How Bill Clinton changed political movies
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, October 28, 2000)

Bill Clinton has forged a unique relationship with show business over eight years, but of course he's not the first American president to connect with that world. John Kennedy went to Hollywood on sex-hunting expeditions and learned from movie stars how to make his public image glow. Ronald Reagan transferred an actor's poised good humour into politics. With Clinton it was different. He started out among dowdy Arkansas politicians and slowly attached himself, almost like a groupie, to the world of glamour and fabricated excitement, with startling results for himself and American culture.

Clinton both anticipated and helped establish the mass culture of the present. He created the climate in which Bob Dole, once the most sophisticated senator in Washington, could appear in commercials to explain that Viagra had cured his erectile dysfunction.

Clinton helped bend the culture in the direction of personal exposure, sentimentality and a heartfelt "sincere" liberal belief that you can never go far wrong if you feel compassion and blatantly exhibit your admirable feelings, whether or not they affect your actions. He soaked up the populist, hopeful American spirit from birth, and in turn marked that spirit with his own eager yearning and his clumsy groping toward fulfilment.

He radically changed the tone of what was always called, with an implied roll of drums, the most powerful office in the world. He made it more personal, more frivolous, more boyish.

Where other presidents had tried to be fathers of their country, Clinton became an erring son, a mischievous lad who's so loveable that he's forgiven everything. Clinton switched the presidency (as Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times) "from a paternal model to an adolescent model." Like a teenager waving for attention, he became a self-dramatist. He began to resemble an actor impersonating a president in a road show production of a melodrama called White House in Crisis. He learned to show emotion in theatrical ways. At a funeral, whether for a close associate or for dozens of strangers killed by terrorism, he always gave what critics call a richly detailed performance, with tears that flowed for the camera. Others go to funerals to mourn. Clinton (his performance shows) went there to be seen mourning.

People called him vulgar and silly when he played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's TV show or discussed his underpants on MTV. They didn't understand, as he clearly did, the extent to which the entertainment industry was dictating the style and attitudes of America. He was personally attracted to TV and the movies, and Hollywood executives and stars became his passionate allies. In 1998, at the height of the impeachment process, no less a thinker than Alec Baldwin, an ardent supporter of the President, declared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien: "I'm thinking to myself, if we were in other countries, we would all right now go down to Washington and we would stone Henry Hyde [chief congressional tormentor of Clinton] to death! ... And we would go to their [Congressmen who vote for impeachment] homes and we'd kill their wives and children." It was a moment of bully boy horror and histrionics, a Hollywood moment and a Clinton moment.

It encapsulated the Clintonization of Hollywood and the Hollywoodization of Clinton. It reminded us that in the 1990s, whether you liked it or not, the greatest show of America, therefore the greatest show on earth, was Clinton, his self-generated traumas, and the furies they let loose.

At the centre of it, as in any good drama, was character. People earnestly discussed "the character issue," but the nature of the president's character was never much in doubt. He's a narcissist, and would probably be more at home in Hollywood than anywhere else. Narcissists, possessors of high but unstable self-esteem, need incessant praise and often require many sexual partners. They regulate their self-esteem by searching for reassurance, rationalizing mistakes and -- most crucial -- displaying wounded feelings whenever possible. A narcissist occupying the Oval Office must act like a movie star faced with bad reviews or declining grosses. Despite a lifetime of success, Clinton still presents himself as neglected and rejected. George Stephanopoulos, in his memoirs, quotes Clinton whining that no president has ever been treated as badly as he has (presumably forgetting those who were assassinated). In Rolling Stone magazine he complained of "never" getting credit for his accomplishments.

Like every narcissist, he's still showing his wounds. As recently as Oct. 20, The New York Times reported that he was "hurt" and "bewildered" because he hadn't been invited to take part in Al Gore's big campaign rallies. Narcissists are notoriously incapable of empathizing with others, and Clinton hasn't yet understood the shame his lies brought down on the heads of his associates, including Gore -- shame they surely relive during any appearance shared with him. In a Hollywood movie, as Clinton knows, problems don't linger that way. The scriptwriter produces a resolution, everyone experiences "closure," and all "move on."

Denial is an essential strategy to the narcissist. The White House ran a vicious disinformation campaign against Monica Lewinsky for seven months, but that was typical of the administration's style. As Rem Rieder noted in the American Journalism Review: "Whenever the president's personal behaviour has been called into question -- the draft, smoking marijuana, bimbo eruptions, the Whitewater land deal -- the response has been the same: bob and weave, counterpunch with abandon, unleash the world-class spin machine." Clinton pioneered, or at least perfected, the unapologetic apology, a petulant display of anger rather than contrition.

In the 1990s, under Clinton's influence, Hollywood found itself tugged toward the presidency. The movie people had always made a few presidential biographies (such as Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 and Wilson in 1944), political satires (such as The Best Man in 1964 or Being There in 1979) and films on political scandals (All the President's Men in 1976). But until the 1990s the White House was not a favoured locale for movies. Why did that change? Perhaps Hollywood warmed to Clinton's puppy-like friendliness. Or perhaps the Clinton administration cooked up such a rich stew of drama (illicit sex, vague corruption, widespread mendacity, hysterical disorganization, a famous suicide) that it made the White House irresistible to producers.

So Hollywood began turning out presidential movies in unprecedented numbers. The Internet Movie Database identifies 83 features focused on presidents since motion pictures were invented; of these, two dozen have been made in the Clinton era, far more than under any other president (see selected filmography, below). In 1999, television followed, with the most sophisticated political TV series ever, The West Wing, featuring a staff of neo-Clintonians headed by a high-minded president who is morally as far from Clinton as it possible for a character to get and still remain credible.

Clinton was a gift to show business. He changed the presidency from something august and distanced to the motherlode of American humour and drama. He did scriptwriters the great favour of proving that everything the tabloids imagined about the secret lives of the powerful was true -- only more so. (No professional tabloid fantasist ever came up with anything like the FBI analyzing presidential semen on an employee's dress). Sex is Hollywood's main subject at all times, and it likes nothing better than new variations on the theme. Clinton created a national discourse dominated by sex: Americans to their astonishment found themselves discussing whether fellatio is adultery. There has never been such a sexualized presidency, nor had anyone imagined there could be.

His style was grounded in lowbrow entertainment. As Joe Klein recalled recently in The New Yorker, the 1992 Clinton campaign, from New Hampshire primary to White House inauguration, appeared to exist "entirely within the grammar of popular culture -- a cross between a disaster movie and a country music song."

>From Hollywood he also imported the sexual ethics of the casting couch. And something more: sexual inadequacy. Like many stars, he revealed eventually (through those painful Kenneth Starr tapes) that his radiant public sexuality masked private fear and incompetence. As details of his "affair" with the intern emerged, it sounded like the fumbling of frightened teenagers, afraid of their own sexuality but anxious to experiment so long as their parents didn't find out. It was dreadful to contemplate that a man of such eminence and experience was, in private, such a boy, but it accords with what we know of the bedroom lives of many great stars, such as Marilyn Monroe. His story illustrated what psychiatrists have always known, that narcissism is not the road to joyful sex. Stardom is an institutionalized form of narcissism, with a vast industry to support it. It is also a way of avoiding reflection. A movie star says "I am a very private person" in the course of giving an interview about her marriage, and never notices a contradiction. That was Clinton's style, too: He offered the world a warm, soft-hearted, caring and "open" personality that had absolutely nothing to do with the way he lived and acted. It didn't matter to him. He was far too intoxicated by the spotlight to notice anything as mundane as logic and continuity. He sought stardom, and in his grotesque way he found it.

Cinema of the Clinton Years: a selective filmography

Dave (1993)

In retrospect, this Ivan Reitman comedy looks like the foundation stone of Clintonian cinema, even if it was in the works before took the Clintons took office. Kevin Kline plays both President Bill Mitchell, a self-important philanderer, and Dave Kovic, a look-alike who is hired to impersonate him. A stroke suffered during an adulterous encounter has left the president brain dead, so the chief of staff (Frank Langella) persuades Dave to pretend he's the real president and let Langella's cabal retain power. Dave, of course, must more or less save the republic. Sigourney Weaver, a First Lady who grew tired of her wayward husband long ago, welcomes the new guy. The fact that she has more than a little of Hilary's tone did not go unnoticed at the time. In the innocent early 1990s, dangerously indiscreet sexual acts by the head of state seemed rather outlandish.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Harrison Ford, playing Jack Ryan of the CIA from the Tom Clancy novels, investigates the killing of the president's friend by narco-terrorists, but soon discovers he's being used by his bosses to pursue their nefarious schemes. One highly suspect boss is the president, played by Donald Moffat as a combination of buffoon and villain, a hint of portrayals to come.

The American President (1995)

Sex--legal, non-adulterous but nevertheless politically dangerous--stalks the halls of the White House in Rob Reiner's romantic comedy. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), a widower, has trouble getting dates discreetly. He falls in love with a lobbyist, played by Annette Bening, creating a scandal. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the script, later created The West Wing and promoted Martin Sheen, chief of staff in this movie, to the role of virtuous president. (A remark from Roger Ebert's 1995 review now sounds like prophecy: "Among the many emotions that The American President re-awakens, one of the best is simple affection for the presidency.")

My Fellow Americans (1996)

Jack Lemmon and James Garner play aged ex-presidents, once political enemies, who must fight together against plotters within the current administration. In an election year it must have seemed like a good idea to connect the Oval Office and the fad for geezer movies--a miscalculation, as it turned out. But My Fellow Americans demonstrated Hollywood's new perception that the White House was a site to which old-fashioned comedy could be transferred.

Murder at 1600 (1997)

Here the filmmakers assume, rightly, that audiences will no longer be surprised to learn about dark conspiracies perpetrated by the most senior government officials with the support of murderous henchmen in the Secret Service. The body of a woman staff member shows up in a White House washroom, and Detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) comes to investigate. He's thwarted at every turn, by the Secret Service and everyone else. Meanwhile, the president is thinking about attacking North Korea for holding U.S. soldiers hostage. In the end, Detective Regis, with only a beautiful secret service agent (Diane Lane) to help him, must save the republic.

Absolute Power (1997)

Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood), a geriatric but still active jewel thief, is burgling a mansion in Washington when a drunken couple enters the room where he's pursuing his trade. He hides and watches as they argue, the woman stabs the man in the arm with a letter opener, the man calls for help, and two Secret Service agents rush in and shoot the woman dead. The man is President Richmond (Gene Hackman), and the dead woman was the wife of a rich friend and backer of the president (E.G. Marshall). Luther gets away, with jewels and the blood-stained letter opener, but of course his knowledge puts him in danger. In William Goldman's script, with Eastwood's direction, the American president becomes the equivalent of the all-powerful Mr. Big in an old film noir, tightly protected by a cordon of thugs but eventually forced to pay for his crimes.

Wag the Dog (1997)

The president whose crime starts the story embodies a newly familiar kind of evil: he's a pedophile who can't keep his hands off Girl Scouts. To distract the public's attention, a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to concoct an imaginary war. No one hesitates to commit murder to protect the president's reputation. Barry Levinson directs this farce so well that it seems, at the time, believable.

Air Force One (1997)

Harrison Ford is a morally unstained president and an action hero as well. Kidnapped by terrorists from a disputed corner of Russia, he performs astonishing feats of man-to-man warfare and mid-air rescue, making every absurd trick credible. At one point, the joyful old warrior throws someone a mile or so to earth with the words, "Get off my plane!"

Primary Colors (1998)

If nothing else, Bill Clinton is a good sport. We know this because he's recently been granting interviews to Joe Klein of the New Yorker, who (as "Anonymous") wrote the novel on which Mike Nichols' film, and Elaine May's script, were based. Primary Colors broke new ground: it was the first truly vicious satire of a specific modern president ever published or filmed during his time in office. Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) registers as a dead ringer for Clinton, a thoughtless hedonist who can't keep his pants on even when a presidential nomination is in sight. The Hilary stand-in, Emma Thompson, never convinces anyone she's not an English actress slumming. The film has some breathtaking moments, though, particularly when Travolta catches Clinton's unique tone of little-boy self-pity. No work of art in any medium has come closer to catching the pathology at the heart of Clintonism.
Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image