A film that centers on the U.S. Senate’s role in confirming executive nominations made by the president, Advise and Consent (1962) is arguably about whether moral limits pertain to power. Put another way, should we expect no-hold barred efforts to manipulate others in the political arena? Personal lives and personal pasts being fair game? Moreover, is the aim power for its own sake, or the manipulation of others for the sake of a public policy and ultimately the good of the country?
The narrative begins with president’s nomination of Robert Leffingwell reaching the U.S. Senate for confirmation. The Majority Leader supports the nominee out of support for the dying president. The Leader appoints Sen. Brig Anderson to chair the subcommittee that is to hold the hearing. Brig is more concerned that the process be fair and competent than that Leffingwell be confirmed. Sen. Fred Van Ackerman strongly supports Leffingwell because the nominee is for peace in an otherwise harshly anti-communist climate brimming with a penchant for war. Sen. Seabright Cooley, on the other hand, strongly opposes the nominee both out of a personal vendetta and a concern that he would give away too much for peace.
As the plot thickens, Sen. Anderson learns that Leffingwell lied under oath during the hearing. The senator pressures the president to withdrawal the nominee. The Majority Leader and of course Sen. Cooley support Brig’s decision to delay the subcommittee’s vote until it can be determined why the nominee lied. Sen. Van Ackerman is incensed, however, sensing that Sen. Anderson has turned against the nominee. Van Ackerman realizes he is excessively anxious in the cause of peace, but he goes ahead anyway with what he has uncovered of Brig’s long-past (likely drunken) gay encounter with a friend while in the army. Scared that the blackmailer will expose the skeleton, Anderson slits his throat in his office bathroom. It does not take long for the other senators to discover that Van Ackerman was behind the blackmail and that the president had no knowledge of it. Sen. Cooley, however, did know of it and let it go on in hopes that he could stop it in exchange for Sen. Anderson’s agreeing to oppose the nominee. The Majority Leader tells Cooley that he has gone too far, and this prompts the veteran senator to acknowledge on the Senate floor that part of his motive was his grudge against Leffingwell for having made him look bad four years earlier. Cooley also unbinds senators pledged to vote against the nominee. The Majority Leader in turn unbinds his senators, given the blackmail and suicide, and lets Van Ackerman know that he will not be expelled only because doing so would involve tainting Brig Anderson’s legacy. In other words, Van Ackerman is relegated to a sort of domestic exile in the Senate.
From an ethical perspective, the most transparent line is between political deals to get votes and going into a senator’s personal life to force a senator to vote a certain way. The film illustrates that even such a clear ethical line is like a semi-permeable membrane in the political arena. The fact that the sordid variety of political manipulation can be easily done anonymously makes enforcement difficult at best. Even so, at least the punishment for crossing the line can be strengthened such that it may act as more of a deterrent.
A more difficult ethical assessment lies in how the senators should vote on the Senate floor. The Majority Leader, for instance, favors confirmation even as he strongly opposes Sen. Van Ackerman’s use of blackmail to force a vote as soon as possible so the nominee could be confirmed before the news of his past attendance at a communist group on a college campus could be made public. Should the Majority stick by his friend, the sick president, and vote yes, or is not giving Van Ackerman what he wants (i.e., confirmation of Leffingwell) more important? Sen. Lafe Smith, who had been friends with Brig, votes no. The Majority Leader decides that giving the sick president the secretary of state that he wants is more important; after all, the Leader did unbind the senators pledged to vote yes. Sen. Cooley votes no, legitimately out of a philosophical difference he has with Leffingwell on the place of the U.S. in negotiating with the U.S.S.R.
If the ethical denoument makes sense but you still feel that the blackmailer got off easy, I’m with you. Generally speaking, the view that aspiring politicians should expect the “hard knocks” of politics is ubiquitous. “You have to expect that your opponents will go after you,” a veteran politician might say to a first-time campaigner. I question this advice, as it leads to society and its government going light on efforts to “destroy” political opponents by using their personal lives (and respective pasts) against them. It is hard, therefore, to keep “attacks” to the level of policy and office-conduct. Even the common use of words like destroy and attack point to an excessiveness in how political behavior is construed.
The question may therefore be how to raise standards when doing so involves a reconceptualization of politics. That is to say, what we as a people typically take for granted as politics would have to be changed in order that norms and enforcement mechanisms change as well. The strengthened focus on policy alone would be a boon to the viability of any republic. In debates, for example, efforts at a sustained back-and-forth on a given policy often fall to personal attacks with impunity from the moderators. A reconceptualization of politics could make it more costly to a candidate to interlard such attacks rather than concentrate on a sustained line of thought on a given policy domain.
In short, the assumption that politics naturally sinks to its most base level in the political arena can be linked back to how politics itself is understood. After all, it is easy to conclude that politics rules in its own arena and can thus legitimately run its own course, within the law of course. However, politics is that which makes law. Is politics therefore subject ultimately only to itself? If so, then we should expect that anything goes in its own arena. Yet if a moral limit rightfully exists in the human psyche on how far political manipulation should reach, then simply throwing our hands up in a sort of feckless impotence tacitly in favor of the status quo is no answer, for a line must surely be drawn somewhere. If just drawing it is too much for a self-governing people, its republics surely cannot be perpetual.