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A Woman’s Place is in the House (And Senate!)

by on June 18, 2019

“Knock Down the House,” a new Netflix documentary about four female challengers who ran for congress in 2018, won two audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival. While the viewer senses that the director really wanted to profile Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), three other candidates were eventually included in this project. They are Cori Bush of Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. These women are courageous and determined, but they lack the star power that saturates the screen when Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) appears.

The real value of this film is that it provides the most serious and sustained look at AOC that the American people have had to date. Why does this matter?  The Right has sought to demonize the congresswoman as both unintelligent and the political flavor of the month, simply a flash in the pan. No matter how one feels about her politics, it is soon clear that both charges are false.  As a former waitress and bartender, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was trained in the most unforgiving school of human relations that America offers.  She is nimble, quick on her feet and capable of forging a personal connection in seconds. Like the former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, she can greet voters in a multitude of languages, the hallmark of a master politician.

We often lament that fact that so many great potential leaders, female and male, want nothing to do with American politics. This film offers painful reminders of why this is so. In New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and other places where the pale shadows of once powerful political machines still exist, the politicos often attempt to knock reform candidates off the ballot by challenging the signatures on their nominating petitions.  As a practical matter, this means that the low number of signatures required by laws for ballot access are meaningless. To survive, the smart insurgent needs perhaps four or five times the number than the law requires. 

What could be worse than having to ask total strangers for money?  Nevada congressional candidate Amy Vilela finds the process so painful, that a member of her staff sits in as Vilela dials for dollars offering encouragement.  Years from now, when it’s really possible to write a thoughtful history of the Internet, we may decide that the digital world’s greatest gift has been to encourage a broader range of Americans to contribute to campaigns and participate in politics.  Have any successful political campaigns been funded solely through crowdsourcing?  Somewhere, there is a librarian who knows.

The film also follows gutsy West Virginian Paula Jean Swearengin, who had the courage to challenge fellow Democrat Joe Manchin for his seat in the U.S. Senate. At the very least, she deserves to be the focus of her own documentary. Swearengin did her best to make the case that large portions of the state have been despoiled by mountaintop removal mining, which has poisoned the rivers and left the land looking as though a war had been fought there. Swearengin spoke as loudly as she could, but few of her fellow citizens were ready to listen.

To better understand American politics both as it was—-and is still practiced today, I suggest that librarians consult two classic films and one relatively recent documentary.  To see what seeking public office was like when television was in its infancy and the Internet was unknown, there is no finer film than John Ford’s 1958 classic, “The Last Hurrah.”  This, in turn, was based on a great novel, Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 work of the same name. Spencer Tracy creates an unforgettable portrait of as the mayor of major New England city (Boston) seeking to win a fifth and final term in office at the age of72. Tracy’s character was based on a real Boston Mayor, James Michael Curley, who served time in prison and was known as “The Rascal King.”

By 1972, television had totally reshaped the process of campaigning for a major political office in the U.S. These realities are captured and displayed in the sly, knowing political comedy, “The Candidate,” which starred Robert Redford in the title role.  Redford’s character was loosely based on John Tunney, who served one term as a U.S. Senator from California in the 1970s.

For a great documentary on our electoral politics see “The War Room,” a 1993 film which brilliantly captures the wild ride that was Bill Clinton’s first campaign for the presidency.  Directed by Chris Hegedus and the legendary D.A. Pennebaker, the film  made stars of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. It also illustrates how many political campaigns in the U.S. are waged today.