By David Templeton
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling discussion of life and popular culture.
I DON’T KNOW if I should even mention this,” mentions Erik Tarloff, as the doors of our elevator bump shut and we plunge down to the E level parking lot of this massive San Francisco movie theater.
Somewhere above us, we just saw a matinee of Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon’s Election, a sly and funny, seriously wicked satire about self-obsessed, power-hungry high schoolers boldly battling for the title of student body president.
“Um, I was student body president of my high school,” Tarloff finally confesses, displaying a slightly sheepish grin. “In fact, I won two years in a row.”
But in spite of those early political successes, the young Tarloff soon abandoned politics. Instead, he chose television for a career, specifically sitcoms, going on to script nearly a hundred episodes for some of TV’s most popular programs, including M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show.
These days, however, Tarloff is making a new name for himself as a novelist. And what is the subject of his brilliant, buzz-making first effort?
Face Time (Crown; $23) is the tragicomic tale of a presidential speechwriter who discovers that his girlfriend, a staff member in the White House office of social affairs, has been gleefully boinking the boss, who just happens to be the president of the United States. Ironically, this sleeping arrangement turns out to be good for the careers of both the straying girlfriend and our protagonist, for in the upside-down world of Washington, success is not measured in how much good the players can accomplish, but in how close to the power they can get.
In this case, it’s pretty darn close.
Tarloff was granted a close-up peek at such power plays while living in D.C. in the early ’90s (his wife, Laura, held a position in the first Clinton administration) and serving as a pro-bono “script doctor” on several of the more humorous speeches of President Clinton, the first lady, and others.
Speaking of speeches (and back to the movie), “How do you rate the campaign speeches delivered by the candidates?” I ask, after settling in at Tarloff’s home in the Berkeley hills.
“I laughed at the sort of fatuous substancelessness, the quasi-eloquence of the campaign speeches,” he replies. “It was a pretty good send-up of what most of these student council speeches are.”
Though he enjoyed Election, Tarloff found the movie to be gratuitously cruel–“Everybody in it was like a butterfly impotently beating its wings while pinned to a page,” he says–even as it accurately portrayed the blind ambition that fuels the political engine.
“Whether you’re in high school, in college, or out in the great big world,” he remarks, “the people who reach the top are those who are absolutely fixated on reaching the top. Without that hunger it’s unlikely that you’d get anywhere. Unfortunately, I think that level of ambition tends to put all human relationships on the back burner.
“And yet, in another sense, in politics, relationships are everything,” Tarloff says. “It’s all about who you know. In the town of Washington, if the president knows your name, it’s a big, big deal. An invitation to the White House is coin of the realm.
“I think that every president I’ve ever read about, even including Abraham Lincoln, was motivated primarily by ambition. On the surface, that sounds bad. But the question then is ‘What did they do next?’ Maybe you’re an ambitious power-seeker, but if you then free the slaves or keep the Union together, as Lincoln did, isn’t that a better use of your power than perpetrating the Watergate breakdown, as Nixon did, or bankrupting the country, as Reagan did?”
“So the moral of this story,” I suggest, “is that you can be a power-hungry weasel and still do good things?”
“Of course. You can accomplish good deeds and yet still have feet of clay,” he replies. “Who cares, right? On the other hand, at what point does one care? At what point does the personal become as important as the political?
“I could make the case, though I don’t like to, that Clinton is probably our best president since Truman. Yet his flaws are so great that they’ve probably done such damage to the dignity of the office that his technical accomplishments are almost meaningless.
“As they say, only history will tell.”
From the May 13-19, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.