Michael Ritchie's 1972 film The Candidate is nothing if not prescient. An indictment of the television age and its impact on political campaigning, the film suggests that running for office makes it paradoxically difficult for the candidate to be a true public servant.
Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford, is a storefront lawyer in San Diego who helps his clients, people on the margins of society, get a leg up in the legal system. He has little influence compared to a public official, yet, McKay has no desire to run for office, even though (or because) his father (Melvyn Douglas) was once the governor of the state of California. When he is approached by a campaign operative and old schoolmate Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), McKay is persuaded to run for U.S. Senate only on the condition that he can say what he wants and that he will lose handily.
Indeed, the incumbent Senator, Crocker Jarmin (Don Porter) holds a safe seat. A Ronald Reagan figure, Jarmin appeals to voters by upbraiding the welfare state and the federal government, though he is not adverse to calling on its resources when his popularity is at stake. He has the folksy, hard-fighting spirit of a former football star who is eminently comfortable feigning the upstanding grandpa role. He has long been unchallenged for his seat, so he is free to parrot glib platitudes that sound logical and come off as sincere.
Then, McKay comes along, and manages to sound even more sincere. When asked what he thinks about property taxes, McKay has the temerity to respond, "I don't know." He does not shy of sounding liberal at the dawn of an era when those views are becoming subject to derision and fear-mongering. Such candor invigorates his base and helps him close in on Jarmin, to everyone's surprise. Soon, his campaign managers are urging McKay to tone down the bold talk and tread lightly so he can appeal to the undecided voters, those people who may vote for McKay because he's cute, so long as he doesn't come off as too angry.
I left The Candidate with some sadness, seeing in the script the idea that the political process insurmountably removes the modern, national politician from the people s/he campaigns to represent. Upon winning the election, McKay asks Marvin Lucas "What do we do now?" One senses that the Senator-elect knows in his heart that he made more of a difference as an unambitious lawyer than he ever will as U.S. Senator. In the television age, elected national officeholders don't make news for their ideas; instead, they are there to entertain, to carry off a persona, whether it is that of a Crocker Jarmin or a Bill McKay.