As much as we hate to admit it, we rarely make our selection of a presidential candidate based on facts and logic. I’m as guilty as anyone. I first supported Howard Dean not because I agreed with everything he stood for; I didn’t even know everything he stood for. I liked him because thirty-seven years ago I knew his brother, and because he signed the law in Vermont legalizing civil unions. Those were two intensely personal things for me; Charley Dean showed me kindness at a time of intense personal trauma, and Howard Dean gave me and other gay people the first state-sanctioned recognition that we were fundamentally equal in the eyes of the law. Both of those events have little or no bearing on the facts or logic of choosing a chief executive of a government. But Howard Dean felt like the right man at the time, and as I got to know his views of how the government should be run, I felt he was the right man for the job. But when he lost the fight for the nomination, I had to choose again.
This is where my instincts as a writer and a student of theatre come in. I have spent most of my life learning to read people – to watch and listen to them and get a feel for what they have to offer. I’ve sat in on countless auditions as an actor, a director, and a playwright, and I’ve learned what to look for in finding the right person to fit the role and to look for the signs that the person on stage can do more than just learn the lines and know where to stand. And most of the times I can tell when an actor will be able to not just do the part but become the messenger for the playwright; the actor will go beyond just what’s called for and really make the play come alive. It isn’t just words or actions. I can’t tell you how it happens; I just know it when I see it.
So this campaign has been one long audition. I’ve seen the candidates on the stump – one in real life – and I’ve looked at their headshots and résumés. I tried to objectively look at what they have to say and how they say it. Forget the issues for the moment – no one really believes that a candidate can do all they promise or threaten to do. It came down – as it always does – to a matter of trusting my instincts in knowing who is going to be not just the best person to do the job, but who I have faith in that he will do the job with the best interests of the country – not just the people who voted for him – in mind.
George W. Bush had a terrible audition. I didn’t believe him when he was trying out for the part four years ago. I can’t point to anything specific; it’s just a director’s instinct that he was not right for the part, and he came off as a phony. (In his case he was, as they used to tell terrible actors, “too short for radio.”) His grasp of the role was superficial, his blocking instincts (as in where to move or stand) were all tortured, and forget about being able to “speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” Hamlet he ain’t. It was like casting Pauly Shore as King Lear. And in spite of having an amazing assortment of prompters and understudies, he hasn’t been able to get off book, work with the rest of the cast, or grow in the part. He has clunked his way through it without hearing what is taking place on the stage, playing his act as a solo in the largest ensemble piece out there. We are way beyond final dress rehearsal, and this is Broadway, baby.
John Kerry’s audition has been a lot better – at least he seems to have studied the part and read not just the play but done a lot of dramaturgical study as well. He understands the depth of the role, and he also knows that he’s going to have to rely not just on himself but on the rest of the cast and crew – on stage as well as off – to make the magic happen.
That’s all well and good, but life is not a play and the president is not just an actor creating a role. We have stark realities facing us. The president is the only elected official who actually does have the power of life and death over us, whether it’s by taking us to war or choosing the men and women who will sit in judgment on us in the courts of law. And in that capacity George W. Bush has proven that he is neither up to the part or worthy of getting his option picked up for the long run.
Can John Kerry do it? It certainly seems so. What he may lack in stage presence he makes up for in the feeling of genuineness. There is no artifice in how he comes across, no sense of deviance. There is depth to him. Mr. Bush is shallow by comparison. Many of his supporters say they know what Mr. Bush stands for, and yes, it’s obvious he feels strongly about many things. But you also get the sense that this solidity is like a sheen of oil floating on water; an acre wide and an atom deep, and beneath that surface there is nothing he really cares about more than himself.
One of the great strengths of this country is that we have survived many tests and traumas and emerged battered but intact and able to restore ourselves. The Civil War, the World Wars, the Great Depression, assassinations, resignations, impeachments, and countless other things that have threatened us. But what I love about theatre – the fact that it is live and no two performances are ever alike – applies to this country as well. The leads may change and they may really blow their part, but the show must go on. It’s time to fire the understudy and bring on a man with both talent and ability.
Let’s make it a good show, folks. The whole world is watching.