Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

There is an old story, possibly apocryphal, about the brilliant Russian-Danish chess master Aron Nimzovich.

Upset when his opponent lit a cigar in the middle of their game, Nimzovich complained to the tournament director. The director interceded, and the other player put out the cigar. A little while later, Nimzovich sought assistance again.

“Your opponent isn’t smoking,” said the director.

“I know, but he looks as if he wants to,” he replied.

This tale comes to mind when I consider the way that many conservatives worked themselves into a lather after a character on the popular television show “Mad Men” remarked, “Romney’s a clown” -- a reference to George Romney, a businessman and politician in the 1960s and the father of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Many observers took the comment as a swipe at the son, and so one more example of Hollywood’s liberal bias.

But it really is possible to be too vigilant: In context, as the show’s legions of defenders were swift to point out, the comment made perfect sense. And “Mad Men” is really the last program that can fairly be described as a bastion of liberal propaganda. If anything, even taking account of its historical setting, the show’s politics seem to run in the other direction.

True, David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s chief political strategist, has used the show to bash Mitt Romney. “I think he must watch ‘Mad Men’ and think it’s the evening news,” Axelrod said. “He is just in a time warp.” Once again, conservatives predictably jumped on the remark.

The Wrong Target

But that was Axelrod speaking, not the show. The critics are behaving like Nimzovich, attacking not “Mad Men” so much as what they take to be its aspirations. And here I think they are wrong.

Now, I will admit that I am a big fan of “Mad Men,” and I am not a fan of much on television (other than sports). But one needn’t have the slightest interest in the program to see why its critics have things exactly backward.

“Mad Men” -- in case you have somehow missed the media frenzy over the program -- is an ensemble show set in the 1960s, at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Over the years, despite series creator Matthew Weiner’s unabashed liberal politics, the show has mocked at least as many liberal as conservative icons. Thus in an earlier episode built around the 1960 campaign, protagonist Don Draper dismisses John Kennedy as “nouveau riche, a recent immigrant who bought his way into Harvard” while lauding Nixon as the “Abe Lincoln of California.”

What about the Romney crack? In real life, George Romney was a very smart and quite liberal Republican in the Rockefeller mode, and he began the 1968 campaign with a fair shot at winning the party’s presidential nomination. In some polls he even held the lead. But his campaign was so inexplicably horrendous that it became a textbook example of how not to run from ahead.

More to the point, critics of the “clown” line are missing the forest for the trees. The controversial remark is made by a Republican political operative named Henry Francis, who at the time is working for New York Mayor John Lindsay, who also had an eye on the White House. Francis is far and away the most mature and thoughtful of the male characters on “Mad Men” -- indeed, even considering the many well-drawn female characters, it is possible that Francis is the only real adult in the bunch: solid father and husband, the one who says the most patient and sensible things. His ideological sentiments are presented without any hint of irony or hypocrisy.

In one episode, visiting a divorce attorney with the woman he loves, Francis bristles at the lawyer’s suggestion that the couple has a sexual relationship (they do not). Later, when his now-wife fires their black maid for no good reason, Francis greets this decision with the fury it deserves.

Conservative Cheer

There is always the risk that the writers will decide to blow him up at some point. But it seems to me that the very existence of Francis’s character is a reason for conservatives to cheer, given the usual presentation of their side of the argument on the small screen.

The burgeoning 1960s counterculture, by contrast, is presented as slightly idiotic, a clutch of narcissists who seem to think that getting high is an act of rebellion. There is no system to rebel against, Draper tells a roomful of hippies in one episode, and nobody can come up with a riposte.

The show has now reached the year 1966, but the revolution is mysteriously absent. The campus ideologues who dined out on Marcuse and Fanon never appear. The show’s rebels instead create amusingly bad independent films, mutter ineffectually about racial segregation, and read, of all things, the relentlessly inward-looking poetry of Frank O’Hara. (There was also a single blinkingly fast reference to the Berkeley free-speech protests.)

Why the writers have chosen to render their liberal characters as vapid and clueless is a mystery, especially when the show is set in an era when liberalism was triumphant. Nevertheless, one of the most refreshing aspects of “Mad Men” is the absence of the political preaching that makes so much prime-time television unwatchable.

When copywriter Peggy Olson asks why the firm is doing business with a company that refuses to hire black people, for example, Draper replies in exasperation that their job is to make people like the client’s products, not to make the client “like Negroes.” The writers resist the temptation to give Peggy a sharp retort: The issue simply fades, as at the time it probably would have.

Some of the characters display a glimmer of progressive consciousness. But the illumination is a dim, intermittent flicker. Women are routinely mistreated on “Mad Men” although, in response, occasional minor blows are struck for feminism. (Feminist fans are fond of pointing out that the suburban-housewife lifestyle lived by many of the female characters is precisely what inspired Betty Friedan to write “The Feminine Mystique,” but the book, published in 1963, has yet to make an appearance.)

Clunky and Forced

The black community remains invisible, and efforts to render “the Negroes” of the era visible in any serious way invariably feel clunky and forced -- they are among the least effective moments in the show. (For purist fans, yes, I do include what has so far unfolded in the current season.)

Still, between the bloggers who follow every twist and turn of the plot and the media-studies professors who write learned articles, there is energy aplenty aimed at unpacking the show’s politics. The more intriguing phenomenon is that a program that rarely draws 3 million viewers should have become so culturally iconic so swiftly that so many in the partisan wars should care so intensely what its politics are.

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, the literary critic David Mendelsohn sharply criticizes “Mad Men” as poorly scripted and badly acted. I disagree, though I could do with a little less soap opera, and a little more attention to the details of the creative end of advertising that gave such verve to the first three seasons. But the less-remarked part of the essay is that even Mendelsohn, despite trying hard to be harsh, concedes the show’s allure, and points to the likely source: Baby boomers were children and adolescents in the 1960s, and are now trying to understand the world that shaped our parents.

Perhaps Mendelsohn is half right. “Mad Men” has one of the most financially desirable demographics of any program on cable television. These are not people who will stick with a show that offends their politics. Perhaps those of us who love “Mad Men” are indeed Mendelsohn’s naive innocents, searching for an explanation of how we got here.

Fine. Surely those whose interests are principally partisan can find some other show to fight over, and let the rest of us have our cathartic fun.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his next novel, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” will be published in July. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

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To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net