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Primary Colors
John Travolta plays Jack Stanton and Adrian Lester his young campaign aide Henry Burton.


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Dead-On Impression
Of American Politics

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 1998; Page B01

The morning the Gennifer Flowers story broke in 1992, I was in New Hampshire, working the phones from my hotel room, when the operator buzzed – to say that George Stephanopoulos had returned an earlier call, I thought. It was a rotten morning outside, a storm of snow and freezing rain settling in over the state.

I continued on with other calls, but 10 or 15 minutes later the hotel operator buzzed again. "Mr. Stephanopoulos is still holding," she said.

I quickly picked up the phone to discover that Stephanopoulos was on Bill Clinton's chartered plane heading for New Hampshire and the political air space of an enveloping crisis. What followed was a short game of cat and mouse: He wanted to know what I was hearing; I wanted to know what he knew. Neither of us was in a sharing mood. But his voice – and the 10-minute hold from the air – told me just how worried the Clinton team was about the Flowers allegation. It was also clear that they had no more idea where it would end than the rest of us.

I was reminded of that incident because there is a scene in the movie "Primary Colors" where characters modeled after Stephanopoulos, James Carville and Clinton's 1992 media adviser Mandy Grunwald are in a hotel room, despairing over their candidate, a Southern governor named Jack Stanton, alias Bill Clinton. None of them really knows their candidate and they fear the worst. "It's going to be the war thing, the drug thing and the woman thing," one of them says. They are, they agree, "flying blind" into the storm.

What is true in the movie was true in 1992 – and, judging from the daily briefings, is still true at the White House today.

For anyone who spent 1992 on the presidential campaign trail, or who has been swept up in the web of what happened between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it is impossible to view "Primary Colors" as mere movie. It is a surreal experience, shifting constantly between art and life, comparing celluloid events with real events and thinking not just about the actors and actresses and the characters they play, but the real-life people upon whom the characters are based. Frankly, it gets a little exhausting at times.

From the opening scene that mimics scores of Clinton campaign events to an emotive Stanton speech in a New Hampshire factory that is drawn directly from the most difficult days of Clinton's candidacy, much of the movie – in ways large and small – is based on real events that go beyond the obvious parallels of scandals involving Flowers and Clinton's draft record during the Vietnam War.

Take one example. In the movie, Stanton gets attacked in a magazine article by a powerful New York governor with an Italian name (Ozio) who is thinking about running for president. The same thing happened between Clinton and then-New York governor Mario Cuomo in late 1991. In the movie, Stanton rejects his advisers' advice to hit back. "I'm not going to go negative," he says. Clinton also decided not to answer Cuomo's criticism, but mostly he flinched, fearful of stirring the beast of Albany enough to bring him into the race.

The movie reminds us that, at their beginnings, presidential campaigns are driven by the dreams and ambitions of individuals. "History's what we're about," Susan Stanton (a k a Hillary Rodham Clinton) explains to aide Henry Burton (a k a Stephanopoulos). "What else is there? That's how history is made, Henry, by the first-timers."

Campaigns are important, intense, absurd, hilarious, tragic and always – always – unpredictable. That, of course, is one of their appeals. Every four years a new cast of characters troops forward to reinvent the wheel and grab for the brass ring, supported by legions of true believers and pursued by an ever-larger, ever-hungrier press corps.

Eventually campaigns become grand enterprises that spend tens of millions of dollars and fill flag-draped arenas with thousands of cheering supporters. But especial ly in their early months – and that is the period of Stanton's campaign that takes up most of the movie – they are often little more than a handful of people huddled in barren hotel rooms (with precisely the same institutional art hanging on the walls in "Primary Colors") wondering what to do next when the clamor outside grows louder and louder.

Already the Washington political community has begun to debate whether "Primary Colors" will help or hurt Clinton, and whether Clinton's current troubles will help or hurt the movie. My guess is that "Primary Colors" will do for Clinton what 1983's "The Right Stuff" did for John Glenn in his 1984 presidential campaign – not much one way or the other. This isn't a new subject, after all.

The other Washington parlor game will involve comparisons of charters: Is John Travolta better as Clinton than Emma Thompson is as Hillary Rodham Clinton? Billy Bob Thornton seems to have morphed himself into Carville, but to the extent that audiences assume the characters are entirely based on reality, I would only caution that the performance by Kathy Bates as the "Dust Buster" Libby Holden (a k a Betsey Wright) is both riveting and cruel. In some cases, it is useful to set aside notions of reality and just enjoy the movie.

The best-selling book "Primary Colors," written anonymously by New Yorker writer Joe Klein, was always two books. The first closely tracked the beginnings of Clinton's campaign through the dark days of New Hampshire and into Florida, where he finally disposed of his principal rival, Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator who died of cancer last year. From there the book became more a work of pure fiction, spinning out a funny and often farcical tale.

The screenplay adopts the same structure, but the latter portion of the movie also deals more directly with the moral ambiguities of contemporary politics, as Jack and Susan Stanton fight to keep his candidacy alive against a new and appealing competitor, a Florida politician played by none other than J.R. Ewing himself, Larry Hagman. Politics is about survival, as Clinton's experience keeps reminding the country, and the ability to do great things for ordinary people depends on winning elections, whatever it takes, as Stanton reminds Burton. Means and ends blur in this equation, in the movie as in real campaigns.

There is one implicit message in the movie that is ultimately disheartening: At this point in the evolution of American politics, every likely candidate has a dark past just waiting to be revealed. It is only a question of when and by whom – and whether it will prove fatal. There is no room left in this portrayal of politics for the ideas and issues that also drive political life, though they were as much the reason for Clinton's 1992 victory as was his ability to survive scandal. Are our politics in danger of being reduced almost entirely to an equation of kill or be killed?

One other thing. For all the real-life touches "Primary Colors" offers to its audiences, there is one jarring moment for anyone who has seen – and is there anyone who hasn't seen it a hundred times or more already? – the videotape of the president and Lewinsky on the day after his 1996 reelection victory. In the movie's last scene, Jack and Susan Stanton have swirled through a sea of balloons at their inaugural dance and they begin to greet their supporters. Stanton shakes hands, he even lightly kisses one woman at the front of the line. But he never hugs a soul.

Dan Balz covers politics for The Washington Post.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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