One of my favorite movies is a legal drama called A Civil Action. The story, based on real events, tells of the deaths that two negligent corporations caused by illegally dumping toxic chemicals that seeped into the waterways and the aquifers near the town of Woburn, Mass.
I read the book a few years before the movie came out. The cliché is that the movie is never as good as the book, but this was a case when the movie was even better. One of the reasons is the excellent cast, which features among others one of my favorite actors, Robert Duvall, in one of the many truly memorable parts in his career.
In the movie, Duvall plays Jerome Facher, a seasoned, revered, and iconic attorney who works for one of the most successful law firms in Boston. The story pits him against a young, handsome, and exuberant up-and-coming lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, played by John Travolta. Schlichtmann sets out to prove the guilt of the two corporations, one of which is represented by Facher's law firm.
In one of the pivotal scenes, Schlichtmann puts on the stand Mr. Riley, the owner of one of the companies that contaminated the soil and waters of Woburn. Schlichtmann grills the defiant, combative witness to incriminate him and his company. Just when it seems that Schlichtmann is ready to dismiss the witness, whom he has successfully painted in the worst possible light, he presses him with one final question. The answer catches Schlichtmann completely off-guard, at which point the old, experienced Facher's voice is heard, off screen, saying: "Never ask a witness why, unless you already know the answer."
Which brings us to one pivotal moment in last night's presidential debate. Sen. McCain, talking as he did all night to Joe The Plumber, cautioned him that under Obama's health plan small businesses like his would be fined for not providing health insurance to his employees. Watch Obama's response, when McCain asked him "I'd like -- still like to know what that fine is going to be"
Never ask a question, Duvall's character said, unless you already know the answer. A nugget of wisdom that McCain is not likely to forget any time soon. The bitter irony of it all is that Duvall, alas, is a McCain supporter. But I still love his acting, and I am thankful that he never got the chance to talk about Jerome Facher's legal wisdom with Sen. McCain.