I recently wrote a play about an American politician, a woman, on the eve of her being elected president. No surprise, the central character is based on Hillary Rodham Clinton. No surprise, then, that I viewed the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate as if it were the opening scene of a theatrical drama.
I am new to playwrighting, though not at all new to politics. I am an independent and a progressive and, together with independents across the political spectrum, I have done battle with the partisans and the ideologues to create a new kind of political culture. In this evolving humanistic "play," the action is driven by the needs of ordinary people, not the needs of the political parties.
Like many a mainstay in American theatre, the CNN debate was a family drama. Like A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, or Streetcar Named Desire, there is conflict from the start among the members of the family. A pending inheritance, a decline in social status, a shameful secret-somehow the family is being tested by certain social and psychological pressures.
In the CNN debate, or Scene One of this presidential play, we meet the family. Hillary is the matriarch, the center of the family's world. She is a polarizing figure in the neighborhood, feared and revered, but she has made a success of her life. She defines the universe within which the family revolves. There is Uncle Bernie, the socialist, the outspoken, uncompromising renegade who rebels against Mother Hillary and all she represents, while lovingly protecting her. "The American people are sick of hearing about your damn emails!" he exclaims, as she beams. This, after she had finished pounding him on gun control, from the left, and socialism, from the right. Never mind, though. It's all in the family.
Every family drama has its minor characters through whom the lesser conflicts and themes play out. There is Jim, the down to earth brother, back from the war, who has seen unspeakable things. There is the young nephew, Martin, handsome, earnest, articulate, and on the make. There is the kindly distant cousin, Lincoln, though no one can quite remember how he is actually related.
The main action revolves around Mother and Uncle, as it is their struggle which determines the family's fortunes. He is a crusader against the unstoppable greed of capitalism. He is passionate and angry for the working man and for the planet. But, ever the nimble triangulator, she is, too. She agrees with Uncle Bernie, to a point. "We have to save capitalism from itself!" she proclaims. Right at this moment, giving in to my playwright side, I prayed that Bernie would deliver this line: "No, Hillary, we have to save the Democratic Party from itself!" Sadly, he didn't.
If Bernie had uttered those words, it would have been what theatre people call the Big Reveal, the family secret that threatens to tear the family apart. What is that secret? That in the context of a widening wealth gap, a simmering racial divide and a level of international instability unimaginable just a decade ago, the Democratic Party has managed to produce only an old-style socialist and a hawkish neo-liberal. The party-the family-must choose between the two. Since the family believes that Uncle Bernie cannot win, but Mother Hillary can, the family will settle its scores on that basis. Is there room for a new independent form of progressivism, one that seeks to take the political process itself beyond partisan warfare? No. The family cannot afford to let such an independent movement blossom.
The curtain had barely touched down on Tuesday night when the ever-influential New York Times critics were declaring Hillary the winner of the debate, both in editorials and in the "news" section. Bernie may have gotten rave reviews on Facebook, and even Al Hunt of Bloomberg News pointed out that Bernie did quite well, even if he wasn't presidential. That's the family rap on Uncle Bernie after all. He's smart, he's tough, he cares, but he doesn't look good in a suit. Mother Hillary, as at home with the Joint Chiefs as with her one-year-old granddaughter, had prevailed. She calmed fears in the extended family that Brother Joe might have to make an appearance to save the day. No need now, the family is intact. Brother Joe can remain an offstage voice.
Ironically, it's Bernie's ardent anti-capitalist performance (no less real for being a performance!) that helps Hillary maintain her hold. He defines a certain kind of progressivism, and she snuggles up to it, just enough to get the glow. The militant anti-corporate rank and file who are pushing Bernie to the top of some polls will still vote for him. But perhaps they are also readying themselves for Bernie's rapprochement with Hillary. After all, Bernie already dramatically pre-figured it in Scene One.
Some shameless self-promotion. In my play, which is not a family drama but is a musical, the "Hillary" character gets the nomination and is poised to break the glass ceiling. But, there's a twist that might take her through the looking glass instead. Votes! opens at the Castillo Theatre in New York City on March 4th, the week of Super Tuesday. I hope you'll come.