Judge Maurice Cobbs enjoyed this feature, but he was disappointed that Hickey never showed up.
"You gotta have some Elvis to get elected."—Molly Ivins
"When you looked at the Republicans you saw the scum off the top of business. When you looked at the Democrats you saw the scum off the top of politics. Personally, I prefer business. A businessman will steal from you directly instead of getting the IRS to do it for him. And when Republicans ruin the environment, destroy the supply of affordable housing, and wreck the industrial infrastructure, at least they make a buck off it. The Democrats just do these things for fun."—P.J. O'Rourke
Facts of the Case
In the sixties, back in the days of LBJ, the Democrats had Texas—like much of the South—pretty well sewn up. But these days, as the last couple of elections have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Democrat stuff don't fly deep in the heart of Texas.
How could this have happened? asks documentarian Paul Stekler. How could a region that overwhelmingly supported a controversial president who created a bigger and more costly government while spearheading the struggle to restrain Communism against popular opinion and starting an unpopular war (polarizing the country and deeply dividing Americans along political, social, and moral lines) less than fifty years later throw their support to a controversial president who created a bigger and more costly government while spearheading the struggle to restrain Islamic terrorism against popular opinion and starting an unpopular war (polarizing the country and deeply dividing Americans along political, social, and moral lines)?
It is a mystery, and it's one that Stekler hopes to solve by examining a race for a seat in the Texas State House of Representatives, and, to a lesser degree, the Texas governor's race.
Full disclosure: Judge Maurice Cobbs is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but a registered member of a third party.
To his credit, Paul Stekler abandons the trend in political documentaries toward dishonest, buffoonish Michael Moore–style hyperbole: Rather than dazzling you with baloney, he prefers to just show you what happened. Nevertheless, you get the idea that there's an ulterior motive behind Stekler's probing—he might be honest, but there's little doubt which side he's rooting for. Part of this feeling comes from the premises that he puts forth without validation; for instance, he examines the influx of whites into this particular community as an obvious sign of increased Republican influence, and points to a growing number of minority voters as an indication that the Democrats still have a chance. But does race really make that much of a difference?
The Democrats presented here certainly think so. They never waste a chance to drone on about diversity and the "black and Hispanic vote" and their "historic multicultural Democratic ticket" in the governor's race between wealthy Democratic newcomer Tony Sanchez and incumbent Republican Rick Perry. In fact, they hardly ever seem to shut up about it.
Sanchez is richer than God, but he's an inexperienced campaigner—and it shows. He has one speech, to judge from the footage presented here, and he gives that speech over and over and over and over…and somehow never seems to get any better at it. Nothing very much was said about what that "historic ticket" would actually do should they happen to get elected, and you get the idea that they didn't really feel that they needed to. With all the Hispanics flooding the area, the Democrats are assured victory, right? The voters—even the "multicultural" ones—weren't so sure. Crazy at it may seem, they seemed to like low taxes and less intrusive government, even if it meant that they might have to vote for the white guy and take responsibility for buying their own insurance. And besides, George W. Bush is campaigning for Perry, which is apparently the greatest endorsement since God backed up Moses at the Red Sea.
So I particularly enjoyed seeing the candidates who were running solely on their race get slapped down by their target demographics. The message is clear: You can blather on about diversity all you want, and spend money 'til you're blue in the face, but can you get the job done? When questioned about the Hispanic candidate, Sanchez, one voter pointed out, "That would be my culture, but I wouldn't [vote for him] based on that. It would have to be on the issues." This documentary actually does a good job of puncturing the arrogant assumption that all minorities automatically vote Democratic, but it's a good bet that the people who could benefit the most from this lesson will miss it completely.
But the main event is the down-and-dirty race between Rick Green and Richard Rose. Rose is a 24-year-old Princeton graduate running for his first political office. Green, the two-term incumbent, is a popular Republican candidate who'll be hard to beat. He's a Christian—as he points out again and again—but he apparently missed the parts in the Bible where it says "Thou shalt not use thy office to hawk dietary supplements" and "Thou shalt not become jungled up with con men and shady financial deals."
"For Rose," says Stekler, "the challenge is to prove himself on the issues while attacking Green's ethics, without muddying himself in the process." Proving himself on the issues could be a problem: Rose has a lot of bad ideas. Like Green, Rose talks about being a Christian, but he's got all those screwy socialist ideas. Green is opposed to socialism, but he, too, has got some ethics problems. They're both impossibly handsome—can't decide that way. Considering his own obvious liberal leanings, it's interesting to note the undercurrent of mild contempt that Stekler seems to have for the constituency of the Democratic party: "When your voters are richer, better educated, and have a better understanding of the issues," says Stekler of Republican voters, "you have the advantage." Maybe he's right.
But honestly, do the issues really matter in a political race any more? Considering the amount of time that Stekler actually spends looking at the candidates' stances, I guess not. Granted, this may not be entirely Stekler's fault. Rose keeps talking about free stuff for everybody—without bothering to explain who pays for that free stuff. He's got a lot of fundamentally bad ideas, which most of the general public realizes are bad ideas. But since he justifies his bad ideas with principles that no one could possibly argue with, what is Green supposed to say? "Why, actually, I'm hoping that we can starve as many sick kids to death as possible, thereby reducing the number of uninsured children. And as soon as I leave this debate, I'll be personally dumping twenty tons of highly radioactive waste into the city reservoir." Green's response is just to talk a lot about being a Christian. You have no real idea where he stands on the issues—except that he's definitely not a socialist (Charlton Heston said so). So, ethically challenged though he might be, he must be better than the other guy, right? "I am pretty much a right-wing nut," says Green, winningly, "but I'm not that easily defined." If it had been me, I'd have used that as a campaign slogan. Green instead opts for the almost tongue-in-cheek "Vote Green, like money."
The voters seem to want a reason to vote for Green, but those darn ethical problems—"an embarrassment to the district," according to one voter—keep getting in the way. And Rose is a far more active campaigner than Green, taking the time to go doorstep to doorstep, and of course never missing an opportunity to take jabs at Green's less than stellar ethics record. My personal favorite moment was the debate in which, when asked about Green's legal problems, Rose replied, with a face as innocent as could be, "The charges against my opponent are a criminal matter. I'd rather stay focused on the issues." Priceless.
By the night of the election, no goodwill existed between these candidates. It's a showcase of snide, behind-his-back comments and fuming anger, and even a bit of sour grapes come the election results—which, of course, come down to a matter of only a few hundred votes. Will Rick Green triumph, despite his ethical problems? Or will Patrick Rose manage to do the unthinkable and sweep the district out of Republican hands?
Some special features are provided, although they are the skimpiest sort—a too-brief interview with Paul Stekler tacked onto the end of the main feature and a list of P.O.V. resources at PBS.com. Phooey. Still, I enjoyed Last Man Standing a great deal—mostly because it was nowhere near as sensationalistic or full of baloney as Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Hunting of the President. What Stekler has done here is picked a compelling race between two distinct personalities and let the chips fall where they may. There's no agenda or ulterior motive. Which probably explains why this documentary isn't as well-known as it ought to be—as Little Orphan Annie once sagely noted, "People prefer fireworks to facts." In any case, Last Man Standing is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a good documentary, or just still has faith in the electoral process.
"The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can't get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods."—H.L. Mencken.
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