The primary concern of Gore Vidal in The Best Man is to examine the nature of power, the quest for power, and the way power makes people behave. Cantwell represents a naked, grasping lust for high office by any means necessary, while Russell, tempted by the same desires that motivate Cantwell, struggles mightily with the question of what is right and how far is too far in the pursuit of power.
Interestingly, the two candidates are not drawn strictly in black and white terms. Russell, a reflective, intelligent man, is the hero of this story, but he is also a privileged Ivy League intellectual, an “egghead” according to some of the other characters. Moreover, the allegations made against him of mental instability and promiscuity are, to some extent, true. Cantwell’s behavior is calculating and cold, but he is given complexity by his humble origins and his loving relationship with his wife, a particular paradox given the accusations hurled by both camps. The entire play, in fact, is populated by characters who give Vidal the opportunity to demonstrate the complexity and moral ambiguity of modern politics. Issues explored in discussions and debate among all the characters include whether candidates’ personal lives should matter, the difficulty of maintaining integrity while running aggressively for office, the role of religion in politics, and the differences between real leadership and mere image.
The witty dialogue and clever characters give the play a sense of satirical fun that keeps it from being overly cynical. The play’s title refers to the cliché “May the best man win,” a phrase that Cantwell cynically uses as often as possible. Vidal employs it ironically, the play clearly suggesting that finding the best man through the American political process is extremely difficult, although not quite impossible.