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A behind-the-scenes documentary about the Clinton for President campaign, focusing on the adventures of spin doctors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Bill Clinton himself is almost never seen.Written by
Tim Horrigan <email@example.com>
Parodied in the series "Documentary Now" in an episode called, "The Bunker". See more »
[in a phone conversation with the director of the Illinois Perot Office]
Read it to me. Well what is names and addresses? I could send you a fax of names, addresses, and phone numbers of who you had an affair with, it wouldn't make it true. Yeah, I just... believe me. Believe me that it's been looked at by every major national news organization. Everything. And it is completely bullshit. If you went on the radio and said that Bill Clinton is the father of an illegitimate black child, you would ...
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There is a moment in 1964's "The Best Man" in which Gore Vidal's script has Henry Fonda watching a presidential convention on television. The audience bursts into prolonged applause. Fonda rises to his feet and remarks, "There will now follow four minutes and thirty seconds of a carefully choreographed spontaneous demonstration" (or something like that). The scene was evidently intended to instruct the audience that not everything in a presidential campaign or, by extension, in politics is what it seems. We've come a long way, baby. That audience is now a LOT more -- well, either "sophisticated" or "cynical," depending on your view of human nature.
"The War Room" covers the Democratic side of the 1992 presidential campaign and election in which, you'll remember, Bill Clinton was pitted against George Herbert Walker Bush and Ross Perot. Kids -- Clinton won.
Some of the calculation that went on in the war room, the collective name for Clinton's campaign staff presided over by James Carville and George Stephanopoulis, surprised even me. I'll give one example, with rough quotes.
Carville is sitting around with his dozen or so co-conspirators and one of them brings up the idea of flooding the floor at the Democratic convention with signs in favor of gun control. "We've only got twelve hours," somebody says, "so where are we going to get signs?" "Can't we get the people to print the signs themselves?" Somebody says, "No, no. That way you're going to get a scattered couple of signs. Some will be red on white, other will be white on blue. It will send a mixed message. I just don't think it will have the same impact as a whole SEA of identical signs all over the floor." They're talking about this problem as if they're trying to solve it for the delegates and visitors on the floor of Madison Square Garden -- just being helpful, you know? -- whereas the WHOLE THING is their own idea! For all they know there may not be a single gun-control thought among the multitude of Clinton supporters, let alone enough to create a sea of signs! They carry on in the same way about most of the issues of the time and most of the current events. Bush's campaign is having its posters printed in Brazil. Can this fact somehow be turned against them? Not that the other side is virgin pure. Stephanopoulis has to deal with someone on the phone, evidently a journalist, inquiring about a rumor that Clinton has had a child by a black prostitute. Curiously similar to the rumor circulated about McCain when he opposed Bush during the 2004 primaries. In McCain's case, the rumor was accompanied by photos of "the black child," who was actually a Bengladesh girl that McCain and his wife had adopted. Nineteen ninety-two was only thirteen years ago but things have gotten a lot dirtier in that time.
As a movie, "The War Room" is informative, shot casually as the events transpired. There are no long speeches. But it's unfocused too and the editing sometimes leaves out important developments, which we learn about later. I suppose this can happen when you're just pointing the camera around and not providing a voice-over. And the film makers must have faced the additional problem that there is no logical narrative to the story. Stuff happens, abruptly and unexpectedly. It's not the careful reconstruction of an historic contretemps, like "The Thin Blue Line" or Ken Burns' "The Civil War." The candidates aside, the most memorable people in the film are James Carville, George Stephanopoulis, and Mary Matalin, Carville's opposite number on the Republican side. The two of them are from different political poles. Someone should be doing a cinema verite copy of their MARRIAGE. But they have a lot in common too. They're thick-skinned, devoted, have a sense of humor, and are animated. Carville's face is so curiously constructed that it looks devilishly lively even in repose. He comes from an old New Orleans family. The hospital for lepers at Carville is named for his ancestors who founded it.
I can't say I like George Stephanopoulis too much. He looks like the president of my senior class in high school. He's self-contained, intelligent, thoughtful, clean-cut, handsome, and is much younger than I am. I could live with all the other stuff, but his youth is inexcusable. I'd have liked him a lot better as a stuttering, kyphotic octogenarian who was able to touch the tip of his nose with the tip of his tongue. And his hair was styled so boyishly that I didn't like THAT either.
The personality that's most memorable is Carville's though. He sits there smiling on election eve and begins imagining what Clinton would say at his concession speech should Bush win. And between the chuckles he spins out an improvised, absolutely spot-on by-the-numbers speech for the Governor. I would like to congratulate President Bush on his victory tonight and assure him that all of us are behind him and that this will be a better America with our help and God's and my family most of all my wife Hillary and Chelsea and all those of you who have worked so hard on this campaign I'd like to mention So-and-So and our prayers are with the President and let us all cooperate now and move together towards a greater American co-prosperity sphere, no not that, but a more prosperous and happier American which with God's blessing and blah blah blah. I couldn't stop laughing.
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