Paul Newman Shows Us the Way Forward

↑ Newman at a rally for Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

He was a handsome movie star and incredibly likable—but there was something more to his appeal, something we should remember.

Paul Newman never wavered in his commitment to progressive causes. He supported the civil-rights movement from the beginning, participated in sit-ins and demonstrations, and took part in the March on Washington. He opposed the War in Vietnam.

For all this, Newman was placed nineteenth on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Newman claimed it was his greatest accomplishment.

When Paul Newman died, it felt like we lost the last universally loved human being. He was adored by all (Richard M. Nixon and William F. Buckley excluded), and his death seemed to coincide with America slipping into a seemingly endless abyss of extreme divisiveness.

Why was he so loved? He was a handsome movie star and incredibly likable—but there was something more to his appeal, something we should remember here in the 21st century, when it’s so easy to fall into despair.

I recently re-watched The Sting. There’s a scene where Hooker (Redford) wonders whether he and Gondorf (Newman) have really hoodwinked their mark, the banker/gangster Doyle Lonnegan. Gondorf reassures him:

“We had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody.”

That’s the kind of line normally spoken by a villain, isn’t it?

This is the beauty of Newman. He knows society’s dark secrets—the same secrets the villains know about the world and try to exploit for their own selfish ends—but he chooses a different path.

In role after role—in The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Sting—he was something more than a regular hero. He was a kind of anti-villain.

“Newman is most comfortable in a role when it isn’t scaled heroically.”

—Pauline Kael

Both onscreen and off, Newman was worldly wise without being cynical. He knew people were too often corrupt, dishonorable, manipulative, stupid, unjust, and selfish. Yet he fought, with charm and wit, to remain an optimist despite it all. He fought against the forces of dehumanization to keep himself and other people human.

In 2008 (the year Newman died) a lot of us believed in a hero named Obama. We hoped that with a single vote (combined with the previous years of conservative malfeasance and nonfeasance) we could bring an end to the neoconservative era.

In 2012, the theme for Democrats was continuing to move “Forward.”

In 2016, we’ll be asked to get ginned up again, despite the fact that (unlike in 2008) there’s no denying that the leading candidates as of this writing, Clinton and Bush, are cut from opposite sections of the same cloth.

“I’m a banker, friend. That’s legit in this state.”

—Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting

In 1968, Paul Newman was disgusted by the Johnson administration’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. He threw his weight behind Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination.

If Newman were around today, it’s more than likely he would do the same for a candidate like Sanders.

In The Sting, when Hooker and Gondorf team up after their mutual friend is killed, Hooker wants to get even, but Gondorf tells him, “Revenge is for suckers.”

“Then why are you doing it?” asks Hooker.

“Seems worthwhile, doesn’t it?”

Paul Newman did a lot of things simply because they were worthwhile. He once explained why he started Newman’s Own:

The reason I went into the salad-dressing business is because I suddenly realized I needed a different power base. When Reagan became President, I discovered I had been end-played… I realized that to be effective I would have to enter the world of business, and this is it. I guess I’ve had more fun doing this than anything else I’ve done in a long time. But remember, it’s really my way of telling Ronald Reagan that his salad days are over.

Today’s Left is painfully wiser than it was a decade ago. The darker secrets of our society and our political system have been further exposed. We have every reason to despair.

Still, like Newman, we can choose a different path. It might not be a hero’s path. More of an anti-villain’s, really. Fighting to remain optimistic, and human, despite it all. Will we rally behind Sanders? Seems worthwhile, doesn’t it?

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