Hathaway meets with President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) and his adviser, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott). The president is a quirky fellow who is always either asking people if they want to eat something, ordering food, or is eating himself. He appears to be complimentary in a folksy and friendly way, but many times his engaging manner is just a diversion to put his opponents at ease while he undermines them. Evans praises Hathaway for his heroism, but then says he can’t give him the vice-presidency because he actually didn’t save the woman. Kermit says it looks like he let the woman die. The president and Kermit appear cold in their assessment of Hathaway, who looks like a decent man who Evans unfairly dismissed from consideration. We have a scene between Hathaway and his wife, Fiona (Kristen Shaw), which demonstrates that the movie is not just a feminist manifesto. Yes, Fiona does not play the role of the smiling, supportive wife. But, she is overcompensating in an almost too masculine way by being brutal as she questions her husband’s masculinity in not being more aggressive in trying to claim his right to the vice-presidency. She tells him not to act like a little girl, which shows Fiona stereotyping her own gender as fearful. She says he needs to grow a pair of “balls,” and might as well bend over, since he was “screwed.” Her recounting of their plans for success reveals a bit of a Lady MacBeth personality.
As the president confers with his staff, he shows that he has his own agenda where he wants a vice-president who will continue his policies. He doesn’t want someone who is ambitious and will try to overshadow Evans as his presidency winds down. He chooses Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Kermit questions her ability to be loyal, since she switched from being a Republican to being a Democrat, but Evans is not dissuaded. The idea of loyalty comes up several times in the movie, and Hanson seems the better person for switching parties because her loyalty to principles is more important than fidelity to a political party. She says her party has strayed from its original principles that freed slaves and gained the right to vote for women. Her father, Oscar Billings (Philip Baker Hall), a former governor, is a Republican, but he does not follow a straight party line. He hates the press, as do many current Republicans for slanted reporting, but also believes in the separation of church and state, and says that schools are there to teach, “not to preach.”
Runyon promises to have Democrats represented on his committee, so a Democrat from Delaware named Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) asks Runyon to be part of the review process. At first Webster just wants the exposure, since he is ambitious, and says he is one hundred percent objective. Runyon says constituents want him for his subjectivity. When Webster again approaches Runyon he says he believes Hanson is not right for the position, also thinks Hathaway the better choice, and promises discretion in the committee’s dealings. There is a meeting with others, including Hathaway, who appears to be a gentler conspirator when it comes to the tactics Runyon wants to employ. Runyon again references Hanson’s appearance, calling her a “looker,” and she has the advantage of being a governor’s daughter. The fact that she was once a Republican makes her look not too liberal. He says they have to defeat her by depicting her as being the wrong person. They will have to “destroy” her. One man there says, in a brutally misogynistic way, that they have to “gut the bitch.” Runyon says that they should show her to be as ruthless as a man, which ironically criticizes males, but also shows that women acting in the same arena as men have difficulty being accepted.
Webster is invited to the White House by the president who wants to persuade him, as a member of the Democratic Party, to not break ranks on Hanson’s nomination. Before Evans shows up, we can plainly see on Webster’s face that he enjoys being in the president’s home. He wraps his arms around himself, imitating the portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which communicates his own ambitions to possibly live at this residence. The president enters, again offering some food to ease his way into getting what he wants. It is interesting that he brings a shark steak sandwich, which possibly implies you have to be a predator to survive playing big stakes politics. Webster says he must follow his heart and that he can’t vote for Hanson just because she is a woman. A reasonable statement, but it also follows that one shouldn’t vote against a person just because she is a woman. The real question is whether Hanson is an excellent candidate whose qualities should not be dismissed for being a female. The president again seems to admire Webster for taking a stand, but undermines that praise by saying the congressman will feel good even though his position will destroy his political career. Evans sarcastically says you have to follow one's heart, because the heart is “never wrong,” the absolutist statement actually implying that sometimes it is. Yet, those on both sides announce that they are acting out of some higher good, which is, in a sense, following one’s heart. What we discover is that some justify twisted means to reach their ends.
We know that there must be a background investigation of Hanson. It is here where the mystery aspect of the movie comes into play, along with its associated red herrings to lead the audience astray. Agent Paige Willomina (Kathryn Morris) meets with Governor Hathaway. One should ask why? He admits that he doesn’t know Hanson, after deceptively acting like he knows what an admirable person she is (don’t forget he was in on the Hanson attack meeting with Runyon, so his shiny reputation has already been tarnished). Or, is he being checked out as the possible replacement for Hanson by the president? To add to his diminishment, Hathaway asks Willomina if his “girl” (that condescending word again) offered her some coffee. Willomina picks up on the negative term, saying, yes she met his “girl.” Like the president, Willomina disarms the person she encounters by acting as if she is praising him. She talks about Hathaway’s heroics, then wonders why he was in the crabbing section of the waters when he was bass fishing. She assumed given his expensive fishing equipment he fished a great deal, but he seems to be backpedaling, saying he would like to fish more, but doesn’t have the time.
After the dinner, the president and Hanson walk on the White House lawn in private as they share cigars, symbolic of accepting a woman on equal footing with a man. Evans says he would like to know, off the record, what really happened in college. Hanson admits that she was lonely in college and was willing to be recruited by the sorority. The initiation was to have sex with two frat brothers. She at first refused, but after some beers thought if men were supposed to have a sexual ritual to join a fraternity, why not the same for a woman. But, when she got there, she didn’t go through with it, and the naked woman in the photos couldn’t be her because she has a large birthmark on her thigh which was absent on the female in the pictures. Webster gave a copy of the same letter that he gave to Hanson to Evans. It contains a statement from a male who was there on the night of the sexual encounter which states that Hanson was not the woman involved. The president says that Webster may not know his right from his left (referring to political party allegiance), but he knows right from wrong, which again supports the film’s plea for allegiance to ideals that transcend party lines. Evans wants Hanson to use the evidence to refute Runyon’s allegations. But, Hanson continues to refuse to address the claims. She says that if it is okay for her to answer the questions of her sexual past, then it makes it okay for them to have raised the issue in the first place, and that would justify the double standard. It would be easier to get out of the situation if she refuted their claims, but she says that “Principles only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient.” One could argue that to really push the argument for obliteration of the double standard, the film could have made the allegations true and held that her past did not disqualify her from being vice president even in the audience’s mind.
Since Hanson will not prove publicly that the sex story was not true, Evans addresses a joint session of Congress. He knows that Runyon has the same letter as he does, and is thus, being deceitful. Runyon may be thinking that he is adhering to his principles, but the bad guys here are those whose ends do not justify their nasty means. Evans publicly calls out Runyon, who walks out, saying “have you no decency,” which was the accusation made against Joe McCarthy. The president says (and he could be addressing our situation today) that Congress was a traitor (disloyalty?) to truth, and allowed the possibility of making it difficult to “separate the demagogue from the truly inspired.” Runyon had said that Hanson did not show greatness. Evans now quotes Napoleon who said that “to get power you need to display absolute pettiness; to exercise power, you need to show true greatness.” He says that Hanson asked that her name be withdrawn, “not because she isn’t great, but because she isn’t petty.” He goes on to say that greatness sometimes “comes in the form of sacrifice.” That sacrifice is what Hanson is willing to endure. He says that there is no ego or hate in her, as opposed to those who would try to bring her down, and Evans can’t accept her withdrawal. He says nothing can stop an idea whose time has come, and it is time for a woman to reside in the executive branch of the the government. He says he should have exerted his will before, but now he asks for a roll call vote to confirm his nominee, whose acceptance is no longer in doubt.
The next film is Rashomon.