I was thinking about the abrupt decline of a favorite film star of my youth and one of his best films.
In the early 1960s, a fictional President, made older than his age by the burdens of office, is about to support a candidate he does not like, does not enjoy being around. But Joe Cantwell is tough and decisive. And President Hockstader wants someone strong to lead the country through rough international times. When Cantwell threatens to release illegally obtained information, the President reacts:
And to think I was going to endorse you for President… You know, Joe. It’s not that you’re a bastard that I object to. I don’t object to that at all. It’s just that you’re such a stupid bastard that makes you insufferable.
Gore Vidal wrote the play The Best Man. It was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. Cliff Robertson was the evil, slimy Joe Cantwell. The play, and that movie, may come closest to redeeming the truly awful public personna that Gore Vidal left as he departed this mortal coil. It was much harder to watch Vidal in televised interviews than it was to enjoy the movie script. He turned snide cynicism into an artform. One comment about Vidal stays with me: “He bites his betters on their kneecaps.”
Cliff Robertson played in other politically tinged films. John F. Kennedy asked that he be cast as young Kennedy in the movie PT 109.
Long before Harvey Weinstein exposed himself to us, years before he ever cast his eye on his first victim, Cliff Robertson convinced me of the deep down corruption of moviedom. He pretty much destroyed his career in 1977 through an unlucky bit of honesty. He accidentally discovered that a major studio had written a huge check to him for work he had never done. Robertson’s name was forged on the check, and the head of the studio pocketed the money.
Robertson was warned to keep quiet. But he and his wife blew the whistle and talked to the press. The Hollywood establishment took quick action. They blacklisted Cliff Robertson. The executive did lose his job and go to jail for embezzlement. But the main target was Robertson himself.
If they could do that to a major star, it’s not hard to see how the occasional aspiring actress, just starting out, could be intimidated.
Occasionally some conservative will use the Weinstein saga in response to Trump scandals, demanding to know what liberals did about Weinstein during all those years of exploitation. One answer was that Democrats somehow refrained from making him the nation’s President. Still, it’s a fair question, and there seems to be considerable angst about the film industry and the agency system.
When humans lack accountability, there seems to follow a considerable degree of victimization.
I thought about Cliff Robertson’s unjust decline when Weinstein-behind-the-scenes became the Harvey-on-everyone’s-screen. Robertson taught us a little about virtue, a refusal to sacrifice truth in the face of corruption.
It is not the only lesson we are free to learn.
We have to wonder about those who embrace that sort of corruption, who delight in exercising power over the powerless.
Like Cliff Robertson’s film character, Donald Trump aspires to toughness. He berates subordinates. He encourages audiences to mimic his toughness.
Some of the tough guys I know…
..They’re getting soft on me, I don’t believe this.
And now, he demonstrates how tough he can be.
His latest target is the tearful widow of La David Johnson, an American soldier killed in Niger.
The president said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways and I was — it made me cry … He couldn’t remember my husband’s name.
Was he inarticulate in his telephone call to the family? Did he hesitate, momentarily unable to recall the name?
Or did she, and the others listening on speaker phone, all misinterpret?
A simple apology would not have been hard: a confession of awkwardness in the presence of such loss. Or even the acknowledgement that it was impossible to penetrate the suffering, that the widow had to have misunderstood. Chris Cillizza at CNN offers a script for a return phone call:
I struggle with every death of an American soldier and I simply am not great all the time at conveying how much your loss means to me and the country.
Instead, he creates controversy with a profoundly dumb defensive contradiction:
I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2017
As I think of a young, grieving widow defying the most powerful tough guy on earth, I remember a film confrontation.
You know, Joe. It’s not that you’re a bastard that I object to. It’s just that you’re such a stupid bastard that makes you insufferable.
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