What These Politicians Need Is A Black-and-white Script

July 05, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

The other night, I watched transfixed as a governor wrestled with a matter of conscience. There was family pressure, there was statehouse intrigue. In the end, at high personal cost, the guv decided to stick to principle and do the right thing.

And then, the guv resigned.

And that, my fellow Americans, is why I love the old black-and-white movies.

No, I wasn't watching the continuing telenovela realidad starring in high-def the South Carolina guv telling all - or rather, all too much - about his affair in Argentina and his marriage back home, and his soul and its mate, and the lines he crossed and that thing that went a-sparking.

Nor the Alaska version of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here, starring that state's governor and her future, ill-defined at this point except that it apparently involves not being a dead fish but a good point guard. Or something.

What I was watching instead was Manhattan Melodrama, a 1934 movie that TCM aired last week, starring William Powell as a New York governor actually facing not a matter of personal angst but of actual governance. Imagine that.

Give me the restrained Powell any day over the babbling brook that is Alaska's Sarah Palin - so many words, so few that make sense! And give me Powell over the self-dramatizing Mark Sanford as South Carolina governor and leading man in, as he called it this past week, "a love story, a forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day."

Is there anything worse than someone writing the copy for his own movie poster?

Maybe it's easier to behave nobly in black and white. Or perhaps it's just that everything wraps up in a crisp 90 minutes or so of reel time, rather than dragging out messily over real time.

Has it really come to this? That the governor in a 75-year-old movie seems infinitely more gubernatorial than his modern-day, real-life counterparts?

And here's the thing: In the movie, Powell's character actually was facing a life-and-death issue, and not, at least in Sanford's case, a Betty-or-Veronica one.

As Manhattan Melodrama's story goes, Powell has to decide whether to commute the sentence of a convicted murderer played by Clark Gable, a close friend since childhood.

The complication: Gable's crime was that he arranged the murder of someone who, unknown to Powell, could have screwed up Powell's political career.

The other complication: Powell's wife, played by Myrna Loy, had been Gable's gal, but she left him to marry the rising pol.

And further complications: Loy reveals to Powell why Gable had the guy killed; Loy tells Powell he wouldn't be governor if not for Gable's crime; Loy tells Powell she'll leave him if he doesn't spare Gable's life.

Now that's a drama.

Instead, we have Palin and her multiple family spectacles, often self-propelled, such as her recent drawn-out umbrage over a silly joke. And we have Sanford going missing for a week, then turning up in Argentina, and then on TV, and then everywhere, spilling his guts over the all-too-predictable reason for the secrecy: an extramarital affair.

Politician cheats on his wife? Gee, there's something that's never happened before or ever will again.

No, what gives Sanford's aventura amorosa such legs, so to speak, is the public mess he made of it, from the pretense that he was on a hiking trip in the Appalachians to his endless attempts to explain himself ever since.

And so it is with Palin, and her constant griping over how her daughters have been treated in the media, when she can't stop dragging them in front of the cameras herself.

It's all made me ever more grateful for those increasingly rare moments of discretion when I come across them. I recently saw a small item in the newspaper's archives, something I'd missed when it ran originally, in which an official announced his separation. End of the story.

Compare that to Sanford's postpartum - the news conference, the weeping to the Associated Press, the 518-word statement from his wife, followed by her own teary interview with the AP, the e-mail to supporters.

I did have bit of sympathy for Sanford at one point: He didn't make his wife stand there next to him before the cameras; he didn't trivialize the other woman as a meaningless indiscretion; he didn't blame political enemies for his own woes.

But that sympathy was fleeting. For one thing, he had voted as a congressman to impeach then-President Bill Clinton, condemning him for lying "under a different oath, and that's the oath to his wife," he told CNN at the time. "So it's got to be taken very, very seriously."

Why do these politicians never learn?

Whether it's moralizing over someone else's marital messes only to end up with a similarly untidy house, as Sanford has, or trumpeting that you're anti-earmarks when you have requested hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of them for your state, as Palin did - well, it's not just hypocritical, but just too easy to check the record.

There are documents, and these days almost always tape. And yet, neither Palin nor Sanford can seem to stop providing ever more tape.

Sanford in particular keeps updating us on how many times and where he and his soul mate mated, not just in Argentina but - another country heard from! - also New York. He's fleshed out other extramarital dalliances, helpfully noting that those didn't cross "the ultimate line ... the sex line."

Someone get this guy a better scriptwriter. Maybe the one who wrote that great line in that other black-and-white movie, Casablanca. The one that goes, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

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