Tricky Dick

In Primary Colors, being president means never having to say you're sorry.

For the sake of argument, let's say I fellated our 42nd president, William Jefferson Clinton. Consider the occasion: an empty office on a hazy night in late July. The West Wing A/C on the fritz, Hillary on holiday, an hour-long hole on the president's planner. A tacit air of possibility building into expectation. Why? Well, why not?

For the sake of argument, does he go for a cursory grope first? Are his hands nimble at the zipper? Does he--true to his word--always wear briefs? Does he smell...presidential?

Then, the gentle interruption of a desk phone. An indecorous slurp. The stiff-gaited shuffle-hop that occurs when one's trousers obstruct the ankles in motion. The muted jangle of keys in pocket, bumping across the seal of state. Let's say it happened.

The description, of course, rings immediately false: What use would a president have for a key-chain--working as he does right there in the house with a retinue of vigilant doormen, and puttering around town in a hired car? So the act never occurred; the truth is out in the open.

But for the sake of argument, let's say I've long harbored a professional fantasy about claiming that I fellated an American president. Just consider it. Until recently, this was not the kind of offhand remark that could likely see its way to print. But today, circumstances--and perhaps a dozen or so malicious opportunists--have conspired to make this scenario plausible enough to hit the page.

And lest my false allegation seem too distasteful--well, though my kindergarten teacher would never accept the excuse, the rest of the press did it first. For, with the proliferation of scandal, the venality of our president has taken on a mythological status. Our president is, at once, stately and impetuous, astute and pathological. He is a man of expansive empathy and self-serving appetites. Like Zeus, he walks among us, couples with our nubile women, and then futilely tries to conceal them from his wrathful Hera. He is capable of anything.

And, as with the gods and their mythology, the president's tribulations have come to be narrated in a fiction that bleeds into fact and vice versa. The sources are myriad: The War Room; Dave; The American President; Absolute Power; Air Force One; Wag the Dog--to name a few. In these films, we have the president as vulnerable bachelor. The president as scoundrel. The president as sexual predator. The president as reluctant warrior. The president as borderline pedophile.

But only with Primary Colors, the anonymous novel and now the film, do we have a text that purports to represent the president as...our sitting president, William Jefferson Clinton.

In Primary Colors, Bill Clinton goes by the name Jack Stanton; he's the governor of an unnamed Southern state, and we know he's just folks because he wears a clunky digital watch with his best campaign suit. John Travolta impersonates the president and the weight the actor supposedly gained for his comeback role in Pulp Fiction continues to hang around the gut of his latest character. Though Travolta lacks the shrewd and instinctive intelligence that makes Clinton such a prodigious campaigner, the actor appears to know how to "eat pork with his hands," as the candidate Stanton is wont to do with his aides at Fat Willie's barbecue shack.

Which is to say that Travolta, waddling around in a Members Only jacket from the middle of the last decade and misting a bit at the eyes, can look perversely presidential. Sounding the part is another matter altogether, though, and Travolta's aspirated rasp resembles a Saturday Night Live impression as often as not. But Travolta can take comfort in company: Director Mike Nichols, in an impeachable offense, has filled the film's other main roles with Brits. There's Hillary-cum-"Susan," played by Emma Thompson, and a Stephanopolitan deputy campaign manager, Henry Burton, played by Adrian Lester. This trio wages a stiff phonetic war on Elaine May's dialogue, and it's a war of attrition; sometimes the actors' jaws contort so confusedly in search of a diphthong that the viewer may imagine a ventriloquist-dialect coach standing behind these dummies with a cramped hand.

But there's another war at the center of Primary Colors--the coarse comedy of campaigning--and as Stanton trudges through the cold of New Hampshire, he also wanders into a shitstorm of his own making. Stanton's sexual peccadilloes are the selling point of this film, with the fortuitous timing of its release, and the first accuser here is Susan's hairdresser, Cashmere McLeod. Though her coif is appropriately big, McLeod is smaller than life. One need only turn to the 1992 campaign documentary The War Room to appreciate Gennifer Flowers, McLeod's inspiration, in all her sordid splendor. "Did Governor Clinton use a condom?" one reporter shouts during Flowers's infamous press conference. Flowers purses her lips. Her eyes narrow. An eyebrow quivers. Her hands go behind her head where she pretends to fix her hair without ever touching her head. Flowers goes someplace inside herself and seems to find the experience pleasing; the moment is as tawdry as curdled perfume.

Primary Colors, by contrast, is an antiseptic film and it often sacrifices the richer ambiguities of real political theater for the superficial pleasantries of the pictures. To this end, the movie, like the book upon which it's based, reverses an essential assumption of the American campaign narrative: that the quest for elected office compels decent people to do indecent things. The Candidate (1972), starring Robert Redford as an idealistic senatorial upstart, offers a succinct summary of the corrupting force of politics. "Virtue," a political advisor says, "is too great a strain for the long haul of a campaign." Some 15 years later, the faux documentary series Tanner '88, written by cartoonist Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman, would update this equation, equivocally shifting responsibility for ethical rot to the office-seeker himself. "Anyone who goes through that whole process and gets to the White House, probably is someone you don't want there," says journalist Linda Ellerbee in one scene.

Today, the office-seeker carries the blight of ambition, while the system itself has slipped discreetly into the background. In other words, Primary Colors attends to the moral crisis of the zipper while neglecting the deeper compromises of the open pocket. The campaign contribution--not the tricky dick--is the real instrument of public betrayal, and to the extent that Primary Colors neglects that fact, it is a profoundly dishonest film.

Make that a dishonest film about dishonest people. After a dozen setbacks and as many instances of stirring Southern pluck, the Stanton campaign moves into its third act. After the governor goads a wonkish opponent into a heart attack, a surrogate candidate--a former Florida governor and premature retiree (played by Larry Hagman with a charismatic stoicism that humbles most of the cast)--steps into the spotlight. Despite having suffered scrutiny themselves, Jack and Susan Stanton urge their loyal staffers to dig up dirt and sully the upstart. The primary colors, it turns out, are a spectrum of muddy browns, and if the stakes are high enough, any person will wallow in the stuff.

Nichols--a self-professed FOB who has hosted Clinton fundraisers--seems reluctant at times to concede this fact, and he embraces the book's sentimental search for a moral center. In cinematic terms, this involves constant camera movement whenever a character endures a twinge of conscience. And it happens all the time. When the campaign team experiences one of these incidents collectively, the background music swells and the camera circles the characters' faces as in a game of musical chairs. The game ends whenever Nichols finds his mark and zooms in for a close-up: The truth has just been spoken.

Primary Colors, however, is less about speaking truth to power than speaking half-truths for power. There should be no surprise that the novel Primary Colors was wildly popular in Washington, New York, and the other places where rich people rule by the dictates of their investment portfolios while their media minions conduct celebrity circuses that presume to interpret the affairs of state. And it's an engaging book, briskly plotted and smartly written.

Yet, while it flirts with fact, Primary Colors lacks the will to indict Clinton for his most unconscionable acts. You won't find Jack Stanton returning home to oversee the execution of a man whose brain damage was so severe that he set aside the dessert of his final meal for later--as Clinton did in 1992 with murderer Ricky Ray Rector, in order to avoid the appearance of being soft on crime.

But the most assiduous--and most seductive--conceit is the romanticism with which Primary Colors stumps for the president as a man of the people. In one affecting scene, Stanton's staff does spin control in a hostile hotel suite, while Nichols's camera peers through the window to the candidate in a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop across the street. The light outside the Krispy Kreme is a stark, neon green, and the shop is all glass and chrome with crimson counters and booths. Soon we recognize Stanton, pudgy and vulgar in the best sense of the word, wearing a drab sweatshirt and striped blue sweatpants, and he's perched on a stool, listening to the crippled counterboy. Before Stanton's hungry smile becomes discernible, the viewer recognizes this depiction of late-night Americana as a handsome (if entirely disingenuous) tribute to Hopper's Nighthawks.

Governing, we are told, is lonely business, and the functional agenda of Primary Colors is to serve as an apologia for the ethical lapses that electoral politics demand. Time and again, the charismatic Stanton sweet-talks and rationalizes away his transgressions, and in exchange for his candor, all we are asked to do is hold our nose amid the faint stench of brimstone. The Stantons, like the Clintons, practice the high American religion of pragmatism, and Primary Colors skillfully--and entertainingly--wrests our consent to be betrayed.

Primary Colors is playing at area theaters.

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