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“Conservatives are going up. Women are going up. Maybe Phyllis Schlafly will vote for him,” says T.J. Cavanaugh, the campaign manager for the doomed Democratic candidate in the classic HBO series, Tanner ’88. Directed by Robert Altman, who considered the show his masterpiece, and scripted by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, Tanner ’88 was a landmark mockumentary, shot concurrently with that year’s actual Democratic primary, and featuring numerous cameos from real-life Washington pols.
Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) is an unrepentant liberal—”Watergate, triumph of the system!”—who has been retired from politics for 12 years. He decides to run in 1988, in part, because he considers the rest of the Democratic field, Gary Hart excepted, to be weenies. (In the first episode alone, there are two swipes made at Joe Biden.) Tanner is, in every sense, a fictional candidate—a man who actually says what he thinks, to his own detriment. Even more inspiring, Tanner refuses to disguise his contempt for the inanity and greed of the modern political process—shades of what some people saw in the 2000 version of John McCain. Eventually, Tanner is squeezed out by the two-way battle between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, but not before teasing us with a taste of what a totally honest presidential candidate might look like. (“For real,” is his slogan)
As I pulled the lever this morning I thought of the lyrics to Tanner ‘88‘s insanely catchy theme song: “Exercise your right to vote/Choose the one you like the most.” His slogan notwithstanding, it’s a shame Tanner isn’t real.—Benjamin Strong