Jewish World Review August 29, 2003 /1 Elul 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Of Labor Day, Seabiscuit and ideology | Was it just my imagination, or did I detect a lot of knee-jerk political reactions in the reviews of "Seabiscuit"?

That movie should have been just another horse opera with a great come-from-behind ending — like "National Velvet." Instead it proved a kind of ideological litmus test.

Well, sure. From movies to sitcoms, everything's got a political subtext these days — except maybe politics itself. There's no sub- to its text: raw ambition and competing interests. Both are out there in the open.

But when it came to "Seabiscuit," the reviewers' ideological preferences seemed to weigh heavily in their esthetic judgment. Separate but equally political interpretations abounded.

One reviewer bridged the left-right gap by expressing both in the same review. Novelist and horseracing fan Jane Smiley first accused the movie of being too soft on the tycoon who's one of the heroes:

"Seabiscuit's owner never does anything robber-baronish or even selfish. In the middle of the Depression, he refuses to lay off his workers. He makes speeches about the common man. He is not Ken Lay, Enron's former CEO"

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But, Miss Smiley noted, not every tycoon came off as well in the movie. The owner of Seabiscuit's rival, War Admiral, was the typical melodramatic villain - "I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that in addition to avoiding a race with Seabiscuit and insulting California racing, he is stealing pension plans on the side."

I can't recall if War Admiral's owner (Boo! Hiss!) wore a top hat in the movie, but he should have. I haven't seen a more cartoonish capitalist since stopping by the House of Posters in Moscow circa 1983, when there was still a Soviet Union. Whenever honest labor becomes The Cause of Labor, propaganda has set in.

Miss Smiley also detected "just a whiff of deadening Socialist Realism in the film," what with its "self-made man, our cowboy trainer, our impoverished beat-up jockey, and our tiny horse . . . ."

But is that Socialist Realism or just plain old-fashioned, Horatio Alger, root-for-the-underdog Americanism? Depression photos a la James Agee have become the classless legacy of all Americans by now. So has Franklin D. Roosevelt, who makes a brief appearance in "Seabiscuit." In shirtsleeves.

American history, unlike American politics, cuts across class and political lines. FDR is a national icon, and we're all wild about Harry (Truman) now, which is quite a change from when he was in office. And no matter what we think about labor, and how hard we try to avoid it all year long, we're all for it on Labor Day.

Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan was a fan of FDR early in his political pilgrimage, and once headed a powerful union, the Screen Actors Guild. Now all that seems a perfectly natural progression in a president who led the Republicans' ideological comeback in the 1980s.

Party lines can be puny considerations compared to the spirit of a great leader, and FDR and RR shared a common dynamism, a contagious optimism and a very American faith that tomorrow was going to be better. Their common faith towered over petty considerations like foreign and domestic policy.

In this country, personality trumps politics. Spirit is all, though cunning helps. (Which is why you don't want to underestimate Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger as a politician.)

Distinctions between conservative and liberal, left and right, don't seem to make much sense when applied to larger-than-life figures. Their appeal across the political spectrum would be hard to explain to a European — as most things American are. But it's not paradoxical at all in a country where everybody observes Labor Day.

The spirit of Labor Day isn't at all like that of May Day — a much more European., i.e., class-conscious holiday. One unites people, the other divides them.

E Pluribus Unum is scarcely a European concept. But over here everybody cheers for the rich tycoon and the poor jockey and the old cowboy in "Seabiscuit," and for the same reason everybody celebrates Labor Day: We're all part of the same team in America, or would like to think we are, which is the first step toward becoming one nation indivisible.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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