[29 September 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
For a brief time, official Washington went mad, it went crazy.
—Paul Begala, The Hunting of the President
The central insight of the framers of the Constitution was that a democracy is not just about majority rule, but about minority rights. It’s about striking the balance between empowering the government to do what people need to do for themselves together while absolutely preventing the abuse of power chronicled in this film.
—Bill Clinton, “Remarks after Screening of The Hunting of the President”
“There was a sense among a certain social set in Washington that Clinton was not their kind of person.” Sidney Blumenthal’s observation at the start of The Hunting of the President now seems wry understatement. Given recent (and indeed, current) U.S. media reports and reconstructions—rife with anti-Bill Clinton sentiment—it’s abundantly clear that the man from Hope rubbed many the wrong way. But if political and even personal antagonisms are familiar in U.S. history and media imagery, the result of this particular sentiment was profound and even tragic, in the sense that so much time, energy, and focus (as well as money) was committed to taking down a President, when so much else might have been achieved.
Whatever you might think about Clinton’s presidency or personal business, Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason’s documentary eventually makes a broader case concerning media’s relationship to “government,” and the corruption of “social sets” as these informed political, legal, and corporate/media decisions. In other words, the film ends up looking at issues that extend beyond the Clintons’ run-in with the right, focused on the infamous $80-million investigations and ending with the impeachment. The fact that Thomason was one of Clinton’s most effective image-shapers only makes sense, as the film repolishes that image, by arguing that its tarnishing was brought on by other, equally adept, and explicitly hostile image-makers run amok.
Based on a book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons (which is subtitled “The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton”), The Hunting of the President features both standard documentary devices (talking heads, book-lined offices, shots of documents and famous building exteriors), and others that are increasingly familiar (ironic “chapter” titles to underline arguments [“Liberal Establishment,” “The Red Dress”], and vintage movie footage serving as comic commentary on the narration, read soberly by Morgan Freeman). This alternating structure positions Hunting somewhere between old-school, investigatory documentary and trendier “contentious” entertainment. As such, it will be convincing or annoying, depending on how you stand going in.
The talking heads include figures once identified by mainstream press (as noted in the film) as being “in the tank” with Clinton: journalists (Howard Kurtz, Jeffrey Toobin, David Brock, and Jonathan Alter), former Clinton aides (Paul Begala, James Carville) and Arkansas associates (Susan McDougall, Arkansas Times editor-in-chief Max Brantley), all tending either to detail their part in the events or, more often, their sheer horror as it all turned so extreme. No Clinton opponents have a say, except by way of press conference footage (Paula Jones) or stock images (Ken Starr smiling at the camera as he walks to his office). But then, the film is arguing that these folks all had their say during the “hunting” process, and that “history” will show (and in some cases, has already indicated) the folly of their obsessive pursuit of this man who was “not their kind of person.”
Indeed, Hunting is a function of the much-discussed antipathies that form today’s U.S. political “system.” As in previous anti-Republican documentaries—Unprecedented, Bush’s Brain, Outfoxed, Uncovered, Fahrenheit 9/11—the premise is that media and politics are increasingly and problematically intertwined. If you assume the right “hated” Clinton (that is, it’s old news), Hunting‘s more immediate argument concerns the fallout from the anti-Clinton campaigns (occasionally identified as a “vast conspiracy,” that is, of an organizational piece) that currently colors the U.S. political process. As media companies are more often explicitly in bed with political apparatuses, and distinctions among corporate, political, and military institutions seem quaint and faded memories.
This is not to sat that there was ever a moment when the press was wholly separate from the governmental machinery it on which it “reports.” It is to say that their conniving and collaborating are increasingly visible and unapologetic. While a movie like Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys with George (2003) might be considered a relatively subtle, less incensed version of this narrative, Hunting underlines and boldfaces the point, with an overstated soundtrack and stock footage.
Whitewater victim Susan McDougal’s interview—though ending in painful tears and her request that the camera operator “Turn it off”—brings into focus the movie’s outrage. Having served an 18-month prison term for refusing to provide prosecutors with the anti-Clinton testimony they wanted, she appears the film’s most invested and yet most convincing subject. As she describes it, Starr’s office connived to get her husband Jim, Clinton’s former financial advisor in Arkansas, to turn on the President. Her own decision not to testify, and her current work with women inmates, makes her seem at once hopeful, honest, and courageous. Among the onslaught of dishonesty sullies the U.S. political landscape, McDougal looks suddenly monumental.