By Sharon Waxman
The Hollywood producer is back. Once again Harry Thomason, the bearish, bearded good ol' boy of Clinton scandals past is roaming the halls of the White House, working the phones and bucking up morale.
Thomason has been there before. It was the multimillionaire television producer, after all, who helped rescue Bill Clinton's candidacy when it threatened to unravel in 1992 over allegations that he dodged the draft. It was Thomason who helped reassure Clinton that the furor over Gennifer Flowers would pass.
This time it is Thomason who has brought his eye for stagecraft to bear, coaching Clinton before he delivered Monday morning's forceful, jaw-clenched, finger-wagging, lectern-thumping statement that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman."
Much of his time is spent acting as a link between the president and his legal team, and the White House press operation, according to an insider. Since he is a longtime pal and a fellow Arkansan, it is sometimes easier for Thomason to go to the president to ask a question or seek a clarification, the insider said.
Some Clinton aides were not particularly thrilled to see the 57-year-old Thomason back at Crisis Central because of his role in an earlier scandal involving the White House travel office. But even they acknowledge his presence has another, perhaps even more important, benefit buoying the Clintons' mood and stiffening their resolve.
"He's a close, close friend of the president and the first lady, he's been their adviser through many periods in their lives," says George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton confidant who is now an ABC News analyst. "I don't think it's necessarily about spin. It's about support, good judgment maybe it's just about being a friend."
"Hillary and Bill have been friends with Linda and Harry for so many years," says Barbara Corday, a prominent Los Angeles Democrat and former television executive who has worked with Thomason and his wife and business partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. "As human beings [the Clintons] need a handful of people around who just don't have an agenda. . . . They're just really, really old, good friends."
Thomason, who is staying in the White House residence as a guest of the Clintons, has barely been out of the Executive Mansion since he arrived Friday, answering a call for help from old friend Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bloodworth-Thomason, who does not fly, left Los Angeles Tuesday aboard a train headed for Washington.
But some observers say Thomason is also invaluable as a smoke-and-mirrors magician. "It's 'Wag the Dog,' and who better to do that than Harry?" muses Mary Matalin, a former Bush campaign official who is now a radio talk show host. She's referring, of course, to the current film in which a scandal-troubled White House turns to a political consultant and Hollywood producer to provide a distraction for the public.
"Here's what Harry brings: a fresh brain, a fresh perspective," Matalin says. "He sees the forest for the trees. Second, he brings an ability to tell a story in terms of white hats, black hats good guys, bad guys which is what they need right now. . . . He also brings a kind of maturity, a steadiness. They're all old, seasoned at the White House by now, but he's been there and done that."
But it was Thomason, too, who played a leading role in an early embarrassment for the president the 1993 firing of the White House travel office staff. Thomason had contacted the Clintons on behalf of a Cincinnati-based aviation consulting firm in which he held a minority interest, seeking a piece of the White House travel business. Within six weeks, officials had launched an investigation into alleged financial mismanagement of the travel office, ultimately firing seven employees who were later cleared of wrongdoing. The episode sparked criticism that Thomason and his wife were using their White House connections for personal gain.
Never very prominent on the Washington scene, the Thomasons have been virtually invisible in the capital ever since. They have, however, remained close to the Clintons. At the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Thomason staged Clinton's appearance and Bloodworth-Thomason produced a short bio-film on the president. The couple spent last Thanksgiving with the Clintons at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, and plan to attend next week's state dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Thomason and Clinton, introduced by Thomason's younger brother, Danny, have been pals and kindred spirits since Clinton's early political life in Arkansas. The young politician impressed Thomason with his intelligence and an ambition even more unabashed than his own.
Thomason had forged his own path to success. Growing up in the town of Hampton, he became a Little Rock high school football coach with big dreams and few prospects. He finessed his way into a job filming TV commercials for a gubernatorial candidate (not Clinton), then hitched a ride to California on a Federal Express plane and persuaded a Hollywood producer to buy film rights to a story he owned about a terminally ill athlete. He was on his way.
In the 1970s and, more successfully, in the 1980s, Thomason produced television series and made-for-TV movies, including "A Shining Season" and "The Fall Guy." In 1983 he married Bloodworth, a fellow Southerner who was a successful sitcom writer.
Together they made a winning combination, he with the ingenious concepts and pitches, she with the spot-on scripts. In the early '90s the couple had three series on the air at once, the most successful of them "Designing Women," about a group of interior designers in Atlanta. The Thomasons used the show to illustrate their liberal ideals, grappling with such issues as AIDS and homophobia, gun control, animal rights, racism and sexual harassment.
In the past couple of years, however, the Thomasons have been off the radar in Hollywood. After CBS canceled their series "Hearts Afire" in 1995, the couple took a stab at a political sitcom called "Women of the House," with Delta Burke a star of "Designing Women" about a widow who takes over her husband's seat in Congress. It was canceled after 13 episodes.
"They did take some time off," says Dan Richland, their agent of 17 years. "Mainly Harry was writing a screenplay. Linda was taking a much-needed rest."
Lately the Thomasons had been gearing up to get back into the television and movie business, though they never left their offices on the lot of CBS, where they have a production deal. (They also signed a television production deal with DreamWorks SKG in 1995.) They are about to begin casting for a pilot they will produce for CBS, "The Good Life," a sitcom about a multi-generational family.
Next month Thomason is scheduled to begin production on a feature film, "Malaguena," about a group of college students in Little Rock during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Now there may be a delay, depending on how long Thomason is wanted in Washington.
"This whole little mess of last week that may slow things down," says the Thomasons' assistant, Ben Harrell.
But when Clinton has needed him, Thomason has always been eager to help. When, just days ahead of the New Hampshire primary in 1992, headlines blared criticism that candidate Clinton had dodged the Vietnam draft by fleeing to Oxford University, the Thomasons stepped in to shoot, edit and pay for commercials featuring Arkansas veterans.
Then when allegations surfaced over an affair with Flowers, the Thomasons counseled the Clintons on how to face the ordeal, drawing on their own experience with a tabloid-publicized battle with series star Burke.
Most notably, Thomason orchestrated Clinton's theatrical stroll, which became known as "the walk," in New York from Macy's to Madison Square Garden on the night of his 1992 nomination. In addition, Bloodworth-Thomason authored the stirring convention film about Clinton's modest roots, "The Man From Hope." It was pure Hollywood, transforming Clinton from an overambitious Ivy League lawyer into a down-home, up-from-the-bootstraps populist.
"Up to that point, you had one Yalie-spoiled-brat-elitist running against a patrician," George Bush, says Matalin. "Harry totally turned that around, and it's been the basis of Clinton's success ever since."
So despite Thomason's later missteps at the travel office and, less dramatically, scheduling a hair appointment for Clinton with hairstylist Cristophe aboard Air Force One on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport a Hollywood producer may turn out to be the very thing the president needs most.
"Given the state of play today, which is a he-said/she-said, in that vacuum, Harry could turn it," says Matalin. "In any circumstance, Harry can make a difference and will make a difference. And believe me, I'm not happy about it."
Adds Corday, the former producer: "All these people they're asking back were supporters and friends for a long time. Each was good at something, so even if they left under difficult circumstances, if there were bad moments, when the chips are down, they're his old friends and they're coming back."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company