Everyone’s got a favorite movie quote and here’s mine: “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.” That line was dispatched with effortless cool by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction while playing the ultimate fixer, Winston Wolf. It comes to mind a lot in life and business, especially in this surreal election season, when clownish self-absorption seems to be a political asset.
So when I saw Keitel at an IQ Squared debate viewing party this week, I couldn’t help but sidle up to the man and ask him what he thought of Trump vs. Clinton. This was not a partisan lay-up. After all, Keitel is a proud Brooklyn-born former Marine in his seventies. Acting aside, his demographic slice of the pie is more inclined to vote for Donald than Hillary. Here’s what he said:
“I served three years in the United States Marine Corps and we learned what leadership is through the problems we had to solve and the obstacles we had to endure. You have to have your boots on the ground to understand what I’m talking about, really. Leadership is a quality of a person. You look at their behavior, character, how they behave, what their values are. In observing Mr. Trump, for me, he is no leader. I don’t think he’s qualified to be the commander in chief of our armed forces.”
So, is Hillary Clinton qualified to be commander in chief? “From what she’s done and accomplished, from a young woman on, yes. Yes. That ‘yes’ doesn’t have to be qualified in my book.”
It was minutes after the end of the first debate and Keitel seemed to be steaming about the now-infamous Miss Universe as “Miss Piggy” incident as well as his overall treatment of women and constant interruptions of Hillary. “We were taught that above all a Marine is a gentleman,” Keitel said. “Mr. Trump, in my opinion, has not conducted himself as a gentleman. First of all, a gentleman respects women. That’s No. 1.”
Beneath the Marine’s old-school gravitas, there was a hint of social justice. As Keitel explained, “our concern was always to protect those who didn’t have the wherewithal, the skills, the resources they needed to protect themselves.” And that perhaps is also why Keitel gravitates to Clinton. “She’s always immersed herself in concern for social justice, for the underdog, for the people who didn’t have good jobs, the people who were suffering poverty while the wealthy were walking away with most of America’s money and she’s continued that work all of her career.”
Perfect isn’t on the menu in this or any election. “People will make mistakes and she has courageously owned up to them, which is another mark of leadership,” he said.
Speaking of owning up to mistakes, this week Keitel’s Pulp Fiction character, Winston Wolf, was suddenly back in the limelight, courtesy of the Bridgegate abuse-of-power trial. It seems that Gov. Christie christened one of his cronies, David Wildstein, “Mr. Wolf.” But instead of fulfilling Wolf’s signature promise as a fixer (“I solve problems”), Wildstein seems to have specialized in causing problems on his boss’s behalf, targeting the town of Fort Lee for traffic trouble in retribution for its Democratic mayor’s refusal to endorse Christie’s re-election.
After the call for “traffic problems in Fort Lee” came down, another aide, Bill Baroni, texted Wildstein an image of Mr. Wolf, as he was heading to testify in Trenton about the lane closures. In this case, it seems as though obscuring the truth was considered a sign of courage, ignoring Wolf’s larger lesson: “Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean that you have character.”
Actors shouldn’t be expected to answer for their character’s impact, and Keitel declined to weigh in on Mr. Wolf’s sudden re-emergence in the news, instead invoking one of his favorite quotes: “If politics is the business of the city, then theater is the soul of the city,” adding, “Perhaps these people need to see more theater.”
In politics, you often see operatives playing tough. But true toughness doesn’t need to parade itself for show. It doesn’t need the spectacle because it’s inner-driven. And that’s why there’s perhaps nothing truly tougher than a Marine-turned-artist.
There’s an unexpected artist’s insight that affects Keitel’s assessment of phony-tough Trump.
“I do not recognize any poetry in Mr. Trump,” he says. “While I respect his children, that they’re loyal to their father, and I respect Mr. Trump as a parent, there’s not much poetry in the man or his campaign.” When I pushed him to build that out just a bit more for a dim-witted journalist, Keitel explained, “In the poetry of things, in any of the arts—and the art, if you will, of the theatre of war—there is the unknown, not just the intellect at work. There’s intuition, instinct, being touched with deeper realities. Which is why we turn to the arts.”
This kind of talk is liable to provoke more lane closures, but Keitel grounded it in practical military experience. “I would ask my fellow Marines to consider the people they’ve come to respect during their tours of duty as being leaders able to deal with conflict, able to make decisions under pressure. They will have a sense of poetry about themselves to know when it’s proper to engage in the terrible art of war if need be.”
It all comes back to character for Harvey Keitel. “[Trump] hasn’t demonstrated that he can conduct himself in the manner that, for me, would represent the character of the American people and the Marines I served with… I don’t think Mr. Trump is an example of the face of America and as to how we regard women and other belief systems, other religions,” he said. “Our armed forces are fighting for the character of America. And Mr. Trump’s face and behavior cannot be the flag that we hoist when we hoist up the American flag. It’s not the character of America.”