It happens repeatedly in “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington,” an absorbing documentary that will be shown Saturday as part of the Boston Asian-American Film Festival, that the director cuts away while Anh “Joseph” Cao is still thinking about how to respond to an unanswerable question. Does he feel that he made the right choice in leaving the seminary to enter public life? How can a principled moderate succeed in a political climate dominated by extremists? Cao, a Vietnamese-American Republican from Louisiana who from 2008 to 2010 represented a heavily African-American and Democratic district in the House of Representatives, is an intensely reflective and articulate man. But these questions are stumpers.
Cao was elected because his opponent, William Jefferson, who would otherwise have won with ease, was caught red-handed in a major corruption scandal. African-American voters stayed home, and Cao eked out a win.
The movie tells the story of what follows. Cao works hard for a constituency still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and further distressed by the BP oil spill. During a congressional hearing, he suggests to the astonished president of BP America that he ought to consider committing hara kiri.
But Cao runs afoul of basic political facts of life. He breaks with his party to become the only House Republican to vote for the draft version of President Obama’s health care bill, citing his constituents’ needs and his own relationship with the president. Then he reverses field and votes against it, claiming that as an opponent of abortion he has no choice. He risks his reputation as an upstanding character to go extremely negative in his reelection campaign, but loses anyway. Republicans abandon him, and his pal Obama lets him down.
Cao initially sees Obama as a fellow man of character, an ally across the party divide. But scenes of Barack and Michelle towering benevolently over the Caos, charming the congressman and his young daughters, give way to the president appearing in a TV ad for Cao’s opponent in 2010.
Cao can’t get over that — not in the movie, and not after. When I called him this week, he said of Obama, “From the tone of his campaign I expected something different than the usual political stance. I had hoped he was a person who would do the right thing, not the expedient thing.”
Can he possibly be naive enough to mean this? Did Cao really expect a Democratic president to abandon an electable Democratic candidate as a favor to a Republican who had voted against his most important legislation? “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” tells the story of a novice whipsawed by political business as usual, but it’s also a compelling study of a character who’s both likeable and maddeningly innocent. In this campaign season we’re all sick of politicians cynically looking out for number one, but here’s a cautionary portrait of one who never learned how.
I misjudged Cao when I encountered him in person in 2009. I was in New Orleans with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, on assignment for a magazine. At a meeting with local educators and activists, I thought Cao looked bored and impatient, listening to Americans talk about hardship. After all, his refugee family had known a different order of woe in postwar Vietnam, and his father had been tortured in re-education camps. I pegged him as an immigrant bootstrapper who disdained whining. That reading wasn’t entirely wrong, but it missed the impossible idealism that earned him such nasty bruises in the rough and tumble of electoral politics.
Duncan also made a snap reading of Cao, sight unseen. In the car on the way to the meeting, a member of Duncan’s staff told him that Cao was a Republican from a Democratic district who had voted against the stimulus, a significant part of which consisted of education funding. The staffer told me that this conversation was off the record. But Duncan, a manifestly honest and decent man whose own idealism acquired an armored carapace during his political education in Richard M. Daley’s Chicago, said to me, “No, you can put it in there. We’re going to kick his ass. He’s a one-termer.”
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.”