All posts by Captain Future

Time for Phil to be the Hero

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced he will veto the universal health care bill recently passed by both houses of the CA legislature. His announcement, said the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, reads “like a health insurer’s advertising dream, full of catch phrases that twist the truth in order to frighten consumers…”

FTCR also noted that the health industry boosted Schwarzenegger to nearly $100 million in campaign donations with a $125,000 burst of contributions in August alone. The industry has given him $4 million overall.”

The universal health care plan is solid, and everyone in California–individuals, families, small businesses, large corporations, hospitals, doctors, nurses–everybody but bloated private insurance companies–need this. Arnold has given Phil Angelides the issue he can champion. Phil needs to heed this call, and be the hero.

I don’t use the term lightly. “A leader, not an actor” may be a clever tagline for his TV spots, but like it or not, Phil Angelides is a major player in a political drama. An experienced Hollywood hand like his opponent, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, knows this instinctively: political campaigns are pure melodrama, and the successful candidate makes himself the hero.

Melodrama is emotional, it’s big and it’s black-and-white. There are no self-contradictory gods as in Greek myth, or heroes with fatal flaws as in classical drama. It’s the virtuous hero overcoming impossible odds to defeat the despicable villain. Melodrama means drama with melody: a musical soundtrack. It’s opera in all its forms—high, light, horse, space and soap. It is also the basic form of TV commercials, especially for politicians.

“The new politics of democracy,” writes political scientist Alan Wolfe, “resembles a daytime television melodrama more than an academic seminar: attention is captured when conscience is tempted, courage displayed, determination rewarded, wills broken, egos checked, pride humbled, and virtue rewarded.”

In terms of imagery and experience, Hollywood’s Schwarzenegger has the obvious advantage of having starred in melodramas, as both hero and villain. In fact the two distinct halves of his term as Governator replicate his most famous role as the Terminator. In the first movie he’s the Terminator for the powerful machines. In the second he’s switched sides to champion the human rebels. As governor, he represented the Bush Republican right, until his ballot initiatives were defeated. Then he became the champion of more moderate and even liberal measures. Can he be a political hero replicating what he did as a movie hero?

As for Angelides, even though he is unlikely to be cast in a Hollywood melodrama, all is not lost. Some heroes in melodramas of the past fought against injustice, for the little guy and the oppressed. They included reformers, workers, strikers and crusading reporters. There were many popular melodramas about social causes. Probably the most produced American play was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist melodrama, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and other Frank Capra film favorites were melodramas, as were stage and film biographies of Abraham Lincoln and FDR.

Past and present political candidates have created their images and developed excitement around their candidacies with the melodramatic appeal of fighting for the little guy. Right now, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is enjoying stratospheric poll numbers in his race for Governor, as the corporate crime-fighting hero. (Wall Street furnished villains for many stage melodramas.) In Connecticut, newly victorious Democratic candidate for Senate Nate Lamont is the people-power, anti-war hero, defined in part by TV commercials crafted by the same Bill Hillsman who helped turn unknown college professor Paul Wellstone into a populist hero.

Health care is a dramatic issue, and the sides are drawn. This plan, as described by the San Francisco Chronicle,“would eliminate private medical insurance plans and establish a statewide health insurance system that would provide coverage to all Californians.”  The need is extreme:”as many as 7 million people are uninsured in the state, and spiraling costs have put pressure on business and consumers.”

  “We know the health care in place today is teetering on collapse,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles. “We need to do something to improve it, to reform it, and this is what we are bringing to the table.”

Of course, as everyone in Hollywood knows, the real drama isn’t on the screen– it’s in the audience. Is this the year for a worker’s champion and a civil liberties, election reform, environmental and above all, a universal health care hero? It must be, win or lose. The only way to find out how this show will play is to mount it with clarity and conviction. And don’t forget the music.