1992 doesn’t seem like it was that long ago but watching Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, a behind the scenes documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign, during a current presidential primary season reminded me how much has changed in American politics. Yes, people can be seen in The War Room holding signs deploring us to “take back America” from whatever presumptive foreign body has wrestled control of it and one of the tenants of the Clinton campaign is “change vs. more of the same,” durable challenger language. When James Carville, the Clinton campaign manager and star of The War Room speaks about issues, they are the same Democratic gripes about Republicanism we hear today, but what struck me about The War Room, which is only so effective at showing the life of a campaign worker, is how much more raw politics were those 20 years ago. Carville swears casually, not just to other staffers but to volunteers as well. Clinton himself gets heated and points stern fingers at his Democratic primary opponent and incumbent President George H.W. Bush uses openly antagonistic and patronizing tones when discussing the Arkansas Governor, a title he calls Clinton with a strange disdain. I don’t know if you could make a movie like this now. Everybody’s too polished. People would want to control the content more. I read all the time that the two parties couldn’t be further apart in 2012 and that bi-partisonship is all but dead, but it doesn’t seem like they liked each other all that much in 1992.
The movie starts in New Hampshire, home of the first primary (the movie skips over the Iowa caucus, where Clinton finished fourth behind Iowa Senator Tom Harken, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas and a number of uncommitteds. Harken’s win was mainly for show, Iowans expressing pride in their local politician, but it prompted Clinton to call himself “the comeback kid” after taking New Hampshire). We see Governor Bill Clinton in a baseball cap, t-shirt and shorts giving a phone interview while his Carville and his communications director George Stephanopoulos listen in. From there we follow them through victory after victory, alleged sex scandals, the Democratic nomination and the general election. Clinton becomes a tertiary figure, someone who is discussed but rarely seen and Carville and Stephanopoulos emerge as the real subjects.
Carville is a whirlwind of energy and aggression. He’s got a thought on everything and proudly proclaims them. One of the most fascinating passages in the movie is the coordination of the publicizing of a Brazilian news feature, which reports on a printing facility that President Bush had financed. Carville is convinced he has a smoking gun, the facility was paid for with public funds and the President has been hounding Carville’s candidate about time spent in Russia and now he’s caught sending money and jobs to a different foreign country. Carville gets animated and indignant on the phone that the race has just changed. It doesn’t amount to much. It’s really fascinating to watch Carville rant and rave, spouting rustic idioms in his paradoxical quick Southern cadence. The War Room doesn’t spend much time on the other side, but when it does it centers on Mary Matalin, a political director for the Bush-Quayle campaign and Carville’s sometime girlfriend (the two are now married). It seems to me that both say things about the other’s boss that would be tough to put to bed but we get to see a brief moment of them together that makes us optimistic about modern politcs. However, it also makes us wonder if the campaigners really believe the rhetoric or if they are just trying to win.
If Carville is the manic showman, Stephanopoulos is a little more thoughtful. Carville says he was 42 before he was on a winning campaign, Stephanopoulos was more than 10 years younger than that when he helped Bill Clinton win the White House. There’s a moment on election night when he’s asked how he feels (by another staffer, not by the filmmakers who are almost criminally disinterested in that sort of thing), his answer displays a lot of consideration, especially in the face of one of the most stressful days of his life. His conversations on the phone with the President-Elect are also touching. The night before election day both campaign leaders address the staff. Carville’s speech is emotional and moving, but the words from a visibly exhausted Stephanopoulos betray a real belief in the system, a borderline naïve faith that one man, their man, is going to make a difference. The strengths of the two are highlighted nicely by The War Room as both shine when the going gets rough, Carville rousing a group of volunteers in New Hampshire like Patton and Stephanopoulos calmly but firmly talking down a politician who is threatening to go public with a damning rumor at the eleventh hour.
The film itself is only competently made. Though its subjects obviously are, the movie resists being overly political. It’s not really a commercial for Clinton or progressive politics as much as a document of the workings of a major campaign. I tired of the campy, dated campaign songs that bogged down the soundtrack and I would have like some more inquisitive lines drawn or more scenes like the funny moment when a 30-person staff meeting turns into a discussion on the legibility of handmade signs. Seen twenty years later, some lines can be drawn by the viewer. It’s not difficult to understand why Stephanopoulos and Carville have emerged as media personalities and it was interesting to see how much is different and how much stays the same. As we were watching the film, my wife received a news alert to her phone: “Romney wins Wisconsin.” Here we go again.