“Hate him? My God, how could I hate him? Mothers don’t hate their sons.”
Beth, Ordinary People
Are political people more dysfunctional than the rest of us?
Of course not. But if your primary frame of reference was two productions I recently took in – one on the stage, the other video – then you might be forgiven for answering in the affirmative.
“City of Conversation” opened this past weekend at the Delaware Theatre Company, where it will run through November 13, the latest in that organization’s bristling efforts to bring hot, world-class theatre to Wilmington.
From the Georgetown salon of a Pamela Harriman-esque Washington hostess, “Conversation” is a multi-decade narrative of a family’s multi-generational conflict that revolves around the great lady’s cunning and ardor for the political game.
As with Harriman and other legends of the Georgetown set that ruled capital society from the 50s through the election of Jimmy Carter, Hester Ferris is a devoted liberal Democrat, a convincing caricature of the kind of elitist that so obsessed Richard Nixon, and would certainly never invite him to a dinner party.
Hester is a country girl from Arkansas who ditched her hicky accent and, after what we assume to be a profitable first marriage, formed a romantic domestic partnership with a US senator. She is the insider’s insider who pines for the days when Jack Kennedy sat at the knee of Joe Alsop, absorbing worldly wisdom only the 20007 establishment could bestow. Hester is gobsmacked by the country’s anti-Washington sentiment that first brings Governor Carter to town, and she becomes increasingly bewildered by and hostile to the rise of the Reagan right, and openly nostalgic for the back-room comity that once got deals done on the Hill.
Like so many other capable and intelligent women of her era, Hester had what it took to make it as a player in her own right, but distaff power at that time was mostly only available vicariously, through influence of the men who would take leave of the dinner table to get down to real business over a brandy in the study.
Into her fashionable 1979 living room comes her son Colin and his fiancée Anna, the political polar opposite to Hester but every bit her match in the ambition department. Anna vexes Hester both for her conservative ideas but also, perhaps, because she represents something Hester could never attain.
She is also a reminder that Helen’s son Colin won’t be the power broker she had planned, nor even the top dog in his household.
Colin is smart and self-aware, but he lacks the lust for power firing the engines of both the women in his life. They put their goals above all else, at the cost of the absence of love and wounds that won’t easily heal.
We saw “Conversation” on Friday night, just as FBI email investigation reports were breaking, so it felt that the day would not be complete unless I followed that up by indulging in the cinematographic documentation of the train-wreck that is Anthony Weiner.
Released earlier this year, “Weiner” is one of those movies you can hardly believe is real life.
As with the stellar “Queen of Versailles,” the filmmakers were invited into the most intimate of family and professional settings by vane, self-promotional people completely devoid of modesty. In both cases the camera crews had the ridiculously good fortune to be in place when things in each household went terribly wrong. The real-time capturing of those events is both impossible to look away from but also deeply uncomfortable to witness.
We all know the Weiner story: the mouthy young New York congressman, married to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s closest aide, his career comes to a screeching halt when his illicit online activity becomes known. Ousted from his seat in 2011, he stages an improbable comeback running for New York City mayor two years later, actually taking the lead in early polls.
Unlike Jackie Siegel, the sympathetic heroine of “Versailles,” Weiner is unreflective as the world crashes down around him. And crash down it does, with (surprise!) revelations that his sexually-explicit messaging went far beyond – both in terms of content and timelines – his earlier accounts. The Weiner in this crisis is all raw ego, a narcissist of the likes we increasingly seem to be encountering in public life with the ability only to consider his behavior in terms of his cratering political career, not the family or staff around him.
But what of his wife, Huma Abedin? In many ways, Huma plays a role similar to Jackie’s husband David Siegel, floating quietly in the background, appearing on stage as needed, and leaving you wondering what kind of person would put up with such insanity?
These two are not the most uplifting dramas, with lead characters ranging from coldly ambitious to deeply troubled. But they are compelling, tragic human studies, with lives left shrouded in emotional emptiness when the political music stops.