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As you may have noticed, my two passions in life are politics and the press. It was therefore not good for my health or mental stability (such as it is) to attend two movies I saw recently: "Wag the Dog" and "Primary Colors."
Both popular movies, of course, deal with presidential politics loosely based on Bill Clinton. In "Wag the Dog," we saw a faceless president confronting a Monica Lewinsky-style sex scandal (complete with beret) in the White House. The president’s operatives provide a diversion from the scandal in the form of a non-existent war with Albania. Of course, the media is clueless that the war doesn’t actually exist.
In "Primary Colors," we have a presidential candidate with multiple and problematic sexual partners, including the pregnant teenage daughter of a longtime Black supporter, facing a moral dilemma when his operatives dig up sexual dirt on his opponent..
Both seemed to offer a behind-the-scenes look at political moralities which, although very different, are frighteningly possible in today’s political climate. And, unfortunately, both movies are believable only because of the very real failures of the U.S. media.
The bottom-line message in "Wag the Dog" is that powers-that-be at the presidential level would not hesitate to resort to not just distortion or lies, but to outright murder, to protect the president from embarrassing publicity during a reelection campaign. The ultimate end justifies the ultimate means.
The portrayal of the media was one in which the government press releases and production videos were swallowed whole. After all, who were they going to believe, our government, which conveniently provided the free footage for the evening news, or commie-pinko Albania, with their denials that any war was taking place, in a part of the world that nobody paid any attention to anyway?
The ending, although predictable, left us with the uneasy feeling that this could well be how it is done down there in Washington. And seeing the movie at the height of the Iraqi build-up in February was more than a little strange.
Of the two movies, "Primary Colors" is the more sinister. That is because the whole plot is based on a political morality which I find absolutely abhorrent, but which seems to be the accepted standard today.
In this movie, Kathy Bates portrays Libby Holden, campaign trouble-shooter and long-time confidante to Southern governor and presidential candidate Jack Stanton, played by John Travolta.
In the second half of the movie, Holden states her frightening morality in so many words: It is right and good to use any and all means to keep truthful but damaging information about your candidate away from the media and the voters, but it is despicable and lower than low to even seek the truth about one’s opponent, regardless of what you might find out in the process. When Holden’s reluctant investigation of Stanton’s opponent turns up a homosexual affair, candidate Stanton fails her morality test when he unhesitatingly decides to leak the information to the media. Holden then kills herself, Vince Foster fashion, rather than face her own complicity in exposing the truth about an opponent. Note the message – that suicide is the appropriate path for any campaign worker who stoops to doing the media’s job for them by investigating an opponent’s background.
Clearly, Holden is considered the heroine in this story, ready to go to her death to uphold her principles, and to send a message to her boss whom she sees as violating those principles.
What is wrong with this picture? Practically everything.
What this says is that loyalty to one’s candidate is more important than truth, and the voters be damned. It also says that any candidate who dares to use such information dug up by a campaign worker can rightly expect to face the voters’ wrath, not to mention a sudden reduction in staff.
Do you, as a Maine voter and a U.S. citizen, agree with that?
Well, unfortunately, a lot of Mainers do and did agree with that.
Remember Bob Monks? He was the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in the 1996 primary, doing reasonably well in the polls until it was revealed that he had hired a private investigator to check into the rumors then flying around that one of his opponents, John Hathaway, had some legal problems involving sex with an underage babysitter while he was living in Alabama.
Now you would think that voters might want to know such a detail about a candidate before casting a vote. And you would think that the Maine media would have enough curiosity to make a few phone calls to Alabama to check out the story. Wrong on both counts. After the out-of-state Boston Globe broke the story, Maine reporters admitted to having heard rumors months before. Not one followed up on it until they knew they were about to be scooped.
But the worse part was to have Monks vilified – by reporters, political columnists, and voters – for daring to go after the truth. Although thankfully none of his staff committed suicide, Monks polling numbers immediately plummeted, Hathaway’s rose despite the existence of a very real police investigation in Alabama, and Monks came in third in the three-way primary.
Later that same campaign season, the Bangor Daily News played on that bizarre political attitude to do in Joe Brennan. Three weeks before the November election, political commentator John Day invented a scandal. In a front-page story, Day proclaimed that "Republican Senate candidate Susan Collins is being shadowed by a dirt-for-hire consultant with a checkered past" – none of which was true.
But that didn’t stop Collins’ aide Bob Tyrer, who said: "By hiring a private investigator to dig up dirt on Susan Collins, Joe Brennan has proved himself unworthy to serve in a Senate seat held by Margaret Chase Smith and Bill Cohen." Collins insisted it was a violation of her privacy for anyone to look up any public records with her name on them – an astonishing and troubling position for a public official to take. Yet not a single reporter followed up and actually inspected those objectionable public records in Massachusetts. I know because I checked.
The Collins camp and the paper that endorsed her had invoked the "Primary Colors" morality. And the ploy worked. The BDN was the only daily paper in Maine to push the "private investigator" story. The race ended with Collins defeating Brennan by 32,196 votes. A full 30,744 of that vote difference turned up in the BDN’s exclusive circulation area.
In "Wag the Dog," which was in production before Saddam Hussein started stonewalling weapons inspectors, and long before the world had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, life almost laughably – although eerily – appeared to be following art.
"Primary Colors," unfortunately, seems to be art following life.
I had hoped, in my innocence, that what we had seen in 1996 in Maine was an aberration. This movie convinced me I was wrong.
If Libby Holden is now our standard-bearer, if her concepts of right and wrong are the new political morality in our democracy, worthy of big screen heroism – if we have decided, as apparently we have, that the messenger must die and the truth indeed be damned – then all I can say is: God help us all.
Political columnist Jean Hay lives in Bangor, Maine.