|WHERE TO LOOK
Obviously, the history of presidential politics has been fairly well-documented, so it’s not too tough to learn more about. The first stop is the White House’s official Web site, which will quickly get you thoroughly up-to-date on what President Obama’s up to, as well as how the American political system works.
If you want to dig deeper into history, have a look at POTUS: Presidents of the United States, a complete catalog of all our presidents, as well as links to additional biographies, historical documents and speeches.
Once you’ve gotten the facts straight, it’s time to dig up the dirt. The Huffington Post and FOX News might be good starting points for that. Keep in mind that there are some who believe that the former leans a tiny bit to the left and the latter leans a tiny bit to the right, but who are we to judge?
Finally, it’s important to remember that facts and authenticity aren’t one and the same. “Everything is about feel,” claims Patrick Caddell, “but so much of what we write about politics is about facts and arguments.”
To find this “feel,” Caddell recommends two books. The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore Harold White, “captured something about the essence of politics that felt really important,” says Caddell, “even though it’s an area that long past.”
Caddell also suggests Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson. “There’s a man who captured the heart of it,” he says. “I don’t know if it’ll tell you the technical part of politics, but it’ll tell you everything that’s important.”
Written by Denis Faye
Over the last four decades, Patrick Caddell has been involved in almost every conceivable aspect of presidential politics – with the exception, of course, of being president.
He got his start as a pollster in college and from there went on to work campaigns for George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Joe Biden in 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992.
He’s also a commentator for FOX News and MSNBC. He’s taught politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And, in his spare time, he’s advised for a slew of movies and television shows, including Air Force One [Written by Andrew W. Marlowe], In The Line of Fire [Written by Jeff Maguire], and West Wing, for which he was also a writer and producer.
Lately, Caddell finds himself in Charleston, South Carolina, chasing a whole new passion – his three grandkids.
After a couple of badly timed calls in the middle of playtime, Technically Speaking was finally able to track down Caddell for a conversation about presidential politics, some insight into his West Wing days, and an explanation of why one of the most important things to be mindful of when you’re making a war movie is “the sausages.”
What has Hollywood gotten right about presidential politics?
For a long time, not anything. I remember the conversation that got me involved with West Wing. I met Aaron Sorkin when I was doing Bulworth [Screenplay by Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pikser]. We had lunch and I said, “Look, the most important thing to understand about politics and Hollywood is that unlike so many other things, Hollywood shows what it wishes it would be, not what it is.”
Hollywood makes great cop movies, for instance. They research the different sides. The grittiness, the accuracy, is so authentic. You know it when you see it. But with political movies and shows, it’s much more how they’d like it to look.
The second thing I told him was that the reason so many films fail about the president is that they’re made out to be cartoonish or, even worse, to be evil. Not to denigrate that because it can be part of the art, but I don’t think people really want to see that. The theory I had about politics is that people were already so negative of politics. When Hollywood showed even more negative views of politics, people didn’t go because why depress yourself even further?
The show had to be as authentic as it could be, but it also had to be idealistic about the president. You gotta make people come every Wednesday and wish this was the White House that they were seeing every day. I think Aaron succeeded at that because during the first season, I got a call from someone in George Bush’s campaign, and they said, “I just want to let you know, every Wednesday at 8 o’clock, we shut down the entire Bush headquarters to watch West Wing.”
I did Air Force One with Wolfgang Peterson and I really liked him – such a decent director, such a decent man. I remember when we met, he knew nothing about politics, but I was a huge fan of Das Boot. I’m a big buff of war movies and World War II movies in particular and when I saw the beginning of Das Boot and all the sausages hanging all over the boat, it was authentic. Those submarines were really small. They stuffed every corner with food and supplies. It didn’t look like one of the American versions of the nice, clean, sweet submarine that I remember from the fifties where everything was pristine.
So when I was working with Wolfgang and something didn’t look or feel right, I’d say “Sausages, Wolfgang, sausages.”
So nothing right at all from Hollywood?
No, Hollywood had done some great things. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [Screenplay by Sidney Buchman] was one of my favorites. We would look at it today and say it’s cartoony, but it had a powerful impact during the depression, and it felt right. I’m not saying it has to be precisely literal at all, but too many political movies start off with “Let’s imagine what it’s like,” as opposed to “What it’s like.”
We’d go to great lengths in West Wing to make things look and feel real. Of course, there were also things that weren’t authentic but were needed for the sake of drama. For instance, all of the 18,000 people walking a hundred miles an hour down the corridors. They don’t really do that. The first time I saw it, I told [executive producer] Tommy Schlamme, “Tommy, you can’t do that.” And Tommy said, “We really need to because TV is all about pace.”
It seems to me that authenticity and idealism might not fit together all that well.
I don’t mean to be inauthentic about portraying the characters, what they’re like. I am a believer in the artist with an important story to tell. If it needs to be told, it’ll find an audience, same with an author. People write books that only a hundred people read, but they’re important. But with presidential politics being portrayed as so cartoonish and so negative, well, people don’t need their politics in movies to be down because they already are down. They read it every day in the newspaper, particularly presidential corruption, with Nixon and the Clinton experience and the Bush experience. People didn’t need to see it, they lived it.
How do you be idealistic when 50 percent of your potential viewing audience isn’t going to agree with your ideology anyway?
[Rob] Reiner will kill me for this, but The American President [Written by Aaron Sorkin], which Aaron wrote, I remember telling him how much I liked the movie and how much I disliked the movie. He had two of the greatest lines ever in American cinema about politics, followed by the line to kill the movie.
When Michael J. Fox is talking to Michael Douglas, who’s the president, he talks about how people are so desperate for leadership that they would crawl on their knees through the desert if they saw a mirage and when they got there, even if it was a mirage, they were so desperate that they’d drink the sand. That was so inspired because it so much describes people’s yearning. Then he had the President of the United States look at him and say, “No, they’re too stupid to know the difference.” He killed the movie right there.
That movie’s problem was that it became too preachy that all conservatives were evil. I was furious at the end of the movie. It said to the country, “You’re stupid and if you’d just listen to me and my Hollywood friends, you’d be alright.” It was a great story. I mean it wasn’t very authentic in that I remember [Sen.] Bob Kerrey being single and being involved with Debra Winger. People in Nebraska loved it, the idea of their bachelor governor having a famous girlfriend. But the movie was funny and wonderful until the politics became a lecture. It turned people off. In West Wing, Aaron would really strive to get both sides of the argument, even though this was a Democratic president in a liberal administration.
But when you’re doing politics, it difficult because there’s nothing you can touch that people don’t have feelings about.
Is it particularly hard for writers to seek advice about politics, considering most people involved have an agenda?
That is one of the problems! The difference between politicians and doctors, lawyers and the police is that they have stories, but they don’t have agendas. It’s tough for writers because everyone in politics wants to get their view across and their positive aspect. Even people who are trying to be honest have a point of view to sell.
You know who the best people are? Always go to the people who used to be in it or no longer have a stake in it with nothing to lose.
I learned more about the history of politics from [President Nixon’s Treasury Secretary] John Connelly, who in my youth I considered somewhat of a clear disciple of the Antichrist. I met him after he’d lost everything. He had a brilliant mind and knowledge of history – and he could be totally honest. I spent hours at his knees listening to stories about [U.S. House Speaker Samuel Rayburn] and [President Lyndon B.] Johnson.
Also, look for some of the second-level practitioners. If you want to know how make a movie in Hollywood, who do you go to? You go to the crew. It’s the same thing.
What would you like to see in a movie about politics?
Having said what I said about being idealistic, I would love to see a show about how corrupting the business of money is, of lobbying and so forth. There’s a whole part of Washington that we didn’t capture in West Wing. It was about the White House. If I were doing something about Washington, it’d be about every place except the White House. That is the big story. It’s also a struggle. There is that temptation between selling out and doing good and that does exist. It’s a great basis for many stories. Capturing that environment, the Hill, and the satellite world of the lobbying, lawyers and political consultants. There’s so much rich material that’s never been touched. It’s so dramatic. I’d love to see the real Washington.