Cogent political discussion on TV isn’t something that happens very often. It’s certainly not something that happens in a public bathroom at a urinal. That makes a scene in “Gift of the Magi,” episode 6 of season two of Noah Hawley’s Fargo TV series an outlier. Firstly, if you’re not watching the show you’re missing out on some fantastically well-written television. Secondly, the reason this scene stood out, other than being a pivotal moment in the show, is it gets at the heart of what modern politics has become.
The second season of this Coen brothers-produced TV series takes place in 1979 in a small town in Minnesota. State Trooper Lou Solverson, father of first season protagonist Molly Solverson, is pulled away from investigating an escalating mob war to do security for presidential candidate Gov. Ronald Reagan. Over the last couple episodes Lou has been shaken by the amount of violence he’s seen in his local community, and his outlook is only made worse by the fact that his wife is undergoing treatment for cancer. Lou is going though a tough time, so it’s no surprise that he is curious about the actor turned politician after he hears Reagan’s now classic “Shining City on a Hill” stump speech. Several peripheral characters who are in attendance are also visibly moved by the actor’s rhetoric. The power of a well-written speech cannot be underestimated.
Before Reagan hits the road to the next campaign stop he hits the bathroom like any smart traveller. Here’s where The Gipper and the State Trooper cross paths. It should be noted that Reagan is played by national treasure Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame doing a really understated Reagan impression. It’s fantastic. As I assume any politician did with any of-age male in the 70s, Reagan asks Solverson where he served over in Vietnam. Seemingly every other male character in Fargo season two served in Vietnam with a few exceptions. The future president thanks him for his service saying, “Every generation has their time. I remember back in 42 America just joined the war. I was working on Operation Eagle’s Nest for Paramount. We were dropped behind enemy lines. I was trying to rescue Jimmy Whitmore and Lorraine (possibly Ray, I can’t really make out the first name) Day from this SS commando, Bob Stack, on loan from Selznick. That Nazi bastard had us cornered, we were done for, but in the end with a little American ingenuity we managed to… come to think of it I don’t think we made it out of that one. Or did we? Oh shit. I can’t remember, but either way it was a fine picture.” What really makes this is how Reagan sells it to Lou as if it were an actual combat situation he was in. This interaction spotlights the absurdity of politics and how modern politics isn’t about what you’ve actually done, but rather what you think you’ve done and how you can spin that experience or non-experience.
As the pair move to the sink, Solverson stammeringly asks the presidential hopeful, “Governor, I don’t mean to… what we did over there, the war. Yeah, now my wife’s got lymphoma stage three and lately the state of things, well sometimes late at night I wonder if the sickness of this world, if it isn’t inside my wife somehow the cancer… Do you really think we’ll get out of this mess we’re in?” Reagan responds: “Son, there’s not a challenge on God’s earth that can’t be overcome by an American. I truly believe that.” Lou incredulously says, “Yeah, but how?” Reagan looks at the lawman, then at the floor and back to Lou…and walks out of the bathroom.
This scene says so much about what the political process has become, and at this point, was becoming, in a shockingly short amount of time. Regardless of party, when it comes to politicians it’s all spin and platitudes. Reagan certainly doesn’t care that Lou’s home is in the crossfire of a Midwestern mob war any more than when any politician mentions somebody they met at a previous stump speech in the same speech the next state over. Idealistically, we’ve been taught that politicians want to better society. However, when confronted with the specifics of how they’re going to do that, most politicians just walk out of the bathroom like Reagan. It’s interesting, in the course of the conversation between the two men, Ronnie contradicts himself in his story about Operation Eagle’s Nest. He is unsure whether they made it out alive and then, less than a minute later, he goes the Hollywood patriot route and seems to say that because we’re American we’re both super-smart and impervious to harm. The kind of nationalism that Reagan and those after him are selling is snake oil, the type of snake oil that says don’t think too hard about anything, just trust those in power. Always remember that the simple question“But how?” is political kryptonite. More often than not you won’t get a straight answer to that question if you’re lucky to get an answer at all.