January 12, 2008

Remembering ‘Being There’ … or why Chauncey Gardener could not vote in today’s America

Posted in Being There, Elections, Peter Sellers, politics, Voter ID, voting, Voting Rights tagged , , , , at 3:56 pm by bluebanshee

I have fond memories of the 1979 movie “Being There” starring Peter Sellers. It is a skillful dissection of politics and power where the audience is “in” on the joke from the beginning.

For those who aren’t familiar with this last Peter Sellers flick here’s a brief synopsis: the story revolves around Chance, a simple gardener who has spent his entire life with “the old man” in a big house where he tends the garden and watches TV. After the death of “the old man,” Chance, is evicted and wanders the streets of Washington D.C. where he encounters Rand, a wealthy business man. Rand takes Chance under his wing. Through a series of mis-understandings, Chance becomes known as Chauncey Gardener, whose utterances about gardening are interpreted as evidence of deep wisdom and understanding. Chauncey becomes a media darling who is touted by political power brokers to become the next president

So what does this movie have to do with politics today? Nothing, really — except that it illustrates the role of the media and political spinmeisters in creating a political candidate.

However, it also provides an interesting frame for thinking about citizenship and the demand for Real ID at every turn in our daily lives, including the vote in some states.

Chauncey Gardener could not circulate in Washington D.C. today without producing ID — a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport, and/or Social Security card. He certainly would not be allowed to vote in many states. Yet the character in this film was born and grew up in the U.S. and would presumably be a citizen. Yet in states like Indiana with strict ID requirements he would not be permitted to register to vote much less cast a ballot. He might end up with a placebo provisional ballot that won’t get counted anyway. As Americans, we have come a long way from the world of 1979 where a character like Chance/Chauncey could plausibly enter the White House without showing ID and undergoing a background check.

Many of those promoting voter ID requirements use examples of renting a video or boarding a commercial airliner as evidence that Americans are asked to present ID all the time — and do so as a matter of course. But this country did not fight two world wars to defend the right of Americans to rent a video. Nor did Martin Luther King Jr. lead marches for the right to take off his shoes at security checkpoints in airports.

The right to vote is sacred. Soldiers have defended the right to vote and other essential American freedoms on distant shores, sometimes to the point of giving their lives in service to their country. Let’s not trivialize the most basic right of citizenship by comparing it to renting the latest mega-hit at Blockbuster.

Furthermore, when you stop and think about it, there are many honest American citizens who just might not have the kind of ID demanded by Indiana. There are many circumstances that would leave a legitimate voter without the kind of ID required in the Indiana law:

1. Victims of natural disasters like hurricane Katrina, recent California wildfires, tornados, floods. These folks not only lost their homes but in some cases like Katrina, the courthouses where the official records are kept.
2. In many urban areas like New York City people do not own a car and do not drive. They take a cab or the subway to get where they need to go. A friend of mine in NYC recently told his college age son that he would not help him get a drivers license because he would not need one in the city.
3. Many court houses have burned down or been damaged by flooding so that when folks try to get a copy of their official birth certificate they find out that the records were destroyed.
4. Many people, particularly older voters, were born at home and no birth certificate was ever recorded.
5. Anybody who has ever had their wallet or purse stolen will have lost their ID. If this occurs right before election day they will be out of luck.

The problem is that it takes ID to get ID. The insistence on certain forms of ID like birth certificates rather than, for instance, marriage certificates giving age and place of birth, property tax records, utility bills or military records makes proving identity and obtaining ID much more difficult.

When the EAC studied the issue of voter fraud at the polls, they found only a handful of cases nationwide that were prosecuted. None of those cases was in Indiana so there is no compelling reason why up to 10 per cent of Indiana voters should be disenfranchised in an effort to solve a non-existent problem in that state.

So as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of Indiana’ voter ID law, take a moment to remember the situation of Chance/Chauncey in “Being There.” As a country, should we be broadening the franchise and welcoming more voters to polls? Or should we be placing unnecessary roadblocks in the way that prevent legitimate citizens from casting a ballot?

My preference would be to bring as many into the process as possible — even the Chance/Chauncey Gardener types without perfect ID in their pocket.



  1. Chris Telesca said,

    There is a few other ways of looking at this character….

    Chance/Chauncey was a mentally simple person who normally intelligent people wanted to believe that he was capable of great leadership. So sorry – a simpleton already conned a lot of people to vote to elect him as President – that isn’t worthwhile going through again. His name is George W. Bush. So this might not be the best example of why we might not want to let all the Chance/Chauncey types be able to vote without some way to know if they are legally able to vote.

    I am in favor of enabling each and every citizen who is legally eligible to vote into the franchise. The problem we run into in today’s world that was not around in 1979 is that we have so many people around us from all different parts of the world. That is what America is all about. My paternal grandfather was my nearest living relative who was born in another country and he became a naturalized US citizen when his mother became one.

    But voting is a right of citizenship – we have many different problems than we had in 1979. And it was never established for a fact that Chance/Chauncey was ever a citizen. Let’s take a look at the facts:

    He only remembers that he lived in the old man’s house all his life. We don’t know if he was born in the US – automatically making him a citizen – or if his mother was a US citizen at the time of his birth no matter where Chance/Chauncey was born. And none of the other people who lived in the house – including the old black cook (or maid) who watched Chance/Chauncey on TV and commented that if he could make it that far “it sure is a white man’s world in America” or words to that effect. There was essentially no record that anyone could find of him existing anywhere. We assume that he was born here, but that fact was never established in the movie.

    Chance/Chauncey is a bad example to use to show that voter ID is a bad idea. We can’t and shouldn’t assume that just because someone appears to belong that they actually do. And you can bet that his political opponents would be scouring the racords to find out each and every fact about Chauncey Gardiner. The fact that you have to be born in the US to be president would be a critical fact that so often is overlooked in movies – like the black Dodge Charger in “Bullet” lost 6 hubcaps in the chase scene, and that Harry Callahan actually shot 6 shots from his .44 magnum in Dirty Harry before he used his 7th bullet to blow away the bad guy.

    Additionally, if we are going to use the example of Chance/Chauncey, we ought to point out that this great character was played by Peter Sellers, who was a British citizen at the time. So if a British citizen was so able to convince people that he was an American who really belonged here and that that he ought to be President – maybe we ought to wonder if other people who should not really vote are capable of actually being able to do so.

    So let’s make sure that everyone who has a legal right to vote gets that right. But let’s also make sure that we make sure that only people with the right get to use it so we do not dilute the right.

    The whole concept of Real ID sucks – it tries to take a patchwork quilt of permits and licenses and apply a national standard to turn those differnet documents into national IDs. Driving examiners should not be put in the position of having to verify identity document. I think we ought to let those permits and licenses be exactly that, and start from scratch to create a national ID upon which a person can link a driving or hunting privilege to.

    All those examples of why Real ID sucks can be dealt with. In fact, HSA is already making it so that people over a certain age won’t need Real ID.

    People in NYC still need to cash checks and deal with banks – and they need ID even if they don’t drive cars. People who are victims of natural disasters still need ID to access their money in banks – do you really think that a bank is gonna give me access to my money in some other city if I can’t prove I am who I say I am? And how many people actually have their purses or wallets stolen from then right before they vote?

    There are many benefits to having a well-though out National ID. Real ID isn’t it. And since we don’t live in the carefree days of yesteryear when we could get by on just our word, we need to realize that a good and well planned form of National ID would be. Back in 1979 – NC didn’t have at least 300,000 undocumented/illegal aliens.

  2. Betsy said,

    I cook dinner at a homeless shelter once a month. Many of the people I cook for don’t have proper I.D. The point is that many poor people, those vulnerable to chaos and calamity of various kinds, are those most likely to lack I.D. These people vote disproportionately for Democratic candidates. Poor people are an easy target for Rovian measures like this one.

  3. Chris Telesca said,

    How do you know they are really eligible to vote? So let’s get them ID.

    That is why having free ID provided by the government to everyone – that would show people who you are and what your citizenship status is – would be a great thing.

    Many people are vulnerable to chaos and calamity and they still have ID. Let’s try and uplift them. Merely letting anyone vote who says they have a right to do so doesn’t solve the problem of their poverty or remove the chaos in their lives. Letting people vote who aren’t citizens would create more chaos for the rest of us.

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