In this film we meet Dave, played by Kevin Kline, who is the spitting image of President Bill Mitchell. Dave is asked to stand in or actually walk out of a hotel, in place of Mitchell, who stays behind in secret to spend some time with his mistress. Dave is then thanked for a job well done and sent home. However, while he is making his way home, the president suffers a stroke in “flagrante’ delicto”. Instead of notifying the Vice President and the country, the president’s chief of staff, played by Frank Langella, secretly installs Dave as his puppet president, ruling the country through him. (In the height of irony, the only person who notices is Oliver Stone, who plays himself, claiming that the president has been secretly replaced. Of course, no one takes him seriously.)
As time goes by, Dave, who is as naïve and good as the chief of staff is cynical and evil, decides to actually do good for the country, rather than follow the dictates of his puppet master and politics. When the chief of staff organizes a photo op at a homeless shelter, so the administration can turn around and cut funding for the homeless the next day, Dave really starts to think for himself. He invites his own accountant to the White House, and has him take a look at the “books”. The latter exclaims what many of us often think, that if he ran his business finances the way the government does, he would be in deep trouble. Together, they figure out all the places they can cut from useless special interest programs, and they find more than enough money for the homeless programs on the chopping block.
The next day Dave uses the fact that the presidential cabinet meeting is being televised live, to hijack the meeting from the chief of staff. He slowly goes around the room, gently but firmly browbeating each of the department heads to accept the cuts he already figured out with his accountant, slowly adding up all the money saved on a white board. In front of the nation he dramatically reproduces the exercise from the night before, reinstates the homeless programs, and receives a standing ovation from his cabinet. You will have to watch the movie, got 94% from the critics and top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and includes fabulous performances by Sir Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, among other, to find out the rest.
What stays with me all these years later is that even though Dave and his accountant are clearly naïve, even though no actual business is done in cabinet meetings, and even though Congress would have to (and likely would not) approve that whole exercise, the fundamental idea in those scenes in the movie is true. We are the richest country in the world, even today after the Great Recession. We have more than enough money to spend on the things we have the will to spend money on. We simply lack the will to spend the amounts we need to spend it on the right things, including homelessness.
One more thing; even though Dave is naïve, his vision of spending enough on the right things, and disregarding the politics and special interests, could come true one day. Now, you might say I am naïve, however, one must remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s adage, that the arc of history bends towards justice. Things that once would have been seen as impossible are now taken for granted, from Social Security and Medicare, allowing our seniors to live out their years in dignity, to equal rights for women and minorities, allowing all people the potential to live the American Dream. Let us make sure that when that day comes, and our country does the right thing, we can tell our grandchildren that back in the day we stood on the right side of history.