Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Spencer Tracy's _The Last Hurrah_

The hope of the future: a mealy-mouthed maneuverable piece of dough. Is this the best we can do?

This McCluskey. Is he typical of what we are turning out of our colleges these days? Is he a specimen of this educated young laity I keep hearing so much about, but never seem to encounter?
-Cardinal Martin Burke, "The Last Hurrah," 1958

The cardinal is speaking here of a young empty suit supported by business interests trying to unseat the four-term mayor Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah, an excellent classic previously known to me only for its pithy title's ubiquity. Spencer Tracy plays to near-perfection the character of an old Irish political boss. Though not above threats and a bit of blackmail in the service of his constituents, Skeffington's blustery populist hardball seems preferable in many ways to the McCluskey character, a prettyboy of no declared positions whose image is evocative of John Edwards and other young "rising stars."

As the title suggests, the John Ford-directed film is blatantly sympathetic to the old ways over the new campaigns, which in Ford's view eschew personal flattery, personal intimidation, and personal profit for scripted, rootless mass-media campaigns no more principled, and much less beneficial to the body politic. The old ethnic politicking between Jews, Irish, and Italians in alliance against the WASP elite makes one downright nostalgic for times when whites had tribal ghettoes, too.

Having a relative in politics myself, though one far more ethical than the lovable thug Skeffington, I recognized in this fifty-year-old portrayal of party politics some of the same personalities: the alpha candidate's hangers-on, always hoping success will rub off on their campaigns, or the admiring "Friends of Candidate X" attracted by the overpowering charisma of a career politician who seems to know and to care about everybody in his electorate.

Recommended, especially for sentimental Irish-Americans.

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