leader different to the one they have – contemporary fictional leaders have Abraham Lincoln’s ability to unite a divided nation, Dwight Eisenhower’s physical valour, Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to enact change and John F Kennedy’s glamour. Think Harrison Ford as the action-hero president in Air Force One (1997), Michael Douglas’s Andrew Shepherd striking a blow for liberty in The American President (1995) or Grant Matthews in Frank Capra’ss hope-imbued State of the Union (1948).
Likewise, times of low public faith in politics are often accompanied by films where power and the pursuit of it is shown as dirty, dank and Nixonesque. That’s no new thing; as the Great Depression got underway a film called Gabriel Over the White House (1933) was made, featuring a vacuous, do-nothing president in Herbert Hoover’s mould.
The Ides of March, George Clooney’s drama about political aspirations gone awry, reflects a profoundly dismal approach to politics at a time when Barack Obama’s popularity is at a new low. The film, set during the Democratic Party primaries (and based on a play that was itself supposedly based on Howard Dean’s shortlived run) takes a Hobbesian view of the state of politics; everyone is a dealmaker, everyone will ultimately act against their beliefs and nothing is sacred.
The subtext is that no politician – and, in this adaptation, for politician, read Barack Obama, with “Yes We Can” style posters and all – can ever be the ideal he purports to be. It’s a film about how the audacity of hope will always let you down.
But as dispiriting as that message was, also noticeable was the lack of a single credible female political figure. The sum total of female characters stood at three; the intern, the journalist, and the First-Lady-in-waiting (a Laura, not a Hillary or even a Michelle).
This was a film filled with backroom deals, high-stakes conversations and political chess games and yet the women were eternally on the periphery. Involved, yes. But not the ones leading the country, or trying to.
This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here