Mr. Cao Goes to Washington
Distributed by New Day Films, 190 Route 17M, P.O. Box 1084, Harriman, NY 10926; 888-367-9154 or 845-774-7051
Produced by S. Leo Chiang
Directed by S. Leo Chiang
DVD, color, 72 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
American Studies, Asian American Studies, Ethics, Political Science, Religious Studies
Reviewed by Gisele Tanasse, University of California Berkeley
Date Entered: 1/11/2013
Both Asian and Republican, Joseph Cao's is not a face you would typically expect to see in New Orleans politics, especially in a district that has always gone Black and Democratic. As he gently prepares his instant Pumpkin Spice Maxwell International coffee, candidly disclosing that the caffeine in regular coffee makes him nervous, he seems almost too innocent and naive for our modern world, let alone for Washington politics. And yet it is in fact political malfeasance that he has to thank for his election to the United States House of Representatives in 2008, for he never would have won his seat without the allegations of bribery and corruption against disgraced Representative William J. Jefferson (who is currently serving a 13 year prison sentence).
Cao seems earnestly willing to cross party lines in order to best represent his district: he is the only Republican to vote for the House's original draft of the Affordable Health Care for America Act and he supports the Dream Act, clean energy and takes BP executives to task following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even going so far as to suggest they commit harikiri. His tendency to cross lines costs him with his conservative supporters, though, some demand their money back and mailers are returned with RINO ("Republican In Name Only") scrawled across them. This loss of support does not seem too dire at first, as President Obama appears to consider him a friend and his voting record is generally in line with the views of the majority of his constituents. But as the Health Care legislation takes form, and the House goes with the Senate's bill, Cao, a staunchly anti-abortion Catholic, takes issue with the use of federal funds to provide abortions. His eventual "no" vote on the health care legislation is ultimately his undoing, though he seems completely oblivious to this fact, clinging to the idealistic notion that his proven track record as a person of high integrity and character will win him re-election. He seems absolutely shocked and dumb-founded when President Obama endorses the democratic candidate: even more incredulous than I was at the thought that President Obama might actually endorse the Republican candidate.
While his rapid and painful fall from victory in 2008 to defeat in 2010 is relatively predictable to the cynics among us, it is not all schadenfreude: the film offers a fascinating and insightful view into the political process, including the energy and funds required to run a campaign (especially considering the short 2 year terms), the toll political life can take on family members and the loud and conflicting voices our representatives hear from fellow party members and staffers. It also should not go without saying that Cao's term is a historic one: he was the first Vietnamese American representative and was the only Republican of color at that time. Race is a constant theme throughout the film, one of the most notable instances is at a the Southern Republican Leadership Convention, where we see Cao, an immigration attorney, sit quietly apart from his incensed xenophobic cohorts as they rabble rouse over non-English speakers. The film would seem to lend itself easily to use in Ethnic Studies courses as well as Political Science courses. It is highly recommended for use in high school level civics and government classes as a thought provoking catalyst sure to ignite debate over the problems and pitfalls of our two-party system.