In 1996, an anonymous author published Primary Colors, a roman à clef based on real events of William Jefferson Clinton‘s first presidential campaign in 1992. Anonymous was later revealed to be Joe Klein, a political columnist for Time magazine. In 1998, it was adapted to a superior satirical film.
Primary Colors begins with this disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. None of these events ever happened.” Except that it is not hard find the parallels between charming, sexually voracious Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) and real-life Bill Clinton; nor between his ambitious, long-suffering wife, Susan (Emma Thompson) and Hillary Clinton.
Young Adrian Lester plays Henry Burton, the grandson of a civil rights leader who is drawn into Stanton’s presidential campaign. He is a thinly disguised version of real-life George Stephanopoulos. When he arrives with her husband, who has just missed the chance to secure the votes of a group of fly-fishing enthusiasts, Susan says to him:
Your grandfather was a great man. Jack Stanton could also be a great man, if he weren’t such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined shit.
Burton sets up headquarters in a town enchantingly named Mammoth Falls. Stanton’s team includes adviser Richard Jemmons, played to perfection by Billy Bob Thornton, who exposes himself to a female campaign worker. When Burton chastises him, Jemmons tries to pull rank, drawling:
I’m probably blacker than you. I got some slave in me. I can feel it.
It was generally supposed that Jemmons is a stand-in for Clinton strategist James Carville.
Like Clinton, Stanton faces allegations about his activities during the Vietnam war; in Clinton’s case, avoiding the draft.
Cashmere McLeod (a version of Gennifer Flowers) releases tapes of sexual conversations between herself and the governor. Susan Stanton calls in “dust buster” Libby Holden, played by Kathy Bates, to help protect her husband’s image. Holden growls:
Our Jackie’s done some pretty stupid things in his life. He’s poked his pecker in some sorry trash bins.
Bate’s character was inspired in equal parts by Vince Foster, the White House Counsel who may, or may not, have killed himself, and Betsey Wright, Clinton’s chief of staff, who memorably described the frequent sex scandals of her boss as “bimbo eruptions”.
In Primary Color‘s final third, Stanton challenges a primary candidate of seemingly unbeatable perfection, Fred Picker, perfectly played by Larry Hagman, for the nomination. When he finds out that Picker’s own past includes mountains of cocaine and same-sex affairs, he must decide whether to abandon his scruples and “go negative” on the campaign. This didn’t happen to Clinton, that we know of, of course, yet there is no shortage of politicians hiding gay pasts in real life.
Demonstrating that truth is stranger than fiction, this film came out when his biggest scandal was consuming Clinton. The 1998 allegations of a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky resulted in an investigation of Clinton’s personal life and impeachment proceedings. By the standards of 1998 Clinton scandals, 1992’s bimbo eruptions and draft-dodging looked tame.
Smartly directed by Mike Nichols, from a biting screenplay by Elaine May, Primary Colors was critically acclaimed but was a box-office dud, earning $52 million from a $65 million budget. Bates was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, and May was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Perhaps film fans had Clinton fatigue by this point, although in the second week of March 1998, it was briefly Number One at the box-office.
Nichols direction is crisp and a bit blunt, the camera tracing circles around the actors in moments of moral entrapment, but for the most part the emphasis is on the fine performance and witty dialogue. It may be less about the mechanics of a political campaign and more a noisy meditation on a moral dilemma. Yet, this might be its greatest strength, if it isn’t quite as fun as Thornton showing off his giant Billy Bob. Travolta masters both Clinton’s sleepy smile and public charm, as well as Stanton’s private menace. Thompson is the best fictional Hillary Rodham Clinton ever.
Best of all is Bates as Holden, who has recovered from a stay in a mental hospital and is willing to destroy anyone she thinks poses a threat to her favorite couple. She announces: “I am a gay lesbian woman!” with a gun jammed into the crotch of a local lawyer who has been making money by selling Stanton stories to a National Enquirer-style tabloid, adding: “I do not mythologize the male sexual organ!”.
It remains one of my favorite films about politics, but if you’re interested in something closer to the truth, the Oscar-nominated documentary The War Room (1993) followed the actual relationship between Stephanopoulos and Carville on the Clinton campaign trail.