Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
The War Room is a movie which I’m sure must have been just incredibly interesting when it came out in 1993, the year Bill Clinton became the forty-second president. How fun to see the behind-the-scenes work of the Clinton campaign as it scuffles through New Hampshire, walks away with a surprisingly strong result, and ultimately spins its way into the Oval Office. For political junkies, how marvelous it must be to be able to go through and spot the major figures of the Clinton campaign, the people from the news channels or from the morning papers. This is a movie which recognizes the sheer entertainment of the horse race, and one which doesn’t quite understand how the coverage of the horse race at the expense of, y’know, reality, will shudder the nation. Who in 1992 and 1993 could have really known what the 24 hour news cycle or the Internet would unleash upon us? Perhaps there were people who could have seen the future—and I’d argue that Hegedus and Pennebaker, who are extremely mindful of how good George Stephanopoulos was at spinning a message, could see glimpses—but I’m sure that for Democrats, at least, this must have been fairly entertaining. Only now does one watch this documentary and feel that it is on the cusp of something, that it has Pennebaker’s superb ability written all over it: it knows what it feels like to have lived in a moment of history, and more importantly he lets you live inside it like a tapeworm lives inside a host, sucking the excitement out of a campaign than might otherwise be drudgery. It’s electrifying and real all at once, which should be impossible.
There are more famous moments with James Carville, but the one that just made my insides turn cold happens during the New Hampshire primary. Carville is in high dudgeon, a state which he appears to inhabit with some frequency. He is speaking to a number of Clinton supporters during the wake of the Gennifer Flowers scandal. (Showing my age: I had heard of Gennifer Flowers and had no more than a sentence’s worth of information on her.) He comes out swinging. He namedrops Roger Ailes, which I was not even a little prepared for, before moving on to his bigger theme. Every time a Democrat “with some new ideas” comes along, the Republicans try to obliterate him in New Hampshire. “Remember Muskie?” Carville says ominously, and indeed we do. The Canuck letter and Gennifer Flowers are both painted with the same brush. Carville presents a choice to his audience. If we lose, he tells the crowd, then the Republicans are going to continue doing this to every promising Democrat—he manages to squeeze in the number of years Clinton served as Arkansas governor, because it’s never the wrong time to pump up your man’s credentials—who comes to New Hampshire. But if you stop it, he says, “you knock this shit back forever.” Applause. “Every time we get a Democrat we can believe in,” he begins his next sentence; to show my age again, any sentence containing “we can believe in” signifies Barack Obama as clearly as a Douglas fir signifies Christmas. He doesn’t give them a lot of his time, per the documentary, and I would guess that there is not much editing out of other stuff. It probably was just ninety, one hundred seconds with these volunteers. But it’s the crux of what he’s working around that scares me. Gennifer Flowers was not some patsy. In the same decade, Bill Clinton went through one of the messiest scandals in presidential history because of his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, which in the intervening years has not unreasonably been called “an abuse of power” by Lewinsky herself. The list of his indiscretions, which pretty clearly range from adultery to harassment and perhaps even beyond that, is a long one. In the moment, Carville is twisting the story, trying to make Clinton a victim of a smear campaign by Republicans, placing that highest in the minds of these volunteers and, presumably, voters. Perhaps Carville does not even know that he is running interference for misogyny in those ninety seconds in 1992, and he doesn’t bring up Flowers’ name in his tirade. But it’s impossible to think about this impassioned speech in any other way; it’s like watching Fred Astaire walk out in blackface, except there’s no extra layer of “fiction” to cut through while we get to the history. When Astaire did that routine in Swing Time, it was meant to be an homage to the great Bill Robinson, and perhaps people even understood it like that in 1936, but eighty-odd years later it sure as heck doesn’t come off that way. The assumptions in Carville’s speech are in their own way as insidious today, but in 1992 he was sent off to cheers.
In the spring and summer of 2016, when the dunking on Trump believers was strongest, it seems like every week the Hillary Clinton campaign did something dumb. They were constantly testing new messaging. They did that “Hillary is your abuela” thing. Everything came off tone deaf, focus-grouped to within an inch of its life. And on Twitter, about once a week, there would be someone in my feed saying something to the effect of: “They’re actually going to blow this election.” And then they did, of course. The Clinton campaign of 2016 ran a marathon in clown shoes. It makes the Clinton campaign of 1992 seem unbelievably competent in retrospect. The War Room is cut a certain way, granted, but it’s not as if Mary Matalin and George H.W. Bush come off as buffoons. Matalin is poised and extremely focused under fire, but she is also on the back foot over and over again. For someone whose primary understanding of Bush-41 as a cultural figure comes from relevant Doonesbury strips of the period (“The Thank-You Notes of George Bush”), it was striking to see how polished he was on the stump. The lines snap off his tongue when he wants them to, and we can hear a little menace bubbling up. The nice, almost sweet image of him that I’m used to seeing was replaced with something significantly more formidable. (My deep misgivings about Carville’s speech aside, he’s also trying to rile up the base to get a Democrat elected president for the first time since 1976, and against a fairly popular and extremely recognizable incumbent at that.) It’s just that Carville and Stephanopoulos are smarter. There’s that little whiteboard in Little Rock which bears the major messages of Clinton’s campaign via Carville, of which the most famous is, “The economy, stupid.” The other ten words in two categories are just as succinct about general change and healthcare. Stephanopoulos is featured less often in the documentary, but his intelligence is presented as more dangerous in the moment. He’s the one who appears to singlehandedly create the news cycle that George Bush lost a debate, regardless of what Mary Matalin tries to put out there. He has a phone call in which he threatens some unknown reporter with the kind of ruthlessness he didn’t bring with him to ABC. Even his appearance makes him look a little tougher than Carville. Handsome, composed, and almost always wearing a suit, he looks very different from Carville, who is the answer to the question, “What if a Muppet was from Louisiana and had a law degree?” The movie is first and foremost a kind of testament to their work together, to their immense skill, and that certainly comes through, no questions asked.