The Last Days of Potato the Kid

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Now that the biggest political whalehunt of the past 25 years has been handed over to the bickering suits on Capitol Hill, it's hard not to feel nostalgic for the swift efficiency frontier justice. You can almost see it on the big screen: Clinton and Starr. A dusty street. The faint jangling of the spurs as each, again and again, goes for his gun.

What's happening now in Washington is known, in American-cinematic terms, as the closing of the West. Slowly, sadly, guns turned to gavels and duels to debates. When you hunted a man down, you couldn't string him up anymore. Instead, you were supposed to bring him in and let the politicians screw it up.

Nobody filmed that tragic two-step better than Sam Peckinpah, and maybe nothing in his blood-spattered canon fits this Bill better than Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). It's a nicely toasted Wild Bunch, in which James Coburn's grizzled Garrett reluctantly hunts down his ex-buddy William Bonney to the funereal thrum of Bob Dylan "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (Dylan also has a sizable role in the film as "Alias" and aquits himself admirably).

The Beltway version of the story, alas, is not particularly poignant. Ken and Billy Clinton never had much of a past, except that maybe they used to ride the same rough Baptist beast. (Clinton, of course, uses his Good Book like a first aid kit; Starr's is more the kind you lay your hand on before they send you away.)

Peckinpah's ode covers the same sad landscape, peopled with a full cast of filthy semi-knowns, and just as in Clinton's White House, whomever the central drama brushes against regrets it: Slim Pickens, Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam, Harry Dean Stanton -- even Elisha Cook Jr., whose remarkable career spanned from The Maltese Falcon to Magnum, P.I. and beyond.

The take-home message is that everybody dies, including Garrett, and when your guns are loaded for porn (or porn cover-ups), everybody gets soiled. Including Henry Hyde. Including Dan Burton (what, no tears?). Including the White House. Including us. It'd be sad if we weren't having so much fun.