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  The Tale that Wagged the Dog

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 1998; Page C01

Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman in "Wag the Dog." (New Line Cinema)
The empire of reality strikes back.

We're in the middle of an eerie interplay between pulp fiction and pulp life: A movie arrives claiming to be satiric in its depiction of spin masters trying to wrestle a Washington scandal to the mat. Three weeks later, along comes the real thing – bigger, crazier, stranger, funnier and possibly more tragic than anything any filmmaker could come up with.

That "Wag the Dog" has been upstaged by reality leads to a larger point worth noting: Nobody writes better scripts than Washington. D.C., the Federal City. No literary conceit – irony, satire, melodrama – can stand against the power of the real thing when this town, in its extraordinary way, commingles ego, libido, greed, the lust for fame, power and interesting dinner parties, and manages to produce a four-star drama.

"Wag the Dog" is not that drama (though "Bill the Dog" may well be). The Barry Levinson movie features Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro as, respectively, a Hollywood producer and a spin doctor, who are secretly hired to run an undercover scam to deflect attention from the president's sexual dalliance with a 14-year-old "Firefly Girl" in the White House. They come up with a phony war against Albania, and carefully orchestrate the hype – including faked news footage – so that the scandal is all but forgotten.

Yeah, right. As if.

Now an alleged sexual relationship much less charged than the one invented by the movie – between the president and, after all, a consenting adult – has exploded like one of those smart bombs that may come whistling through the window of the South Baghdad Anthrax Development Laboratory and Water Works later this week. It's created a frenzy unseen in this town since the days of Watergate. And it's so far beyond spin and it's moving so fast that it's picked up a dramatic momentum so powerful that it must be finished before we can get back to business.

We all know this, and that's what gives this drama its special intensity: One of these two men – a president or an independent counsel – will be destroyed, totally, possibly even in the next few days. It's got equal parts opera buffo and horror movie to it, but when it's over, it won't have been a construction, a story: Real lives will be in ruins.

Meanwhile, another movie that plays with Bill Clinton is coming out in March: Mike Nichols's version of Joe Klein's anonymously written "Primary Colors." What possible impact will reality have upon this one? Let's put it this way: If you have stock in MCA, sell now.

Timing, they say, is everything, and in this case it may be everything bad. No matter how brilliant John Travolta's impersonation of a Southern governor running for president might be, and no matter how Hillaryesque Emma Thompson is, by the time the film arrives, the scandal may well be over, and with it, possibly, the Clinton presidency.

Does anybody recall the squalor and depression that lingered in the aftermath of Nixon's resignation? The country had been through an ordeal that left it in a collective state of post-combat stress syndrome. People just wanted to forget. Certainly, if Clinton has gone, that bitterness and fatigue will have lingered. It will, of course, be the biggest story of the '90s, a fall from grace so titanic that only a James Cameron could film it – and then only years hence, after a decade of healing.

Into this sea of icy regret and aching sadness, along cruises "Primary Colors." Is this not a recipe for failure?

The great Rudyard Kipling once penned a bitter epitaph for a man who took on something greater than himself: "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East." That same line applies to Hollywood's attempts to hustle the Eastern United States and its power city of ambition and destruction. But the lesson is: Never hustle a hustler – you'll go to a fool's bitter grave.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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