robert-altman-the-blackguard-of-american-elections
Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984)

Robert Altman, the Blackguard of American Elections

At times it feels as if Altman is forcing us to drink drain cleaner in order for us to feel the gut wrenching pain of the farce that American democracy has become.

“You know what I didn’t do today? I didn’t vote.”

Kansas City

At the end of Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996), Carolyn Stilton, wife of Kansas City political boss Henry Stilton confesses to her husband that she did not vote. Her reasons for not voting may seem painfully obvious, given that she was kidnapped by a woman who was trying to save her crook boyfriend and that Carolyn has just shot her kidnapper in the back of the head. However, in the cinematic universe of Robert Altman failures of American democracy are seldom as simple as trivial felonious acts.

In films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), Secret Honor (1984), and Kansas City (1996), Altman portrays the process of American elections as a dark, sometimes nightmare comedy full of crooks and swindlers whose plans go awry with a resolution that ends in death. In Secret Honor, a dishonored and isolated Nixon informs us that the electoral process was in the hands of “The Committee of 100” and that the secret cabal “had a plan, 1946, 1948, 1950, and all the way through…”

In Secret Honor, the conspirators, from the very beginning of Nixon’s political career, control Nixon like a marionette and keep pulling on the strings even after he becomes President of the United States. What Nixon never knows, until it’s too late, is that he is a condemned man standing on the trap of a gallows waiting for the executioner to pull the lever.

Altman’s films that either directly or even tangentially address the American election process in terms of their biting tone of sarcastic humor have parallels to Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book (also known as The Devil’s Dictionary). When Bierce defined the cynic as a “Blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”, that cynical person could be a description of Altman and his narrative skewing of the American political process.

For example, Altman’s Tanner 88 is a brilliant attack on the American election process that’s so relentlessly biting in irony and sarcasm that a resurrected Bierce would probably recognize Altman as a fellow political traveler. However, Tanner 88 will not be included in this analysis. In terms of Altman’s war on the American democratic system Tanner 88 is his masterpiece, it’s his Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, and therefore, can stand on its own. Whereas Tanner 88 may be Altman’s grand strategy on his war on the fallacies of democracy McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Secret Honor, and Kansas City are more like tactical skirmishes and fierce cavalry charges whose cumulative effects are most apparent when studied as a combined whole.

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Altman’s themes of the American election process are not just cynical — they are often both venomous and caustic. Altman is indeed the blackguard in Bierce’s definition of a cynic:

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.

At times, while watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Secret Honor, and Kansas City it feels as if Altman is forcing us to drink drain cleaner in order for us to feel the gut wrenching pain of the farce that American democracy has become. To the discerning lover of cinema there’s a certain masochistic pleasure in watching Altman eviscerate the myth of American democracy with the same pleasure he disemboweled the myth of the American west in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976). Integrated within these observations of the selected Altman films are quotations from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary as well as references to Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The selected words and definitions by Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary are delineated in italics).

If there is one underlying theme that connects Altman and Bierce, it is death. For Bierce, death, either with a capital or lower case “D”, played a significant role in his work: “Perhaps it is true that Death is Bierce’s greatest character” (“The Dark Delight of Ambrose Bierce”, Mason, 2012: 82), and that “Death haunted nearly all of his work…” (“The Devil and Ambrose Bierce”, Silverstein, 2002: 52).

DEAD, adj.

Done with the work of breathing; done

With all the world; the mad race run

Through to the end; the golden goal

Attained and found to be a hole!

Death plays a significant role in the works of Robert Altman. Whether it’s the opening theme of M*A*S*H‘s (1970) “Suicide is Painless” or Altman’s surprise ending in The Long Goodbye (1973) that ends, to the dismay of purists of the detective genre, with a revenge killing by the private eye Philip Marlowe, death is a prime mover in the narrative. In Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the Angel of Death walks around the backstage of a theater during the final performance of a once popular radio program. Altman himself has explicitly stated: “I think this is a film about death” (“Interview with Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor”, Sterritt, 2006).

Intertwined with Altman’s recurring theme of death is the theme of politics. In Altman’s The Player (1992), producer Griffin Mill listens to a pitch from director Alan Rudolph. “What’s your pitch?” Mill asks Rudolph. “Does political scare you?” Rudolph asks. “Political doesn’t scare me.” Mill responds. “Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.”

By contrast, Altman is no Griffin Mill. Political, radical or otherwise never scared him. However, the politics of his cinema is never straight forward. For both Mill and Rudolph the challenge is to make a political film disguised as something else. “This is politely politically radical,” Rudolph continues, “but it’s funny.”

As the pitch continues, Mill continues to look for the right adjectives to describe this political film without making it sound too political. “It’s a cynical, political thriller comedy” is the direction that Mill thinks Rudolph is going, but he cannot see the twist in the plot. “Someone gets killed at the end”, Rudolph concludes: “They always do in political thrillers.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

In Altman’s revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller John McCabe is a businessman, possible gunfighter, but most of all he’s a gambler. Gamblers understand the inherent risks of their profession and are skilled in terms of recognizing the most opportune times to raise, call, or fold. Unfortunately, for McCabe when it comes to business, politics, the politics of business, and the business of politics, he’s too naïve to realize that the deck is stacked against him and that his last hand is a losing hand that will cost him his life.

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Warren Beatty as John McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe builds a house of prostitution in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church. His business is so profitable that the mining company, Harrison Shaughnessy, wants to buy him out.

CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

When McCabe fails to accept the offer in a timely manner, the company sends three hired killers to force him to run, or to kill him if he’s foolish enough to stay put. In desperation, McCabe seeks the help of a character only identified as The Lawyer (LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law ) to protect him from the mining company. “The law is here to protect a little guy like yourself, McCabe,” The Lawyer assures, “And I’m at your service, free of charge.” “Free?” McCabe responds with surprise. “That’s what I said. You don’t have to pay me anything. It would be an honor for the next senator (SENATE, n. A body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors) from the state of Washington… to be your servant before the scales of justice.”

JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

The Lawyer is not working pro bono nor is he interested in justice for McCabe or anyone else, for that matter. He wants to be to “the next senator from the state of Washington” and his interest in being “your servant before the scales of justice” only extends as far as how much McCabe’s interests advance his interests. The Lawyer will do whatever is possible to get elected by any means possible even if it means sacrificing people like McCabe in the process.

“What do we do? Get the Marshal?” McCabe logically asks. Unfortunately for McCabe, an opportunistic lawyer with aspirations for elected office abides by his own logic. “You don’t need the Marshal,” The Lawyer pontificates: “We’re going to do this through the courts.”

LITIGANT, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.

It’s irrelevant to speculate whether The Lawyer is ever elected senator. What’s relevant in the political world of the blackguard Altman is that the process of election is corrupt and leads to the death.

In the words of The Lawyer and candidate for the United States Senate, “a man goes into the wilderness… and with his bare hands, gives birth to a small enterprise… nourishes it and tends it while it grows.” Yet in the end, McCabe bleeds to death from a gunshot wound, alone, without anyone there to witness his last breath.

“Someone gets killed at the end. They always do in political thrillers.”

Nashville

In the film Nashville, Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker is running for President of the United States.

PRESIDENT, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom — and of whom only — it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President.

Unfortunately, there are consequences to making deals with Satan.

We never see Walker. Our only contact with the candidate comes from the sounds of his voice over a loudspeaker on top of a van that’s driven around the city, spouting out populist oratory (ORATORY, n. A conspiracy between speech and action to cheat the understanding. A tyranny tempered by stenography) throughout Nashville.

Political front man for Walker is John Triplette, who’s in town to try to drum up support for a political rally. He’s a political sycophant who will do or say anything to get his way (SYCOPHANT, n. One who approaches Greatness on his belly so that he may not be commanded to turn and be kicked.). Triplette goes around Nashville trying to get some of the elite country stars to attend Walker’s rally. To be more convincing, Triplette offers enticing deals to the elite who otherwise would not show up for the rally. A case in point is Haven Hamilton, perhaps country music’s biggest male singing star. When Triplette first broaches the idea that Hamilton attend the Walker rally, Hamilton’s companion Lady Pearl intervenes: “Mr., uh, Triplette,” begins Lady Pearl, “I’m sorry ol’ Delbert told you Haven would appear at the political rally. He knows better than that. We’d never let Haven Hamilton take sides politically. Uh, you understand we give contributions to everybody. And they are not puny contributions.”

Lady Pearl then begins to wax nostalgic about the only politicians she ever supported. “Only time I ever went hog-wild around the bend… was for the Kennedy boys.” The sadness in Lady Pearl’s voice is the emotion of a late friend or relative. Or maybe she’s a sort of Cassandra who’s prophesizing that the fate that befell the Kennedys will fall on someone who attends the rally.

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David Arkin as Norman Nashville (1975)

When Lady Pearl leaves Hamilton and Triplette, the sycophant is left to his own devices.

I’d be the last guy in the world to try and change your mind… about something you don’t want to do,” Triplette tells Hamilton, “but I’d like to explain a couple things… about what we’re trying to do in this campaign… before you discount it altogether. I don’t know how you’re gonna feel about this, but… Walker thinks that you’d make a fine governor in this state. He thinks the time’s right. He thinks the people of Tennessee love you. He knows they do. He knows how you feel about them. And he wants you to know that, should the time come you want to run, he’ll be there with his organization to back you all the way.

Hamilton seems interested in the offer. He’s willing to cut cards with the Devil.

SATAN, n. One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven.

“You gonna be at Opryland tonight?” Hamilton asks Triplette. “Well, I … I hadn’t thought I would be,” Triplette responds. “Well, I’m gonna be at Opryland tonight,” offers Hamilton, to which the reply is: “Well, sure, I’ll be there.” Hamilton follows up with “Yes, I guess you will. And that’s when I’ll give you my decision.”

Unfortunately, there are consequences to making deals with Satan or minions who take on the human form of a sycophant (or in the case of John McCabe, a lawyer). Hamilton, along with a number of the other Nashville elites, willingly abase themselves by attending the rally in exchange for a profit that has nothing to do with the political belief of Walker.

ABASEMENT, n. A decent and customary mental attitude in the presence of wealth or power. Peculiarly appropriate in an employee when addressing an employer.

Hamilton and the others have become servile and have become hired hands for a lower cause. Even Bill, of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom (who tells Triplette “Don’t care about politics”), is willing to abase himself and show up at the Walker rally. Even a warning from his wife and singing partner Mary who thinks that Walker is “… a little crazy, isn’t he?” does not deter Tom’s ambition to promote the group’s album at the expense of political common sense. To Tom, and eventually the rest of the group, Triplette’s (or Satan’s) words, “And I think that a really hip group like yours… could walk off with the evening,” demonstrates that the benefits of commerce outweigh any political risks.

However, not all of the Nashville elite are willing to abase themselves to Walker. Triplette most prizes Barbara Jean, a woman with psychological issues who’s recovering from serious burns from an accident with a fire baton. She’s the most popular female singer in country music; therefore, her appearances at the Walker rally are essential to Triplette’s overall strategy for Walker. Barbara Jean is married to Barnett, who’s also her controlling manager, and who also wants no part of Triplette or the rally for Walker.

Just before Barbara Jean is to perform in Opryland, Triplette and a local businessman named Delbert Reese try to persuade Barnett to have his wife perform at the Walker rally. “We don’t want her to make any political statement,” Triplette assures Barnett. “What do you think her bein’ there’s gonna be?” Barnett responds, “Ain’t that a political statement?” Unfortunately, for Barnett things don’t go as planned after Barbara Jean has a breakdown during her performance. The audience becomes unruly as she’s led off the stage. Barnett’s pleas for understanding go unheard as the people continue with their jeers, catcalls, and someone even throws something at Barnett. In a panic, Barnett makes a promise to the multitude before him: “Y’all show up at Centennial Park tomorrow at the Parthenon. You’ll see her for free

as our guests. How’s that?”

MULTITUDE, n. A crowd; the source of political wisdom and virtue. In a republic, the object of the statesman’s adoration. A multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him; if not, it is no wiser than its most foolish.

John McCabe discovered nothing in an election year is free. During an election year, someone has to pay with their life. After Barbara Jean finishes a song about her late parents, a gunman stands up in the crowd and shoots her. “Y’all take it easy now. This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville,” a wounded Haven Hamilton implores the crowd. However, because this is the political world of Altman the blackguard, Nashville, and Dallas are very much alike.

In November of 1963, President Kennedy visited Dallas as a part of his re-election campaign. Kennedy’s visit was engineered to show to millions of Americans that Texas, possibly a roadblock to Kennedy’s reelection, was a hospitable place where the news cameras could show to the rest of America the smiling faces of the people of Dallas. Nellie Connolly, the wife of Governor Connolly and who was riding in the presidential limousine, turned to the president and said: “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” Only seconds later, a bullet from the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald perforated that relationship.

Barbara Jean, like John McCabe and John F. Kennedy, became victims of the American election process. All three died because of best-laid plans end in chaos (PLAN, v.t. To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.).

“Someone gets killed at the end. They always do in political thrillers.”

“This is Nashville”, cries the wounded Hamilton as he tries to rally the multitude who witnessed a murder. “You show ’em what we’re made of. They can’t do this to us here in Nashville.” “They” can “do this in Nashville” because death and the dirty politics of an election are not confined by city limits.

Kansas City and Secret Honor

Kansas City is a period piece set in 1934 America when Jim Crow was the law of the land for black people and mob boss Pendergast ran the political machine in Kansas City. The story takes place just before and on the day of an election.

“They said they wouldn’t buy a used car from me… but they gave me the biggest vote in American history. And then they flushed me down the toilet.”

Johnny O’Hara, a small-time criminal, in consort with a black cab driver devises a plan to rob a black out of town mobster/gambler, Sheepshan Red, of his gambling stakes. Seldom Seen, the head of criminal activities in the black part of town, quickly figures out who was in on the robbery and promptly has his men kidnap O’Hara and bring him back to his jazz club to be punished for his foolish robbery attempt.

When Johnnie’s wife, Blondie O’Hara, finds out what has happened she devises a plan to free her husband. She goes to Seen to try to get her husband released, but when that doesn’t work she devises another plan to free her husband. In this second plan, Blondie kidnaps Carolyn Stilton, wife of Henry Stilton. Henry Stilton runs politics in Kansas City and Blondie hopes that he can get her husband released. Unfortunately for Blondie and her husband, she’s on a fool’s mission. After all, it’s an election and in the world of Robert Altman, the Blackguard, that means, regardless of plans, someone will die.

While white men — some shipped in from out of town by the mobsters — vote in Kansas City, Seldom Seen listens to the best jazz music in the world, also shipped in from out of town. All the while Seen contemplates what he’s going to do to his white prisoner. Seen asks Sheepshan Red what should he do to the man who stole his money. “I haven’t made a decision on him yet,” Seen tells Sheepshan, “but I think you got a vote on that.”

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Harry Belafonte as Seldom Seen in Kansas City (1996)

The irony of Seldom Seen’s form of democracy is that it gives two black men, or in the parlance of the time, two negroes (NEGRO, n. The piece de resistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: “Let n = the white man.” This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.) in the time of Jim Crow their chance to vote as part of their pursuit of happiness — which they cannot do in the crooked elections outside the club. Sheepshan, perhaps not used to being asked to vote, isn’t sure what to do with O’Hara; all he knows is that his fate has to be “bad”, which it is.

On the night of the election after the polls are closed and the votes are tallied, Johnnie comes home. He opens the door and Blondie puts her arms around him. Johnnie doesn’t look well; he’s pale and cold to the touch. Seen has gutted Johnnie with a knife and he bleeds to death on the living room floor. Johnnie O’Hara has died because Jim Crow may prevent Seen and Sheepshan from voting in their respective cities, states, and of course the United States, but it doesn’t stop them from voting on their own terms. This is a cynical perspective on civil rights, 30 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.

As Johnnie lays dying, Blondie begs Carolyn Stilton to help her. Blondie tells her dead husband she cannot live without him. Mrs. Stilton picks up the gun that Blondie used to kidnap her, aims it at the back of Blondie’s head, then pulls the trigger.

Does Carolyn Stilton kill Blondie as an act of mercy? Not likely, because this is an Altman film that mixes elections and death. She kills her because Blondie has prevented her from voting that day. “You know what I didn’t do today?”, Mrs. Stilton tells her husband as he takes her away from a crime scene, “I didn’t vote.” Blondie O’Hara is dead because she denied Carolyn Stilton the right to vote. This was something that both Blondie and Johnnie didn’t count on.

Secret Honor

The day after Nixon was re-elected in 1972, Robert Altman said to Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury: “The world is in mourning. We’ve lost because Nixon has won” (Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, McGilligan, 1989: 400).

The headline of The New York Times for 27 April 1994, was “Day of Remembrance”. The person being remembered was Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. In honor of his passing, “Congress and the Supreme Court are in recess today, most Federal offices are shut down and regular mail delivery is suspended” (“Day of Remembrance”, Winerip, 1994).

However, Secret Honor, released ten years prior to Nixon’s actual death, is Altman’s one-man show: an hour-and-a-half soliloquy and a political obituary of the disgraced president. Nixon does all of the talking, at times to a mythical judge and jury, at times to a tape recorder with messages to his assistant Roberto, and at times to dead people. Nixon, drunk, scared, and paranoid, reveals that what killed him, at least his political life, were self-inflicted wounds. He fell on his sword, if you will, in order to save the Constitution and the sanctity of the electoral process, especially the 22nd Amendment.

“Look, I had to find a way to destroy that huge ’72 popular vote mandate,” Nixon states. “Look, I would have been unbeatable in ’76. You understand what I — I did not want to run in ’76! I — I could not continue… with this fraud.” According to Nixon, he was the cause of his own demise. He committed political suicide to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. His punishment is solitary confinement, where he remains alone with his thoughts (ALONE, adj. In bad company.).

Isolated in his madness Nixon believes that he’s on trial for crimes he did not commit.

TRIAL, n. A formal inquiry designed to prove and put upon record the blameless characters of judges, advocates and jurors. In order to effect this purpose, it is necessary to supply a contrast in the person of one who is called the defendant, the prisoner, or the accused.

There’s no one to testify against him except perhaps for the silent portraits of the dead presidents that surround him. There are ghosts, such as his mother and Whittaker Chambers (GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear) that communicate with him. Whittaker Chambers and their mutual involvement in the Alger Hiss case was important to Nixon’s political career.

Your Honor… the Hiss case brought my client national fame. However, in politics, victory is never total. And as an aftermath to the Hiss case… I mean, for years afterwards… my client was subjected to a vicious and utterly unprincipled smear campaign… in which he was accused of being a liar and a cheat and a thief… and a pervert. But the Committee of 100 saw that I had saved the day. I had. Alger Hiss? He was in jail for perjury. Whittaker Chambers? He was, uh, Whittaker was dead. But I was on top. I was. I was on top. I was on top.

Nixon abased himself to the Committee of 100 to be part of their plan to get the right man elected to political office. However, those who design and run the plan can both give and take away. “Your Honor … I did not have a choice. I mean … I had to get out. I had to resign right after the election, get the pardon … or follow the Committee of 100’s orders to prepare for a public mandate.” When the Committee was done with him and he was found to no longer fit in their electoral plans, Nixon had to resign. Resignation for Nixon equals death. (RESIGN, v.t. To renounce an honor for an advantage. To renounce an advantage for a greater advantage). However, according to Nixon, he did not gain any advantage by resigning. Instead, others gained from his resignation. “There’s been no trial… no legal conviction, no punishment. Instead, Your Honor, my client has had to suffer… lifelong personal punishment and, uh, torment… for what has been called, the, uh-good of the nation.”

Nixon in Secret Honor is a man without a public. We see and hear him but he cannot see or hear us. He once was the most powerful man in the world who heard both the cheers and jeers of the masses but now he lives in a glass tomb (TOMB, n. The House of Indifference) that lets in enough air for him to breathe and is stocked with enough liquor for Nixon to try to numb himself to the reality that he is permanently in a tomb.

There’s no bullet for Nixon to put him out of his misery. At least John McCabe, Barbara Jean, and Blondie did not have to exist in a limbo.

On 8 May 1976, Saturday Night Live presented a sketch of Nixon, played by Dan Aykroyd, as the out of control paranoid presented in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book from 1976, The Final Days. In the sketch a drunken Nixon addresses a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and blurts “Abe, you were lucky. They shot you.”

Nixon is Peyton Farquhar in Bierce’s short story “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The story relates what thoughts pass through the mind of a man in the nanoseconds between the start of his execution by hanging (“As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge”) and his inevitable death (“then all is darkness and silence”). In the last fractions of a second of Farquhar’s life, time slows down almost to the point of inertia. In that last brief moment of life, Farquhar like Nixon, reflects upon his life and sees a future that is an illusion.

In Secret Honor Nixon is a condemned man in enduring a slow and agonizing execution. Nixon’s execution is a continuance of the degradation (DEGRADATION, n. One of the stages of moral and social progress from private station to political preferment) that he has endured ever since he endeavored to satiate his need for public office.

What has led to his death is what Astronomer Arthur Eddington called “time’s arrow”. “The law states that in any closed system (like the universe itself), entropy — disorder — can only increase” (“2 Futures Can Explain Time’s Mysterious Past: New theories suggest the big bang was not the beginning, and that we may live in the past of a parallel universe.”, Billing, 2014). For Altman (A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be) understands that with the arrow of time (either measuring life or elections), disorder in the form of death is inevitable. Nixon had signed his own death warrant in 1945, 39 years before he was forced to resign. (BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.)

After serving in World War II, Nixon, a lawyer by training and trade, wants to get into politics. His calling seems no more of an epiphany than anyone, from janitor to banker, who’s looking for a job. Nixon doesn’t hear the call from a burning bush but a classified ad in a newspaper. In the words of Nixon himself:

‘Wanted: Young man… interested in running for Congress. Veteran preferred.’ And then they listed the name of a, uh, committee… to contact. So, well, I-I took some of my, uh, poker winnings and I flew out there… in my uniform, of course. If the choice of this committee comes to me… I promise to wage an aggressive and vigorous campaign… based on a platform of practical liberalism.

Nixon answers the ad. He runs for Congress and wins. He runs for Senate and wins. He runs for president and wins on his second attempt. That was 1945. Forty years later, like John McCabe and Barbara Jean, the arrow of time has caught up to him:

They elected me! Not once, not twice, but all my goddamn life! And they would do it again, too, if they had the chance. Oh, sure, they said they didn’t trust me. They said, ‘Let Dick Nixon do it’, and I did it! They said they wouldn’t buy a used car from me… but they gave me the biggest vote in American history. And then they flushed me down the toilet. And they wanted me to stay down. They wanted me to kill myself. Well, I won’t do it. If they want me dead… they’ll have to do it.

“Someone gets killed at the end. They always do in political thrillers.”

Nixon remains defiant. Nixon ends his soliloquy with the words “F*** ‘em”, directed 14 times towards those who wanted him dead. However, as the man who is falling through the trap of the gallows, his wrath is unabated.

WRATH, n. Anger of a superior quality and degree, appropriate to exalted characters and momentous occasions; as, “the wrath of God,” “the day of wrath,” etc. Amongst the ancients the wrath of kings was deemed sacred, for it could usually command the agency of some god for its fit manifestation, as could also that of a priest.

As Nixon shouts “F*** ’em!, F*** ’em!”, the Ghosts of the people who re-elected Nixon in 1972 chant over and over: “Four more years!” The voters have the final word.

The purpose of this essay was to examine four films by Robert Altman, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Secret Honor, and Kansas City, in relation to the American electoral process. Ultimately, Altman’s indictment of the political system is a scathing attack on the corruption of those who run the process, and on the naiveté of the American public, who believe that their vote matters. Altman the blackguard portrays American democracy as an exercise of chaos and death that’s beyond the control of but a few. Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country“, may have lived in an earlier era than Robert Altman, but they both occupied the same democracy.

William Gombash, Ph.D., is a professor of Communications at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida where he teaches courses in Film and mass Media Studies as well as Speech. He has contributed a chapter, “Death Wish: A Vigilante’s Journey, an Urban Tragedy”, to the upcoming book Shockers!: The ’70s Cinema of Trash, Terror and Sexploitation from I. B. Tauris Publishers.

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