The messages you get from the presidential campaign documentary The War Room are multiplying at an alarming rate. Clearly, the husband and wife team of D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) and Chris Hegedus meant it as a valentine to the efforts of candidate Bill Clinton's smart-mouthed chief handler, James Carville, and his spin doctor, George Stephanopoulos, culminating in victory on election night 1992. The film virtually rolls out the red carpet for these guys.
The turnings of political fortune and the public glare being what they are, however, this frequently witty, always revealing backstage look at major-league politicking doesn't give off the same vibes it might have a year ago--or even three weeks ago. Witness the vote-suppression flap in New Jersey's recent gubernatorial election: When Carville's archrival in the image trade, Ed Rollins, outflanked him and helped Republican Christine Todd Whitman unseat incumbent Jim Florio, Rollins boasted that he had kept voter turnout low in predominantly Democratic black nighborhoods through outright bribery. No shrinking violet himself, Carville shot back that Whitman's win was illegal.
As it turned out, Rollins was only yanking Carville's chain. There was no vote suppression. But the New Jersey mess served to underscore the way slick political consultants have overwhelmed candidates, issues and both political parties. Equipped with Madison Avenue savvy and Oval Office-size egos, these incestuous gurus-for-hire have frequently cowed their own clients, subverted the election process and sold America a bill of goods--laughing behind their hands all the way.
Forget the ticking bomb of Whitewatergate. In retrospect, Carville and Stephanopoulos should be embarrassment enough to the Clinton White House.
But here they are anyway, positioning their man above the crowded field in snowy New Hampshire, pumping up the volume for the Democratic National Convention, deriding the geezerly TV image of George Bush as he flails away at the Clinton record, ordering around the armies of political groupies and campaign junkies at their disposal. The star of the show is clearly Carville, a quick-
witted, short-tempered, frequently profane Cajun who's risen to the top of the consultant heap through tireless energy--and ruthlessness. To be sure, it's fascinating to watch him work a room, rework a strategy or fling a barb. But even as the battle frenzy takes hold, you notice that Clinton himself is conspicuously absent. A while later you begin to suspect that the candidate is Carville's mouthpiece instead of vice versa.
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Only when the election is finally won, for instance, do we hear Carville instruct his employer on the telephone: "Say what you want to say. This is your night." There's a glint in Carville's eye that says he's the real winner. Who can argue? The movie doesn't mention it, but before the '92 campaign Democratic candidates staged a lively auction for Carville's services.
The fascinations of this chameleonic film are endless--jug-eared Ross Perot whining away while the coffee-slurping Clintonians chortle at him; Candidate Bill slogging through his umpteenth phone interview of the day about what a great time he had in high school, looking like he's never had a great time anywhere; the foxy Carville, authentically worried on election eve, improvising Clinton's concession speech through peals of laughter; Carville clearly pained by the occasional nitwits and rubes in his single-minded path.
There's also some glancing business about his romance with Mary Matalin (they have since married). It is perhaps the deepest measure of the consultant tribe's strange coziness--if not its bipartisan sleaze--that Matalin was Lee Atwater's chief of staff at the Republican National Committee and a committed Bush spin doctor. Not surprisingly, husband and wife are now writing a book together--kiss-and-tell on the campaign trail.
While we wait for the celebrity-author tour, the Pennebakers' documentary must do--a puff piece that has changed, unwittingly, into a cautionary tale about the palace revolt in American electoral politics. Beyond the obvious entertainment value, it should give every voter pause.