Primary Colors and the 1992 Clinton Campaign

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The opening sequence of Primary Colors telegraphs the central theme and concern of the film: character. Democratic Presidential candidate Jack Stanton moves slowly through a crowd, shaking hands with the people. In a medium shot that isolates his body and keeps his head and shoulders out of frame, Stanton goes through a variety of handshakes as he stops to meet each individual. One of his advisers comments off-screen on the candidate’s style of pressing the flesh: “He is interested in you,” the adviser narrates. “He’s honored to meet you.”

In the following scene Henry Burton, who is being wooed to join the campaign, witnesses the governor talking with the members of an adult literacy program. Wiping away tears, his voice quaking with emotion, Stanton tells a story about his Uncle Charlie, a war hero who was himself illiterate. Too proud to admit his problem, Charlie never took any of the jobs offered him when he returned from war. “He didn’t have the courage to do what every one of you is doing here,” Stanton tells the adult students, bonding with them on a personal and emotional level that is uncommon with political candidates. Henry, in tears himself, is impressed.

1998, PRIMARY COLORS

The idealistic Henry Burton is the narrator of the novel and the observer in this story, Nick Carraway to Stanton’s Jay Gatbsy. Henry’s character is later summed up nicely with some humor by campaign strategist Richard Jemmons: “You know your problem? It’s you got galloping T.B.” Not tuberculosis: “True Believer-ism.” Henry tells his girlfriend, who is no fan of Jack Stanton, “I think this guy could be the real thing.” It’s what he’s wanted all his life, he tells Susan Stanton. “You had Kennedy,” he explains. That’s what Henry wants: someone to believe in.

But back at the candidate’s hotel room, in what is to be his first actual meeting with the governor, Henry sees hints of the things that will later cause much trouble. First he witnesses the governor and the woman who runs the literacy program emerging from a bedroom, the governor buttoning his shirt and the woman adjusting her dress. Henry is embarrassed and looks away, but Stanton launches into a casual conversation and acts as if nothing untoward has occurred. (Tellingly, everyone else in the room seems not to notice Stanton and the woman, as if this is nothing extraordinary.) Moments later Henry meets Uncle Charlie and asks about the war-hero story. Charlie replies, “I’m Uncle Charlie. Whatever else he says, he’s the master.”

In these opening scenes we see the shape of Jack Stanton’s personal and political character. He is interested in people. He is willing, perhaps even eager, to lie. And he fools around with women. The handshakes are shown as quick shortcuts to emotion, and Stanton has a full catalog of them. The story of the illiterate war-hero is a more elaborate shortcut, focused toward a particular group of people in order to establish a common ground. But Stanton’s concern for people, illustrated by his actual (as opposed to feigned) interest in literacy programs, is genuine: several characters emphasize this point. He is not lying when he says he cares; the shortcuts are a matter of expediency – a good handshake can take the place of a hundred words, and a nice image (such as that of Uncle Charlie lying on his couch smoking his life away) is worth much more.

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The resemblance to Bill Clinton is of course not coincidental. The novel Primary Colors was published amid much controversy in 1996. It purported to be a semi-accurate insider tale of a Democratic Presidential campaign much like the 1992 Clinton campaign. The authorship of the book was attributed to “Anonymous,” later revealed be journalist Joe Klein, who had covered the 1992 campaign for Newsweek.[1] The screenplay by Klein and Elaine May, as well as the Mike Nichols-directed film adaptation, are both very faithful to the novel. There are numerous direct parallels between film characters and real-life figures in the Clinton campaign, as well as events that occurred during the actual campaign.[2]

The 1992 campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination featured more than the usual scandal. Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, was mounting an increasingly successful nomination bid when several scandals struck his campaign. Clinton was suddenly beset from all sides by questions about his attempts to avoid the draft, his beliefs about Vietnam, his actions while studying overseas, and his use of marijuana, as well as allegations that he’d engaged in extra-marital affairs.

Clinton’s doppelganger in the film is Jack Stanton, the governor of an unnamed Southern state who is pursuing the Democratic nomination for President. Stanton is a very warm and engaging politician, a charmer who also has a dark side. Described by his own wife as “a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined shit,” Stanton is portrayed by John Travolta with a sly smile and devilish eyes. He is temperamental and petty, throwing a tantrum over the lack of cable in their meager campaign dwellings. “You can’t run for the President of the United-fucking-States without CNN!” he shouts. But as mentioned earlier he also cares: not only about the voters to whom he’s willing to lie for victory, but also the people around him, whom he’s also willing to deceive in order to win.

Clinton’s own mercurial personality has been widely noted and is one of the running themes in his memoir, My Life. His troubled childhood in Arkansas caused Clinton to develop “parallel lives,” a dysfunctional coping mechanism by which he would “wall off anger and grief” in a secret, inner life in order to live the outer, political life, “which I loved and lived well.”[3] While his “selfish and self-destructive” persona did not lead to his downfall (as was the case of Richard Nixon, another President with a dark secret sharer), this shadow self was certainly the cause of most, if not all, of the serious struggles that plagued Clinton’s political life.

FLOWERS

The first scandal to rock the Clinton campaign was Gennifer Flowers. On January 23, 1992, the tabloid weekly Star published allegations that Bill Clinton had not been the most faithful of husbands. A “flagrantly failed lounge singer,”[4] Gennifer Flowers alleged she and Clinton had engaged in an extramarital affair for twelve years. Clinton denied the allegations, but the scandal proved irresistible to the media. Clinton and his wife, Hillary (a formidable political force in her own right), made the historic and courageous decision to appear on 60 Minutes to be interviewed. They were questioned about their marriage and answered personal questions never before posed to a Presidential candidate. Clinton denied specific allegations of affairs, but admitted to “causing pain in my marriage.”[5]

Flowers and her attorney then held a press conference where they played an audio tape of an alleged conversation between Flowers and Clinton. The conversations became further questionable when the Star would not release the original audio tapes for independent analysis. Though Clinton had never denied talking to Flowers on the phone, and he continued to deny specific allegations, the scandal hobbled the campaign.

In the film version of the scandal, lounge singer Cashmere McCleod alleges an affair with Governor Stanton. The Stantons go on TV to defend themselves. McCleod has a press conference and plays tapes of an alleged conversation between herself and Stanton. It is discovered that a sleazy private investigator intercepted a phone call between Stanton and Henry. Campaign consultant Daisy Green appears on television and plays an audio tape of a suggestive conversation between Larry King and an unidentified woman. She reveals that King’s cellular phone was intercepted when he made a restaurant reservation; the conversation was edited to sound as if King were talking about sex with the woman. Stanton is cleared and the campaign continues, newly invigorated from their victory.

For Bill Clinton, things did not end so neatly. Allegations of extra-marital affairs plagued him throughout his campaign and Presidency, ultimately resulting in his impeachment in the House for perjury and censure by the Senate. The Flowers scandal caused the campaign to go through what James Carville dramatically called “Meltdown,” Clinton’s approval numbers dropping 17 points in 48 hours.[6]

It was nothing compared to what hit them next. ABC News aired a report of a letter, written by Clinton to the ROTC officer at the University of Arkansas. “Thank you for saving me from the draft,” the letter read. The campaign seemed dead, but strategist James Carville proposed they release the letter themselves and go on the offensive. The radical tactic worked. Clinton put in numerous public appearances and fought hard in the final week of his campaign in New Hampshire, placing a respectable second behind Paul Tsongas, who was from the neighboring Massachusetts and expected to win. That Clinton had survive not one but two major scandals was nothing short of a political miracle.[7]

The Vietnam issue surfaces only briefly in the film. It is brought up by Henry’s girlfriend March Cunningham, who is a columnist for the Black Advocate (a “little shitty paper” according to Jemmons). March asks if Stanton avoided an arrest at a Chicago Vietnam protest by using a Daly political connection. If this were true it would certainly taint Stanton in the eyes of many liberals, presumably (and traditionally) the very people a would-be Democratic nominee courts in the primaries.

But the issue is “personal,” Henry assures his worried colleagues. Indeed, whatever the truth of the accusation, it would say little about the present character of candidate Jack Stanton. March presents it more as her own way of measuring Henry’s character: “You don’t care that this guy was already so manipulative in the 60s that he got into bed with the mayor of Chicago, the same mayor that busted the protestors at the Democratic National Convention?” But it doesn’t bother Henry: “He’s a politician.” March’s position can be seen as that of left-wing Democrats during the period of Clinton’s rise in the party, as they fretted over his apparent ease with the political process and his willingness to compromise.

This constant battle between Jack Stanton’s character and Jack Stanton’s political mission provides the dramatic tension for the film. During a late-night strategy session, Henry joins Stanton in an all-night doughnut shop. Stanton is having a casual conversation with a young man working behind the counter. His interest in the young man’s story is genuine. Stanton connects with ordinary people, and can actually do some good if he’s President. But his personal foibles threaten his success. “They’re gonna kill me with trash,” Stanton worries to Henry. Like the young man in the doughnut shop, Stanton himself is “achin’ to do good” but held back by his own limitations. Henry exhorts Stanton to cheer up: lots of folks are going through much tougher times. “Keep the folks in your mind,” Henry reminds him. Yes, Stanton nods. It’s about the folks. Cementing the idealist sentiments of this scene, the final shot is a wide composition of the donut shop that is clearly an homage to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, with Stanton and Henry isolated inside the business, which itself sits alone in a large urban lot.

While “the war thing” and “the drug thing” are alluded to by Jemmons, they do not comprise a major part of the film’s plot. For its show-stopping scandal, the film opts for the explosive rumors that Stanton has slept with and impregnated the black teenage daughter of a close friend. The matter seems settled when a blood test proves the allegations false. When Stanton later demonstrates he is willing to use similarly salacious rumors against a strong opponent, his friend Libby surprises him with the information that she has discovered: the blood tests are falsified, a fraud between Jack and his family doctor. Libby’s subsequent suicide prompts a profound shift in Stanton’s ethics: he buries the rumors about his opponent and warns him of their existence. It is barely enough to heal the damage done to his reputation in the eyes of Henry Burton, but during a shot similar to the opening sequence of the film, in the film’s final moments we see Henry among the celebrants when Stanton is elected.

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For Bill Clinton, the issue of a illegitimate mixed-race love child never got further than the sleazy rumor mills of Arkansas state politics. The issue threatened to surface near the end of the campaign for the nomination, but it had very little credibility and was largely ignored by the mainstream press. Near the end of The War Room, campaign manager George Stephanopolous takes a phone call from an unidentified person. Stephanopolous assures the caller that the story has been thoroughly checked and the allegations proven false. He also warns the caller that if they persist with the story it will damage their political, personal and professional reputation.

As it was, none of these scandals proved a major threat to Bill Clinton. His personal charm and political skills proved to be more than adequate tools as he fought and survived the “GOP sludgeathon” of the 1992 campaign.[8] Jack Stanton wishes to do the same thing, but is tempted toward the dark side of political maneuvering. In the end he survives his personal and political tests to emerge victorious.

The successes of the Stanton campaign are all due to the candidate’s political skills, and the stumbles all the result of his weaknesses. This is similar to perhaps the earliest historical assessments of the Clinton Presidency: “a politician of splendid natural talent and some significant accomplishments who nonetheless missed the greatness that once seemed within his grasp.”[9]

These scandals were by and large the result of Clinton’s personal weaknesses, his “secret self” run amok. But it was also this ability which allowed Clinton to compartmentalize his personal fiascos from the business of running America, so the controversy which always seemed to follow him like a cloud never affected his ability to govern.

The final scenes of Primary Colors leave us at the inaugural dance of the Stanton Presidency. Still ahead of this cinematic President, should he suffer the same fate as his flesh-and-blood counterpart, are the film versions of Newt Gingrich and Monica Lewinsky. And if the celluloid President again mimics the meaty one, his smile and his wink will get him through those tough times as well.

NOTES

1. Alterman, Eric. “Anonymous No More.” Nation. 8 December 1997: 6.

2. At least one person thought the resemblances were too close. In 1996 librarian Daria Carter-Clark filed suit against Joe Klein and Random. In her suit Cart-Clark alleged that Klein based a character (Ms. Baum, the literacy program coordinator) on her. Carter-Clark was the director of a Harlem literacy program visited by candidate Clinton in 1991. She maintained that her reputation had been damaged by the novel. The court later dismissed her suit. Milliot, Jim. “Court Dismisses Libel Suit Against Klein, Random.” Publisher’s Weekly. 13 October 2003: 7.

3. Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004: 811.

4. Klein, Joe. “Clinton the Survivor.” Newsweek. 20 July 1992: 22.

5. Clinton, Bill. ibid: 385.

6. Klein. ibid.

7. Klein. ibid.

8. Klein, Joe. “Clinton: Soul on Ice.” Newsweek. 21 September 1992: 46.

9. Editorial. New York Times. 24 January 2000: A-24.