Anyone who has as much respect and appreciation for the niceties of the English language as Gore Vidal has will realize, if perhaps only after the final curtain has fallen on The Best Man, that the title is not simply ironic but prognostic: the best man, whoever he may be, cannot be declared if the fight and choice is between just two candidates. The ostensibly “better” one of them might win, but not, grammatically speaking, the “best.” Now, the man whom Vidal favors—and expects the audience of his political comedy The Best Man to root for in the play’s fictional contest for Presidential nomination—is not just a man of his word, he is a man who uses each word properly. The political banter is no mere wordplay: in The Best Man, grammar and morals are one.
Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously. He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.
Russell, proper right down to that noun, is proud to have the last name of a noted philosopher; and, as a thinker, it strikes him as morally wrong to allow others to put words in his mouth. He would rather write his own speeches—“It’s a shameful business, speech by committee,” he declares—but has come to terms with the fact that his busy schedule dictates otherwise. What he will not brook, though, is ungrammatical speech. “Please tell the writers again that the word ‘alternative’ is always singular. There is only one alternative per situation.”
In the dramatic situation of The Best Man, “alternative” is clearly the wrong word, just as choosing the supposedly lesser evil is the wrong approach to casting votes. Like the dilemma of the two-party system, the either-or decision to which the unquestioning responder is restricted calls for something better: the rejection of the supposed choice as spurious and misleadingly restrictive.
“May the best man win!” is the choice platitude of Russell’s opponent, Joseph Cantwell, whose last name, more than the name of Russell, suggests that the playwright cares less about his characters than about the philosophies for which he makes them stand and fall: they are metaphors for what politics can reduce us to when all we care about is making a name for ourselves. Both Russell and Cantwell are stand-ins for the figures we imagine—hope and fear—politicians to be; beyond that, they aren’t at all. “A candidate should not mean but be,” the literary playwright has Russell quip; as a character, Russell is not meant to be anything other than the mouthpiece Vidal means him to be in this verbal play of true versus nominal values.
Asked whether he thought that “a president ought to ignore what people want,” Russell replies “If the people want the wrong thing, [. . .] then I think a president should ignore their opinion and try to convince them that his way is the right way.” How to do right and what is “right” are the questions The Best Man aims at encouraging us to ponder. Russell answers by taking his opponent by his clichéd expression and extricating himself from the either-or bind that threatens to turn him into a man no better than Cantwell.
Vidal, too, attempts a way out here, a synthesis of satire and sentimentality, cynicism and hopefulness, as he demonstrates Russell to be the “best” man, after all, by proving him to be the better one. The solution is as noble as it is grammatical—but it is rather too neat and ponderous, especially since the alternative “message” Vidal communicates is more tired than the dirty politics from which he derives a modicum of dramatic tension.
“And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons,” Russell and Vidal tell reporters and audiences early on:
Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.
Who, today, would buy that little nugget of shopworn sentiment?
Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were. Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over. Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.
Sizing up his competition, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope once interrupted one of his narratives by attempting witty remarks about Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, labeling the latter “Mr. Popular Sentiment” and the former “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.” With his showdown between “Popular” Cantwell and “Anticant” Russell, Vidal demonstrates that wanting to be both satirical and sentimental means doing justice to neither; the sentiment feels calculated, the wit pointless. In the noble experiment of making dirty politics cleaner, everything comes out rather muddy in the wash.