Four years after “The Audacity of Hope” and “Change We Can Believe In,” Americans are enduring a presidential campaign of relentless negativity, one side claiming the president needs to “learn how to be an American,” the other all but accusing the challenger of killing a woman with cancer. It’s enough to make one long for the good old days, when politics was a decorous contest between principled opponents.

Anyone interested in a trip down this particular lane of memory would do well to take a detour to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway, where a revival of Gore Vidal’s political drama “The Best Man” runs through September 9. The play, first produced in 1960—there’s also a film version from 1964, starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson—allows us to participate vicariously in an epic contest between a high-minded liberal mandarin and a ruthlessly ambitious arriviste. Will the “best man” win?

The setting is the Democratic nominating convention of 1960. (There’s a pretense that the convention could be for either party, but Vidal isn’t fooling anyone.) William Russell, former secretary of state, arrives in Philadelphia to claim the nomination, but a rival, Senator Joseph Cantwell, is coming on fast in the polls—grubby measures of popularity that Russell doesn’t have much use for. To close the deal, Russell needs to do two things: convince his estranged wife, Alice, to play the doting part expected of her, and convince former president Artie Hockstadter to endorse him.

The first of these tasks is unfortunately accomplished within a half-hour. Russell agrees to remain faithful for the duration of the campaign; his wife agrees to put on a good show and not expect more from him than friendship. This easy resolution is regrettable because it eliminates one potential axis of drama—the marriage and its future—for the remainder of the play. This structural problem is exacerbated by one of the few weak performances in the production. While Russell is played with fine, understated irritation by John Larroquette—in his domestic scenes, the viewer believes his weariness with Alice but also his lingering affection for her—Cybill Shepherd, as Alice, seemed barely to be in the room with him. Perhaps she was also aiming for understatement, but what she achieved was opacity.

Russell’s second labor—winning the Hockstadter endorsement—is tougher and drives two of the play’s strongest scenes. James Earl Jones plays the former president, and though there are many fine performances in this production, Jones is in a class by himself. He plays Hockstadter as a cross between Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt: TR’s girth and glasses, his mustache and explosive laugh, but Truman’s class and regional background and position within his party. Hockstadter knows that he could determine who the next president might be. And he’s determined to pick the “best man” of the title.

But what makes a man “best” for exalted office? Russell thinks he knows the answer: the president ought to be a man with integrity, who is true to himself and what he thinks is right, who neither cares about being popular nor debases politics with smear tactics. When he suspects Hockstadter is going to endorse Cantwell, Russell focuses all of his rhetorical power into an attack on the unscrupulous senator, letting Hockstadter know just what a threat to the republic he considers this upstart scoundrel to be.

The speech falls on deaf ears. Hockstadter doesn’t really care about Cantwell’s dirty campaign tricks. If you need to use them, you need to use them—and when you need to, you’d better know how. He doesn’t like Cantwell, but as a professional politician, he rather admires him.

Until he meets him. Cantwell, as played by John Stamos, is a restlessly strutting rooster, apparent confidence layered over some deep vulnerability. This is a man who isn’t content to win the game; he has to win every point. Hockstadter comes to give him some free advice and get the obeisance due to elder statesman of the party, as a prelude to making his endorsement. But Cantwell can’t read the situation. Since Hockstadter comes bearing criticisms, he sees him as an enemy and unloads on him, revealing the secret weapon he’s been husbanding. Russell had a nervous breakdown some years before. Saw a shrink. The medical records that use words like “suicidal tendencies.” If Russell doesn’t withdraw, Cantwell will distribute these records to the delegates and Russell’s political career will be ruined.

Hockstadter tries to dissuade Cantwell from using such tactics, which would only hurt the party, but Cantwell won’t budge. So Hockstadter leaves vowing to fight him tooth and nail—and reveals, as he leaves, that he had planned to endorse him.

Just because Cantwell failed his test of character, though, doesn’t mean Hockstadter is sold on Russell. He still worries whether Russell can shed his Hamlet-like indecisiveness and prove tough enough to be president. And so Vidal provides Russell with a test of character of his own. Cantwell, who appears to be without personal blemish—doesn’t drink, doesn’t fool around, has a beautiful, loving wife (played as a shallow sex-kitten by Kristin Davis)—has a skeleton in his closet after all. And it’s a doozie: back in 1944, an officer he served with was court-martialed for homosexuality. The accused was part of a “ring” of so-called degenerates, and he named dozens of names. One of them was Cantwell.

Is the accusation true? The play doesn’t say, but based on the far-away look Stamos gets when he learns that Russell has made contact with his old army buddy who knew about the court martial, I’m inclined to think that, in this production anyway, he is—and this is a crucial moment, subtle and well-acted, the only one where Stamos lets us see what’s inside Cantwell’s hard shell. But true or not, the test for Russell is: will he use this dirt? His long-suffering campaign manager, Dick Jensen (Mark Blum), would. Alice Russell would. Hockstadter practically begs him to. But Russell? He struggles mightily with his own decency, but every time he finally convinces himself to use the potent weapon he has at his disposal, he flinches. And thus begins over an hour of dithering.

This is a dramatic problem. Not because of the dithering as such—Hamlet dithers for nearly four hours, and if it’s played well it’s riveting. But Hamlet is ahead of everyone else in the play. In “The Best Man, it’s President Hockstadter who’s ahead of everyone, and since the audience has heard Hockstadter explain his reasoning for choosing and then rejecting Cantwell, it’s very difficult to take Russell’s scruples seriously.

John Stamos as Joseph Cantwell photo: Joan Marcus

If I stoop to Cantwell’s level, Russell asks, where does it end? But Hockstadter has an answer to that: there are no ends, only means. This line is deployed earlier against Cantwell, when he says the ends justify the means in his opinion (and hence it’s okay to smear Russell to win). There are no ends—there’s no destination but the grave. On the way, all that matters is how you treat people and why you treat them that way. Russell doesn’t deserve the treatment Cantwell is about to dish out, in part because it’s totally unnecessary. But Cantwell does deserve what Russell could give him. The means are appropriate to the situation.

(Speaking of the grave: two of the finest moments in the play are when Hockstadter reveals, first to Russell, then to Cantwell, that he is dying. Hockstadter admits that he doesn’t believe in God, and that’s why he’s so terrified of death. Russell suggests that perhaps he can derive some consolation from the quasi-immortality achieved through the mark he’s left on others. To which an incredulous Hockstadter retorts: I suggest you give yourself that little speech when you face the prospect of annihilation. Cantwell, meanwhile, avouches himself a religious man, but completely ignores Hockstadter’s revelation, returning immediately to business. Later, when Hockstadter has died offstage, Cantwell shrugs it off as for the best; his time had passed already. It’s a perfect capsule of their respective failings as humans and politicians. Russell takes a real, human situation in front of him—a dying man—and retreats from it into an abstract principle. Cantwell only cares about that situation inasmuch as it affects him. Neither relates to the human being and his condition.)

“The Best Man” contains a number of well-drawn political portraits, and enough humor to keep the audience engaged through the slow second half, most memorably provided by the southern-fried performances of Elizabeth Ashley and Dakin Matthews as, respectively, the chatterbox Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chairman of the Women’s Division, and anxious Russell-supporter Senator Clyde Carlin. But the question of whether Russell will learn to use the shiv or not is too light to bear the weight of tragedy. Vidal came up with an ending that cleverly evades the question of whether Russell or Cantwell is the “best man”—Russell withdraws and throws his weight behind a third candidate of whom we know nothing. But that gets less and less satisfying the more you think about it. If the “best man” is a non-entity, then the whole premise that there is a “best man” to find, or that we need to find him, is questionable. In which case it never really mattered whether Russell or Cantwell won. So what have we been watching?

What we’ve been watching is a civics lesson, but not the kind we expected. The play has been described as a contest between ambition and principle, but it’s really about the falseness of this dichotomy. Artie Hockstadter’s situational ethics are a folksy marriage of Aristotle and Machiavelli, his notion of “character” being about neither fidelity to principle (Russell’s version) nor smirchless personal righteousness (Cantwell’s), but practical wisdom, the judgment to know what means are appropriate to particular situations. His death, and the failure of either of his potential political heirs to understand what he was trying to tell them, suggests that with the passing of the “last of the old-time hicks,” as he calls himself, that kind of practical wisdom has gone out of the political world.

How does the drama play in 2012? On the one hand, the political types are eternal, and the specificity of Vidal’s prescience is striking. The charges against Russell foreshadowed the travails of Thomas Eagleton in 1972, whose vice presidential nomination was derailed by revelations that he had undergone electroshock treatment, and accusations of homosexuality continue to dog a variety of crusading moral conservatives. In other ways, the play feels like a period piece—conventions, after all, are no longer scenes of drama of any kind. And the production plays up this dated quality, decorating the entire theatre as a mid-century conventional hall.

The problem for us in approaching this play today is that 1960 feels like the lost golden age, so it is easy to assume Vidal took the side of Russell’s stand on principle. This screen of nostalgia prevents us from seeing the drama for what it is, and the relevance it actually has for our day. Negative campaigning and dirty tricks, after all, have always been with us. Practical wisdom, though, is not exactly the watchword of our democracy today.

Or perhaps we can’t see our own forest for our rotten trees. Vidal, in 1960, depicted his day as an age when practical wisdom passed from the scene, but we look back on that time as a golden age. Perhaps half a century from now, Americans will look back on our political world as we look back on 1960 and say: back then, there were statesmen; now, in our fallen day, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

Noah Millman is TAC’s theater critic. He blogs at theamericanconservative.com/Shakesblog.