George Clooney View of Integrity in Politics is Not Necessarily True

This piece originally appeared on Citizen Think.

“You broke the first rule of politics. You can bankrupt a nation, you can start unnecessary wars, but you don’t fuck the intern,” Steven shouts. It’s the emotional crescendo of Ides of March, last spring’s political thriller directed by George Clooney. Steven (played by Ryan Gosling) is confronting Mike Morris (played by Clooney himself), the progressive dreamboat of a presidential candidate who has, in fact, just screwed an intern. In the process, Morris has set off a tragic series of choices, disillusioning Steven and nearly ruining his own candidacy.

In the denouement that follows, we return to the campaign trail and watch Morris give his stump speech. He describes a country dedicated to equality and to clean energy, a country where all can marry and each pays his fair share. It’s the kind of stump speech we dream of in real life – the kind of speech we heard from President Obama on the campaign trail. But all of a sudden, Morris’s speech – the same speech which we’d heard and cheered earlier in the film – falls flat. Why? Mike’s policy prescriptions are no less compelling, his voice is still perfectly pitched. He still sounds every inch the president. Indeed, the crowd watching him within the film cheers loudly. But not us, not the actual audience in the theater. We know now that he’s just like all the other politicians. Now that we know the real man, the philanderer and liar, his arguments sound hollow. He’s just another weak-willed politician, not the idealistic public persona introduced earlier in the film.

Between Ides of March and Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney is positioning himself as a political commentator with broad appeal. The film elides the relationship between what a politician says, how he says it, and the credence we lend his words. It’s a point worth considering, but I am not sure that Clooney’s implicit argument – that personal integrity should be the cornerstone of our democratic politics – is a good one. Over the next few posts, I’ll explore the politics of integrity. To begin, a bit of intellectual framework:

The thesis that Clooney advances is not original. Indeed Aristotle, one of the earliest and finest political commentators of our tradition illustrated the same basic point 2500 years ago in his Rhetorics. As Aristotle points out, all speeches have three elements: the logos (the reason and logic of the argument), the pathos (the emotional appeal of the language) and the ethos (the credit we give to the speaker himself). Candidate Morris is still strong on logos and pathos, but he’s lost his ethos, thrown it away for a young, cute blonde.

It is important to note that Aristotle’s Rhetorics is descriptive, not normative; he was pointing out the power of ethos, not promoting or defending it. Indeed, as a man committed to rational inquiry, I believe he might have been worried by the centrality of ethos in our political debate. Candidate Morris demonstrated a willingness to abuse his power, reasonable grounds for caution. But should personal integrity always be a litmus test for political office? I believe that such a stance may limit the capacity of our democratic system to put the best candidates into office. I will discuss this in the posts to come.

Photo Credit: csztova