A film review by Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
“Mr. Cao Goes to Washington,” produced by the Center for Asian American Media (caamedia.org), is a documentary chronicling the fascinating political career of Anh “Joseph” Cao, the first Vietnamese American in history elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The one-hour film is a fast paced, engaging, and intelligent review of Cao’s historic service in Congress.
In 2008, Cao pulled off a stunning upset to win Lousiana’s Second Congressional District in a special December election. A political novice, the Republican Cao won his seat against all odds.
Cao’s congressional district had been drawn to all but ensure the election of an African American candidate. Another historic candidate, Barack Obama, carried Cao’s district with a landslide 75 percent total of the vote in his first presidential election. Moreover, prior to Cao, no Republican had represented New Orleans in Congress in more than a century.
But in 2008, Democrats re-nominated Representative William Jefferson for office. He had just been indicted on federal corruption charges after law enforcement discovered $90,000 in his freezer. Cao assembled a winning coalition of disaffected African American voters, evangelicals, and independents to prevail over Jefferson.
The miniscule Vietnamese population in Louisiana took pride in Cao’s remarkable victory.
A self-described independent, Cao turned to the Republican Party primarily out of his conviction against legalized abortion. His views contributed to one of two seismic dramas that unfolded during his term. A political moderate who prided himself on responding to his diverse community and helping the President, whom he viewed as a great historical figure, Cao initially voted for Obamacare. He was the only House Republican to do so, incurring fierce wrath from his own party.
In his home district, Cao was barraged with hate mail. His hobbled re-election campaign was forced to cancel a number of fundraisers. A vexed FOX News anchor demanded to know why Cao was not a Democrat. Undeterred, Cao insisted he must remain true to his convictions and the good of the people he represented.
When the Senate bill returned to the House with a provision mandating public funding of abortion, Cao found himself again at the center of the national storm.
The film chronicles well Cao’s dilemma as a committed Catholic, a discerning politician who understood a vote against Obamacare might cost him re-election, and a minority who idolized America’s first President of color. Cao explained his reversal on the President’s signature legislation, stating “Abortion is a great moral evil.” Cao then found himself heaped with abuse by the left.
Another storm hit on April 20, 2010, in the form of the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history. Cao emerged as a strong voice for the weary residents of New Orleans, just healing from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
At a congressional hearing, Cao suggested the East Asian tradition of hara-kari to a startled BP America President. Cao then assured the alarmed executive, “My constituents are still debating on what they want me to ask you to do.”
The movie records Cao politely but firmly educating visibly anxious BP representatives at a residents’ forum. Authoritative but unfailingly polite, Cao seemed the picture of the citizen politician.
Against this dramatic backdrop, Cao ran for re-election in 2010. Even in the midst of a hard fought campaign, Cao impresses as a man of great personal integrity – perhaps too pure, as it turned out, for politics. Soft spoken, contemplative, and intelligent, Cao is comfortable with silence. Indeed, silence was the only answer Cao offered to a reporter’s query which opens and closes the film: “Did you find what you were looking for when you left the seminary and decided public life was the way to go?”
The film touches only briefly on this and other details of Cao’s riveting life story. When he was only eight years old, Cao escaped from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. He made his way to the United States and studied to become a priest to “alleviate human suffering in the world.”
Convinced there was a more expeditious manner in which to help humanity, Cao became an immigration lawyer. His close-knit family, including his wife, two young daughters, and elderly parents, provide a sweet backdrop for the film.
As a Republican minority in the south, Cao faced unique challenges, which are poignantly depicted in the film. A pensive Cao watched a meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference while an Anglo complained to the boisterous cheers of an all-white crowd, “Today I have to press one for English, and I want it stopped.” Later, at a Young Republicans gathering, Cao told an uncomfortably unresponsive Anglo crowd that the GOP must make greater inroads in minority communities.
These scenes, provocative but compelling, may also reflect the experiences of the documentary’s creators. Based on the plethora of ethnic surnames populating the film’s credits, the production team is nearly as diverse as the film’s cast of characters. With a Taiwanese American director and a host of Asian Americans contributors, the film reflects the emerging influence of Asian Americans behind the camera.
Additionally, the film does not employ a narrator, a light touch. The film alternates live footage of the campaign with comments from Cao’s campaign team, Cao’s family, and local citizens speaking directly to the camera. Jonathan Tilove of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, trailing Cao, and other local observers offer insightful commentary.
Even without a narrator, the film succeeds in presenting the question of whether a politician as independent as Cao may succeed in our increasingly divisive political environment. On Election Day in 2010, one voter implored the camera, “He needs more time.” Her entreaty echoes an earlier scene during which Congressman Cao was repeatedly cut off on the House floor even as he pled, “The future of America is too important for this body to be embattled and impeded by radical ideologies and political maneuvering.”
It is a symbolic moment in a film about a man who is himself a symbol, perhaps now more so than ever. Asian Americans are the fastest growing, best educated, and highest income population group in the country. They cast their votes for President Barack Obama in 2012 by a 3 to 1 margin over Governor Mitt Romney (76 percent to 23 percent). Given the tremendous GOP losses in the 2012 election and America’s shifting demographics, Cao’s plea for increasing diversity is one the Republican Party may do well to heed.
The film was screened this past week on TPT. Look for future screenings around the country and for information on how to purchase the film for institutional use at http://mrcaofilm.com. According to the website, the documentary will be available for home purchase soon.