Lawmaker's flair for drama

Rocky Balboa, Clark Griswold, Thelma and Louise, Jerry Maguire — these names are hardly synonymous with American politics.

But try telling that to the politicians.

Just recently, Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), campaigning in Philadelphia, used images from the city’s legendary boxing movie “Rocky” as their latest sparring tactic.

“Let me tell you something, when it comes to a fight, Rocky and I have a lot in common. I never quit,” Clinton said after explaining that an early shutdown of her campaign would be like the boxer-in-training only running halfway up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps in one of the movie’s most famous scenes.

Obama, not to be left out, responded by claiming the plight of the scrappy Sylvester Stallone character as his own.

“We all love Rocky,” he said. “Last time I checked, I was the underdog in this state.”

As often as politicians show their formal, wonkish sides, they also occasionally reveal their affinity for a common pastime: the ability to sprinkle speeches with references to America’s most popular movies.

The use of movie references in political language isn’t limited to the campaign trail. Members of Congress use such analogies to draw attention to special interests, simplify complicated policy or exaggerate the moves of their political opponents.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) might be considered Congress’s unofficial expert on the crafty use of movie references in political speech.

He has drawn analogies that others might not dare try, once calling upon Chevy Chase’s accident-prone character Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” when discussing tax reform.

In the movie, when Griswold’s Christmas bonus didn’t come, “he flat out went nuts,” Hatch said in a speech in December. “The political philosophy of Clark Griswold is one that I would commend to my colleagues.”

Hatch has also channeled Mike Myers’s famous “Austin Powers” movie character Dr. Evil, chastising a proposed homeowner-counseling program in a February Senate floor speech as an unnecessary “two … hundred … billion … dollar program!”

He has referenced the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and cited the science-fiction parody “Galaxy Quest” movie line, “Never give up, never surrender” while speaking on non-activist judges.

When asked about his propensity to cite movies in his public oratory, Hatch chuckled and admitted to a great love for American cinema.

“Every once in a while you have to draw a movie metaphor so that people pay attention,” he said.

Hatch said he has great respect for actors like Robert Redford but acknowledged, “He may not like me.”

Redford and other famous artists visited the Hill recently to testify on arts funding, and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) couldn’t resist making a movie reference while in the stars’ company.

After musician John Legend confessed that if he were a lawmaker, he would tire of the constant pleas people make for money, Dicks interjected with, “Remember what Jerry Maguire said: ‘Show me the money,’ ” referring to the Tom Cruise sports agent character.

A few minutes later on the House floor, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) was using the famous movie image of two wild women while blaming Obama, Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the country’s economic woes.

“The Obama-Clinton-Pelosi Democratic leadership of the Congress is driving America’s economy right over the cliff like Thelma and Louise, spending money and raising taxes,” he said. (It was unclear which one of the three Culberson was likening to Thelma and which to Louise, and where the third person fit into the comparison.)

Motion Picture Association of America spokeswoman Angela Martinez said it would be too difficult to track the use of famous movie quotes in everyday speech but added that the ubiquity of such references is a testament to the industry’s ability to make “people smile.”

“That’s the great thing about the movies,” she said. “People have their favorite movies, and people latch on to certain quotes and relate them to their lives.”

The Senate’s associate historian, Don Ritchie, noted a few other movie quotes that politicians have frequently used: “Make my day” was used by both President George H.W. Bush and former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) — the line is a spin-off of the “Go ahead, make my day” line from Clint Eastwood’s character in “Sudden Impact.” And the saying “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” from “Cool Hand Luke,” was employed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) when speaking about Hurricane Katrina.

The one difference between politicians’ use of movie quotes in everyday language and that of their public-citizen counterparts is that the politicians seem more cautious about lines they quote. It looks as though they’ve steered clear of one of the most famous movie lines of all time, delivered by “Gone with the Wind” character Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara.

“Frankly, my dear,” he says, “I don’t give a damn.”

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