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Gilbert: The Presidency

01/30/12 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert loves movies about the American presidency, especially thrillers. Recently, he saw two that he'd never seen before.

(Gilbert) Some weeks ago, before the presidential primary season heated up, I watched two terrific films about the presidency, both classics, both made in 1964, and both starring Henry Fonda.

The first, Fail-Safe, is sort of like Dr. Strangelove, but not played for laughs. It takes place during the Cold War; America's nuclear defense system is highly automated - so that it is, ideally, fail-safe.

The system goes awry and American bombers are headed toward the Soviet Union with atomic bombs. What should the President do? What can he do? I'm not going to spill the beans, but obviously, the questions are whether even one bomber will get through, and in any case, how will the Soviets react? Will they interpret the attack as an intentional first strike by the United States and retaliate with their entire nuclear arsenal? Is it possible to avert full-scale nuclear war and the virtual annihilation of both the US and the Soviet Union?

Now, like any real president, this fictional president has advisors - lots of them. One of them is clearly brilliant and resembles in some ways the architect of President Johnson's disastrous Vietnam War strategy, Robert McNamara. But the advisors disagree about what to do; they give the president conflicting advice. The president has to decide, and the stakes couldn't be higher. He tries a secret strategy that he himself comes up with. It is bold, counter-intuitive, and desperate.

I know the movie is just a movie, but it does underscore just how difficult it is to be the real president; presidents need to be knowledgeable and intelligent, and you hope above all that they are wise.

The other movie, entitled The Best Man (as in "May the best man win."), is written by Gore Vidal, and it stars not only Henry Fonda, but also Lee Tracy and Cliff Robertson. It's about the two leading candidates for the nomination of an unspecified political party.

There are a total of five candidates in the running, but going into their nomination convention, no one has the necessary number of delegates.

The two leading candidates are very different from each other. Clearly the audience is intended to root for the Henry Fonda character, a principled intellectual. But the question is whether he's tough enough for the job. The character played by Cliff Robertson is a ruthless opportunist entirely without scruples. Both men think the other is not qualified to be president.

As the plot develops, it looks like Cliff Robertson has outmaneuvered Fonda by offering the vice presidency to all three of the other potential nominees in order to win their delegates. How can the Robertson candidate possibly be stopped? You'll have to watch the movie to find out. But it reminds me of a line from yet a third film story about the presidency. It's entitled The American President, and in it, the man in the White House, played this time by Michael Douglas, says that his despicable opponent is right when he says that the presidency is all about character.
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