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I think everyone can agree that the Republican Party's search for its presidential nominee has been a long, strange trip. For me, one of the strangest things about it is that, after all this time, I barely know who's running Mitt Romney's, Rick Santorum's and Newt Gingrich's campaigns. You see, over the last 30 years, political strategists have gone from being shadowy figures to celebrities in their own right.
Nothing did more to make this happen than The War Room by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. This 1993 documentary offered a verite look behind the scenes of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, making media stars of such advisors as James Carville, George Stephanopolous and Paul Begala. Criterion has just released the film on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with fascinating extras in which the film's principals reflect, years later, on how campaigning has changed since then.
Now, what made The War Room feel so revelatory was that, unlike traditional campaign films, it didn't focus on candidate Clinton. Instead it offered unprecedented access to his staffers, who worked out of the War Room, so named by Hillary Clinton to suggest how deadly serious the place was. While Bill Clinton does appear — the first time we see him, he's in shorts and an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt — he remains a minor player. The movie's real subject is how Carville and Co. handle his messaging, strategizing, and rapid-fire responses to attacks.
It's a hugely enjoyable story. The 1992 campaign was a doozy, especially for Team Clinton, which had to cope with everything from "bimbo eruptions" to the weird campaign of Ross Perot. We watch them dream up political ads, keep everyone on message — "It's the economy, stupid!" became the famous mantra — and spin the media like a basketball coach working the refs. At one point we see Stephanopolous being interviewed on ABC's Sunday show This Week and realize that, two decades on, he's now the show's host.
Although Hegedus and Pennebaker observe this neutrally, the film endows the War Room with an honorable glamour. If Stephanopoulos often seems like a sweet, but overbearing altar boy, the campaign's senior strategist, Carville, is a flat-out movie star — he has the colorful charm of a wisecracking snake in a Pixar movie. Whether he's joking or rousing the troops, this Ragin' Cajun is so much fun to listen to that you see why Bill Hader can still bring down the house doing an impression of him on Saturday Night Live.
In an emotional moment right before the election, Carville praises those who've been working for him. Carville's entire speech, which is fired by idealism and passion, may well be the high-water mark for our image of political consultants. In the years since The War Room, our opinion of them has curdled. Advisors like Dick Morris and Karl Rove are largely seen as dark wizards, whose brilliance is devoted only to winning. The same thought came up in HBO's recent Game Change, where campaign manager Steve Schmidt urges John McCain to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate to jump-start his candidacy — whether or not she's prepared to be president. And things were even bleaker in George Clooney's fictional The Ides of March, where Ryan Gosling's brainy young campaign staffer is offered a devil's bargain — and takes it.
Of course, it's gotten easy to be cynical. Our political campaigns have grown vastly bigger and, for want of a better term, more corporate. Nobody will be surprised if President Obama and his challenger both spend a billion dollars to get elected, with hundreds of millions more coming from SuperPACs that don't even have to say where they get the money.
Naturally, there will still be War Rooms where strategists shape these mega-buck campaigns, and no doubt some of these staffers will be idealistic. But there won't be anyone like Hegedus and Pennebaker filming it. In these days of 24/7 media — where even the dinkiest problem can get magnified and go viral — campaigns are obsessed with controlling every single thing, including our perception of the campaign's workings. Watching The War Room, I kept thinking that the most old-fashioned thing about the Clinton campaign was that it trusted anyone to come inside it with cameras running.