Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Pol Watchers

By Chris Herrington

MARCH 30, 1998:  On the national entertainment state, where Siskel and Ebert and Sam and Cokie seem interchangeable (John McLaughlin being more of a Gene Shalit type) and the Wag the Dog scenario is serious policy discussion, Mike Nichols’ much-awaited Primary Colors could ride the wave of Clinton fever or could end up like a second volcano or asteroid movie. After all, Primary Colors isn’t much more of a construction than Crisis in the White House, the ongoing made-for-television mini-series that may have a longer run than M*A*S*H.

If Kenneth Starr’s vastly over-budget Whitewater turned out to be less Titanic than Waterworld, then Clinton/Jones/Lewinsky et al is The Full Monty, a lighter, sexier romp whose assumed short run has given way to seemingly endless box office. Where Whitewater failed to tap into the current zeitgeist for disaster flicks, Crisis in the White House proves there’s always room for raw sex in our national cineplex. Sure, it may have taken a brief back seat during that big opening week for War with Iraq? (action movies always open well), but, recent nostalgia wave notwithstanding, Reagan-era militarism can’t contend with the more direct phallic obsessions of a Clintonion America, and soon Willie’s Angels were back on top.

But if Primary Colors lives up to the perceptions of its source material (Joe Klein’s controversial book of the same title), then this exploration of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, where the seeds of the current scandal were more than evident, could well add to the boffo box office. And you thought Titanic had cornered the market on spin-off product? Given how central the election ritual is in American life, it’s surprising how few really good campaign movies there are. Pre-Watergate election flicks like Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948) and Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man (1964) document a political landscape far removed from the one we’re currently traversing, but there are some illuminating connections.

In State of the Union, Spencer Tracy plays industrialist Grant Matthews, a self-made millionaire with populist leanings who thinks his pragmatic, results-oriented business approach will translate easily to governance. Presaging Ross Perot by four decades, Matthews is drawn into the presidential race by a newspaper tycoon turned kingmaker played by perennial heavy Angela Lansbury. State of the Union documents the behind the scenes maneuvering (literal smoke-filled rooms) of a time when the party machinery hand-selected candidates and, as one handler informs Matthews, “the people have little to say about the nomination.”

President Clinton’s 1992 campaign is a ripe source.
Photo by John Landrigan
The Best Man is an equally cloistered view of the electoral process. Set entirely behind the scenes at the Republican National Convention, The Best Man documents a less mass-mediated era when the conventions were more than empty spectacle. It also centers on a still-festering split within the Republican party that was just then developing. Henry Fonda plays William Russell, Secretary of State and front-runner for the nomination. Russell is a patrician Republican – independently wealthy, intellectual (he cites Bertrand Russell to the press) and liberal (he’s unabashedly pro-integration). His closest competitor is the “poor but honest” Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), a New Conservative in the Reagan/Goldwater mold. The battle for the nomination plays out, not in the media or on the convention floor, but in the hotel rooms, hallways, and campaign offices outside the convention hall.

If the inside baseball of these political films seems a bit archaic now that manipulation and control of the public doesn’t even need to be hidden, one shared element of State of the Union and The Best Man is utterly contemporary: marital infidelity. Both Matthews and Russell are acknowledged adulterers, and while their handlers are worried about public perceptions, there is no sense of surprise or outrage. In The Best Man, the current president assures Russell, whose marriage of convenience rhymes with public perceptions of the Clintons’, “Those rumors about you and your lady friends...they won’t do you a bit of harm.” In State of the Union, Matthews cheats on his wife (Katharine Hepburn) with Lansbury’s newspaper tycoon, who could well be a Baldwin brother with her reference to the issue as “those chains of middle-class morality that have kept great men down through the ages.”

A modern campaign film eminently worth one’s time is Tim Robbins’ broadly satiric pseudo-documentary Bob Roberts (1992), which follows a Pennsylvania senatoral campaign between Roberts, a folk-singing Wall Street neo-fascist, and incumbent liberal Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal, who wrote the screenplay to The Best Man). Robbins’ scathing attack on the nihilism and greed of Reagan conservatives is dead-on, if a bit smug. But the film’s true target is the mainstream media, and its complicity in preserving the political status quo. Where State of the Union shows the major media working directly to influence the election, Bob Roberts’ triumph is in exposing the much more insidious current state of affairs, where direct partnership is no longer needed for the corporate-owned mainstream press to support the state-business alliance. Set on the eve of the Gulf War, Bob Roberts targets a print media where “objective journalism” means transmitting government and corporate press releases and an electronic media whose sensationalism and shallowness is beyond the pale.

An obvious companion piece to Primary Colors is D.A. Pennebaker’s and Chris Hegedus’ 1993 documentary The War Room. Following the Clinton campaign through the primary and general election, The War Room tells its story through campaign managers James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Where political films like State of the Union and Bob Roberts portray campaign managers as sinister figures, Carville and Stephanopoulos couldn’t be more likable, especially Carville, whom the film elevates into a folk hero. Contrasting with the slick, Oxford-educated Stephanopoulos, Carville comes across as a Southern populist to be proud of. With a wardrobe seemingly furnished by the LSU bookstore, Carville spends much of the film in the campaign’s Little Rock war room, surrounded by piles of Budweiser cans, eating popcorn out of coffee filters, railing against injustices (“Every time somebody even farts the word ‘draft,’ it makes the paper”), editing ad copy (“No sir, maybe that’s a Southern thing, but No sir.”) and just generally being inspirational. His teary-eyed victory speech to the campaign staff, where he tells them that politics has been his life and that it’s a life worth living, is as touching a moment as has been captured on celluloid (“I was 33 years old before I ever went to Washington or New York, 42 before I won my first election, and I’m happy for all of y’all.”).

One moment in The War Room from the New Hampshire primary is especially resonant amid the current circus. With Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging allegations swirling around the campaign, a political consultant is shown speculating about Clinton’s chances. “It’ll only be a matter of days ’til he has to get out, if not hours,” the pol says. Word for word, it is almost identical to what the talking heads (including Stephanopolos) were saying two months ago, the Sunday before the State of the Union address, on This Week With Sam and Cokie.

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