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TV and/or Politics

By Steve Ramos · February 11th, 2004 · Arts Beat

If you take actor/director Robert Redford at his word, at least by what he told reporters at the recent edition of his Sundance Film Festival, he'll soon begin work on the long-planned sequel to his 1972 political satire, The Candidate.

Before Redford's new candidate hits theaters, Robert Altman's razor-sharp, slyly comical miniseries Tanner '88 returns to cable TV. Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) is a make-believe Michigan congressman who returns from a political hiatus to seek the Democratic presidential nomination against Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt, Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart.

Tanner might be a character brought to life by Altman and screenwriter Garry Trudeau, but the landscape of the 1988 presidential campaign is real. Murphy is dead-on as the idealistic Tanner. Pamela Reed crackles with intensity as his campaign manager, T.J. Cavanaugh. Cynthia Nixon, best known for her current role on Sex and the City, is all bounce and optimism as Tanner's 19-year-old daughter, who takes time off from college to help in the campaign.

That the faux reality of Tanner '88 so closely resembles the craziness of Campaign '04 is eerie. Tanner '88 airs at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays on the Sundance Channel through April 13, but it's frequently impossible to distinguish it from Democratic presidential candidate campaign reports on C-SPAN.

Here's what President Bush told reporter Tim Russert during his unusual appearance on Meet the Press Feb.

8: "I'm a war President. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind."

Murphy -- or is it Tanner? -- speaks about "pre-emptive dirt digging" and how a candidate has to be prepared for all the skeletons to fall out of the closet. In faux interview footage from a Tanner '88 episode, discussing his civil disobedience arrest at a 1988 Boycott South Africa protest, Tanner downplays the "televised" event.

"Being arrested for an ideal says 'loser,' " Tanner says to the camera. "Better to be busted on a few DUIs like Bush. That's just cars and beer. That says macho. That's America."

Despite its disclaimer as a work of fiction, Tanner '88 shares common ground with D.J. Pennebaker's documentary The War Room, about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for President. Tanner '88 looks and feels real, which says something about politics then and now.

Author Charles Lewis is on talk shows promoting his book, The Buying of the President 2004: How the Candidates -- Including Bush -- Buy Their Way Into the White House.

What would Tanner say about the influence of special interests, pharmaceutical firms and biotech companies? Look closely and you'll see that Jack Tanner is a combination of John Edwards and John Kerry. Actually, he looks like one of the Bushes, and I imagine Trudeau naming him Jarrod Bush, Governor of Arizona, if he were to write the miniseries today.

The best moment, a flash of honesty seldom seen in politics, occurs in the debut episode, "The Dark Horse," when a reporter asks Tanner, "Do you feel smarter than some of those running for President?" Tanner answers with a matter-of-fact "Yes."

A test ad has Tanner shoveling snow outside his Michigan home, wearing a cardigan sweater. In recent campaign stops, Democratic candidate General Wesley Clark wears a sweater no different than Tanner's.

A USA Today reporter phones Tanner to ask, "If you were a fruit or a vegetable, which one would you be?"

Speaking to his campaign staff, Tanner says; "We are the envy of the world because throughout our history we have always maintained the belief we can do better. We've insisted that we can do better!"

Or was that Sen. John Edwards speaking?

Sen. John Kerry looks to victories in Virginia and Tennessee this week to continue his victory momentum.

In the latest reports, Screaming Howard Dean vows he'll remain in the race even if he loses the Wisconsin primary next week. If Dean withdraws, at least he'll have the time to stay home and watch Tanner '88.

Who is Jack Tanner? He's any of the Democratic candidates running today.



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