Primary Machiavellianism: The Rogue in Vogue

Ken Masugi

March 1, 1998

The most intriguing political movies are inspired by great novels, which in turn are based on historical figures. Consider this plot summary as an example:

The idealistic young Governor of a backward southern state upsets an arrogant establishment. With genial ways and a sympathy for the excluded, a man from nowhere makes something of himself through determination and fanatically loyal allies. In a time of economic insecurity, the Governor’s popular reforms earn him a place in the hearts of the people. As his crowning achievement, he proposes a bold reform of health care. But he alarms friends and foe alike with the corruption within his administration and his faithlessness toward his wife….

This outlines the greatest American political novel, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1947. A movie version won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949—with Broderick Crawford winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Governor Willie Stark, clearly modeled after the 1930’s demagogue Huey Long of Louisiana. Political journalist Joe Klein is said to have All the King’s Men as an inspiration when he wrote, as "Anonymous," his novel of the 1992 Democratic primaries, Primary Colors.

For all its glittering wit, the movie Primary Colors is to All the King’s Men (novel or movie) as the junk food John Travolta (Governor Jack Stanton/Bill Clinton) devours is to a White House banquet. And Travolta, almost as jowly as Broderick Crawford, exudes a Tom Sawyer-like craftiness and appeal.

But unlike Robert Penn Warren’s meditation on the limits of politics and the loss of American innocence, the current movie shamelessly celebrates Stanton/Clinton’s Machiavellianism, the opportunism that forms the core of his being. True to his intention of defending this low view of politics, director Mike Nichols has produced a mockery of democracy: self-government is a hoax. We are assured by Governor Stanton that "Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a President." Afterward, he explains, Lincoln could appeal to "the better angels of our nature."

Thus, Travolta and company appeal to the devil in us: He seduces us to root for the cad to get away with it—as if the habits of vice could be instantly cast aside in favor of the demands of virtue and justice.

Accordingly, this Machiavellian movie denigrates the most glorious events and heroes of American history. Just one example: The focus on the South reminds us of the tragedy of the Civil War, but consider the similarity of Governor Stanton’s behavior to that of a plantation slave-master taking liberties with his female slaves. This aspect of one’s "private" life has a public manifestation. Stanton would not be a tyrant in the sense of Stalin; his model is rather that of an educator, thus reminding us of the petty schoolmaster despotism Alexis de Tocqueville warned us about, in Democracy in America.

Contrary to liberal commentators such as Frank Rich, who would bow to Machiavellian reasoning, it is impossible to tell whether "Stanton genuinely cares for the poor and dispossessed." Recall Machiavelli’s Prince, which urges that princes should "appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and … be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary." Only the prince (if anyone) may know what he "genuinely" believes and feels. If people have the impression he shares their pain, that is all to his advantage. Clinton’s mercurial nature makes him the first post-modern president, constantly re-inventing himself, beyond caricature: pulp non-fiction, as the New York Times put it.

Thus the superficiality or self-destructiveness of Primary Color’s idealists (the grandson of a black civil rights hero and a lesbian Stantonite) affirms the superiority of Stanton’s Machiavellianism. For them, "making history" is how one professes idealism—not through devotion to transcendent religious doctrines (as with the real-life Martin Luther King) nor through adherence to the teachings of the Founding Fathers. But making history literally means destroying the past—and thus these idealists imitate the tyrants who would destroy the Founding Father’s achievements.

The primary danger of Primary Colors is its implicit understanding that all "effective" politicians are Machiavellians. From the movie’s vantage point, true evil is the misguided idealism of inept politicians and the press. The challenge for Americans is no longer that of self-government but of adopting an appropriate cynicism.

Finally, the movie distracts us from the real evils in American politics, foremost the petty tyranny of the administrative state. We take for granted the caring government the Stantons and Clintons, the Willie Starks and the Huey Longs would advance. Thus the real hero of Primary Colors is the same as the real subject of All the King’s Men— that most Machiavellian of American statesmen and the inventor of the administrative and welfare state, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Ken Masugi is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.