HBO's Show Me A Hero is quite possibly the best depiction of American politics television has ever seen. It manages to get a great deal right about the way politicians behave and cities are governed, while also being compelling and poignant. But one thing that stuck out to me as particularly good was its treatment of candidate ambition.
For those unfamiliar with the show (and I encourage you to become familiar with it at your earliest convenience), it's a six-part miniseries following the actual events in Yonkers, New York, surrounding a court-ordered low-income housing project in the wealthier, whiter part of town in the late 1980s. The main plot follows city councilman Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac) as his political career is quickly made and then undone by the housing project and the racial politics surrounding it. The story also follows the lives of initially apolitical citizens in Yonkers, including several young African-American and Latina mothers facing challenging housing situations in the poorer parts of town and a middle-aged white woman who organizes opposition to the new housing project. (For more, read Todd VanDerWerff's review.)
Wasicsko's story, however, is a masterful depiction of the central role — both essential and potentially tragic — that ambition plays in politics.
When we first see Wasicsko, he's in his late 20s and already on the city council. He clearly has bigger long-term political plans, but a local Democratic Party leader surprises him by offering him money and support to challenge the incumbent Republican mayor. This is a fairly banal event in politics, but it's one that many other political shows and movies often get wrong. A party chair can't really invent a candidate out of whole cloth and turn a nobody into a mayor. Conversely, an ambitious politician usually can't just become mayor through hard work and money without any allies. Party leaders want an ambitious politician to run — one who needs the money but will put it to good use and fight for party principles once in office.
We also see that candidate effort, while important, doesn't necessarily determine who wins the election. Voters are a fickle lot. The white backlash over the housing project generates a huge anti-incumbent vote in 1988, putting Wasicsko in the mayor's office but tossing out his longtime city council ally Vinnie Restiano (played by Winona Ryder). Herself an ambitious politician, Restiano is devastated by the loss and sees it as a personal rejection. Wasicsko consoles her and urges her to not take it personally, although he has difficulty heeding this advice when the voters later turn against him.
While Wasicsko is mayor, his ambition leads him in a positive direction — to try to save the city from the financial ruin that would result from its resistance to the court housing order. He works repeatedly to put together governing majorities that will stand up to the angry white crowds protesting city council meetings. His efforts mostly succeed in saving the city from ruin, and he wins begrudging respect from some for standing on principle, but he's tossed out after one term as mayor.
By the final acts of the show, Wasicsko's ambition has taken a darker turn. Desperate to not lose another citywide election, which would doom his political career, Wasicsko ends up butting heads with a subsequent mayor, sacrifices his wife's patronage job, and then tries to challenge his old friend Restiano in a primary. He takes his failures immensely personally, destroying friendships and alliances, and when he sees he has no political future left, he's thrown into a depressive spiral that drives the show's last moments.
Ours is a political system that relies on ambitious politicians to run for office and protect their gains with further achievements. For most political offices, the pay isn't great, the stress levels are extremely high, and you're constantly getting yelled at by the people you're trying to serve. And yet we need people to take on these roles. It takes an extremely ambitious person to be willing to put up with that.
But as the show reminds us, there's a great cost to such a system. The same ambition that propelled Wasicsko into high office at such a young age was the same that led him to competently guide the city during a tumultuous time, and it was the same that led to his downfall.