‘What would Howard Beale say?”
The thought crosses our minds almost daily in reflecting on an American presidential primary season whose air of discontent conjures up the fictional news anchor in the 1976 Academy Award-winning film “Network.” It was Howard Beale, portrayed by the late Peter Finch, who captured the frustration of the nation in yelling repeatedly on air, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The aging, bitter newsman was about to be fired when he launched his tirade, and soon found himself the most popular man in America.
But that was fiction.
Watching Donald Trump ride a wave of middle-America revulsion with the large but bland Republican choice of candidates, combined with more than seven years of frustration with a Democratic White House, we see a wild and widespread enthusiasm for a man who is unpolished, unfiltered, and at times, it seems, untethered. The more outspoken and politically incorrect he is, the more the masses seem to like it. Less important than what Trump has to say is how he says it — with contempt for the formulaic ways of running a national political campaign. While others favor polling, he prefers preening.
On the Democratic side, the contrast is not as dramatic but it is clear that Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old Brooklyn native with a socialist message, is making Hillary Clinton nervous. He is attracting large enthusiastic crowds, including plenty of young people. It’s reminiscent of the “Get Clean For Gene” enthusiasm among scrappy college students who campaigned for the scholarly Eugene McCarthy in the tumultuous 1968 Democratic primaries.
Clinton has the funds, the pols, the polling numbers and the resume. But for now she seems to be running a campaign premised on entitlement.
We are, of course, early in the incredibly long race to the White House, with many surprises in store. And early primary states often are the favored stomping grounds for politicians with the shrillest voices.
But what’s clear already is that there is anger and frustration among the electorate, fueled by a sense of helplessness that gets translated into loud support for candidates perceived of as on the fringe. It’s as if large numbers of Americans are saying “pay attention to me, to my situation, to my needs.”
Let’s see who’s listening.