Whitewater Over the Dam: A Washington Saga From So Long Ago
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page C01
The Big Man is back.
He's got the 10-pound book and the mojo charm and all those brains and that big id. And as evidenced by a recent querulous interview with the BBC, he still harbors the perhaps not unreasonable grievance that "people like you" (that is, the press and the right wing) nearly sacked his presidency.
Now William Jefferson Clinton has his very own movie -- "The Hunting of the President" -- to make his case. It's a sort of personal home highlight reel that argues that this Brobdingnagian man was nearly laid low by oddballs and tramps and a pack of right-wing Republicans, not least a placid-voiced, pasty-faced, sex-obsessed-in-a-smarmy-sort-of-way partisan special prosecutor.
But more on Kenneth Starr later.
By film's end, you may be inclined to agree that Whitewater was much ado about some lost money. That Clinton's White House canoodling with Monica Lewinsky was stupid but not worth an impeachment. And that overzealous prosecutors should have let poor Vince Foster rest in peace.
But you might also wonder if this flashback was really necessary. There is an archaeological feel to the movie, directed by Harry Thomason, who is an old Hollywood pal of the president's, and Nickolas Perry. This is a world with no 9/11, no Iraq, no torture, no car bombs and no Wolfy and Rummy and Dicky.
We're back in fin de siècle Washington, somewhere long ago and kind of frivolous. Where Republicans fixated on the presidential libido and a president pondered what the definition of "is" is. Michael Moore's new movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11," may take a cheap shot or three and discern the shape of one too many conspiracies. But his project has an undeniable moral urgency and offers a passionate vision of a world dangerously askew on its axis.
"The Hunting of the President" strains too hard and too portentously for the same effect, and with far less success. It has the John Grishamesque opening. There's the ominous music and a camera that pans to a humid sunrise over the Capitol. There's the clickety-clack of a typewriter and the numbers appear:
We hear the voices of senators debating and the camera cuts to the stentorian Sen. Dale Bumpers (full disclosure: This is a peculiarly Washington acid flashback . . .) declaiming on impeachment. "But the question," Bumpers demands, "is how did we come to be here."
The filmmakers (who base the movie on a superior book of the same name) are very eager to answer this question. First to step forward is Sidney Blumenthal, the president's D'Artagnan, or perhaps his Sancho Panza. A former presidential adviser and author, and a former Washington Post reporter, Blumenthal is a devotee of the Manichaean struggle. His Clinton is a man confronting a sclerotic, corrupted establishment that detested him for being the lowest of white trash.
"It has to do with the entrenched power," Blumenthal explains. "He is confronting [that] and trying to change."
Perhaps, but this animosity is nothing new. Washington is a clubbish, worldly, parochial place, and its insiders tend often to view executive branch arrivals as arrivistes. Jimmy Carter was the moralistic peanut farmer and Ronald Reagan (hagiography aside) the California lightweight with those weird Neanderthal politics. In the past 30 years, only George Bush I played the role of the clubman.
The movie recaps much that is hazily remembered, from Whitewater to Gennifer Flowers to Paula Jones. Few of these characters come off well: Flowers, who had an affair with the president, is described (by Morgan Freeman, who reads the voice-over) as a "down-on-her-luck jingles singer." And Paula Jones, who is seen giggling self-consciously and foolishly, is described by one interviewee as a woman with "the hair and the nose."
Clinton's former gubernatorial chief of staff appears to lament that, although Clinton behaved badly, he could hardly help himself. "Bill Clinton had woman falling all over him," Betsey Wright tells us; "there's something so horrible about a politician having groupies" throwing themselves at his feet.
But something's missing here, not least a better sense of the cat-walker in chief. Clinton knew that his Washington was not the city of JFK and LBJ and other presidential womanizers. The film wrestles only fleetingly with how profligate Clinton was in his personal risk- taking, and how that jeopardized his presidential project.
Only in its last half-hour or so does the film make a grander case for what was lost. As the Arkansas good old boys recede and Kenneth Starr and his earnest young men start walking across the screen, we are not seeing a fair fight. A Republican-controlled judicial panel has replaced one special prosecutor -- the moderate Republican Robert Fiske -- with the very conservative Starr, who takes a far more aggressive, moralistic view of Clinton's failings.
There are irresponsible reporters in abundance and Republicans only too willing to pull Clinton's temple down around him. The bizarreness of the times is nicely captured in a brief interview with Robert Bennett, the president's counselor, who recalls the absurdity of pulling the president out of a meeting about the coming war in Kosovo to talk about Paula Jones.
So in the end the film yanks us back, step by step by step, to the president's near-fall. We understand that many behaved badly and that the nation itself seemed to be inhaling strange vapors.
But we also understand that something far more consequential looms in the wings. And that renders "The Hunting of the President" the feel of a sideshow.
The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton (89 minutes, at Visions Bar Noir) is not rated. It contains testimony about sexual relations.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company