The Hunting of the President
Based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' book, The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, this documentary avers that a right-wing cabal effectively attempted to force Clinton out of office in the 90s by manipulating the media and legal process of the U.S to their own ends. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, it paints a compelling and frankly frightening picture of how the democratically-elected representative of the most powerful country in the world was almost ousted through methods more often associated with a South American military dictatorship.
The documentary grabs your attention from the start, plunging the viewer into a recording of Senator Dale Bumpers commencing the Impeachment Proceedings against President Clinton in the U.S Senate Chambers on January 21, 1999. Bumpers quotes H.L Mencken's aside: "If someone says, 'This isn't about money', it's about money; if someone says 'This isn't about the sex,' it's about the sex." He's alluding to the Republican Party's heated claims that their obsessive, repeated trawling through Clinton's sex life over the course of nearly a decade had a higher aim than that of simply trying to discredit him.
The narrative then leaps back six years to the day prior to Clinton's inauguration, and begins laying out the various strands of its argument, which can be roughly summarised as follows:
1) Clinton's charisma and passionate views about public service threatened the core power base among the Washington elite, and caused them to turn against him from the outset
2) A loose network of shady, privately-funded right-wing organisations worked constantly to bring him down through muck-raking, lies and innuendo.
3) The national media were whipped into a frenzy by same and effectively used as a tool, exercising little or no discretion, critical analysis or independent thought.
4) There was no basis to any of it, until his affair with Lewinsky.
The first taste of scandal comes when two Arkansas State Troopers go public with their claim that they had procured women for Clinton when he was Governor. Reporters who flocked to Arakansas in the coming months were effectively taken to the cleaners by a variety of unscrupulous and unsavoury characters, among them Larry Case, a Little Rock private investigator hired to look for dirt on Clinton, who openly admits on camera that he duped a variety of prominent East and West-coast journalists who were 'hungry for the scoop'.
This section of the documentary introduces one of its most illuminating commentators, David Brock, former investigative reporter for The American Spectator and 'right wing attack dog', who wrote a series of articles for that publication based on interviews he did with the troopers. Once one of the very Republican 'hit men' passionately committed to destroying Clinton, he's subsequently ceased his partisan tactics and describes in detail how the troopers were stage-managed by Cliff Jackson, a lawyer in Little Rock and member of ARIA (Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America), a right wing group committed to bringing Clinton down. The
troopers' primary motivations, it transpires, were money and revenge, since they were supposed to get jobs in the White House when Clinton made President but, due to an administrative error, they didn't. The story got picked up by the larger news stations and, although stonewalled by the Clintons, caused some early damage to the President's reputation. The key lesson that came out of 'Troopergate' for the right wing media was that they could successively manipulate mainstream journalists and therefore influence public opinion in the country.
The documentary avers that they wasted no time putting this knowledge into practice, as it moves onto the next scandal, the accusation that Clinton sexually harassed Paula Jones, a State employee. Jones, a terrifying apparition, something like the cursed love child of Barbara Streisand and Michael Jackson, is dismissed by Betsey Wright, Clinton's Chief-of-Staff when he was Governor of Arkansas, as 'a groupie', one of many women who fawned over Clinton at the time. Jones' attorneys, Gil Davis and Joe Cammarata, bring a sexual harrassment suit against Clinton, but they quit the case when a new group of right wing lawyers appears and the tone of attack changes from proving Jones to destroying Clinton. The case is taken over by 'The Rutherford Institute' (amazing how appropriately sinister these organisations sound), a legal organisation with ties to Jerry Falwell, leading figure of the religious right, who promptly starts using his television show to air a documentary, 'The Clinton Chronicles' depicting the President as a drug smuggler, murderer and embezeller. All this occurs after Clinton's lawyers secretly offer to pay Jones $700,000 to basically go away; the offer is turned down by Jones' representatives.
Then there's 'The Arkansas Project', a secret, full time campaign to find dirt on the Clintons and get it into print, funded by billionnaire conservative Richard Mellon-Scaife. When Arkansas Judge and Lawyer David Hale finds his serial misdemeanors have landed him in the middle of a criminal investigation, The Arkansas Project finds him a high powered laywer, Ted Olsen, and constructs a daring plan: to link his shady schemes with the Clintons. It's out of this messy soup that the Whitewater 'scandal' develops and it's Whitewater which produces the documentary's heroine, Susan McDougal. McDougal is the wife of Jim McDougal (above), who partnered with the Clintons in a land development deal in the Ozark mountains. Mr McDougal, a manic depressive, was at the centre of several Savings and Loan enterprises that failed in the early 90s and which, after some media manipulation and massaging/threatening of McDougal, somehow get connected to the Clintons. After protracted hooting from the right wing, an Independent Counsel, Robert Fiske, is appointed to investigate the morass of charges. Fiske is then swapped for a right wing career judge, Ken Starr, whose known dislike of the Clintons and Republican affiliations make him anything but independent. Conflict of interest anyone?
From this point on the Whitewater 'scandal' becomes even more murky. Susan McDougal is subpoened and in a meeting the Office of the Independent Counsel ask her to 'give them something' on the Clintons. She refuses, repeatedly and is threatened by them with tax evasion charges. Her husband meanwhile, is also charged and is asked by the OIC to state specific things connecting Clinton with his failed business dealings (they helpfully provide exciting story scenarios for him to repeat). Terrified of going to prison, he willingly agrees, but his wife still refuses to lie and eventually is sent to jail in 1996 for two years for refusing to testify in front of the Grand Jury (Jim McDougal dies in jail two years later). It's distressing to hear how this innocent woman was sent wrongly to prison by a pack of ruthless, self-aggrandising, shark-eyed lawyers with their own political axe to grind. It's even more painful to hear of her trials inside prison where, unaccountably, she's sent to murderer's row and where the OIC ensures she wears the red prison uniform that's reserved exclusively for woman prisoners who commit murder (usually of their children), thus guaranteeing her constant abuse and opprobrium.
Callous, coercive, brutal, vindictive, Starr and his team stop at nothing to prove financial wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons. But they're not the only ones responsible: a right wing cabal of Clinton haters fabricating evidence and deliberately leaking information to their advantage is one thing; (they're Republicans; we expect that). But what is really shocking and in a way even less excusable is the utterly spineless behaviour of the press in the face of this ongoing abuse of power. To further their career and avoid being attacked by the extremely powerful conservative press corps, the overwhelming majority of media commentators repeated the baseless accusations unquestioningly. Mephistophelean Democratic Political Strategist James Carville (known to documentary fans as one half of Clinton's key media team as it appeared in 'The War Room') weighs in, attributing the scandal-mongering to a desire on the part of the 90s generation of journalists to have their very own Watergate. The problem is that, as one journalist puts it in response to her editor's instruction to get down to Arkansas and see what's there, "...there's no 'there', there." In their ambition to score that big story - or simply to appease the hawkish right wing agitators - virtually the entire American media abandoned their critical faculties and jumped on the Clinton-bashing bandwagon.
Having come up with nothing concrete (but having destroyed a few lives in the process), the OIC use private investigators to try and scare up some personal dirt on the couple. Nothing. Head of a three year investigation costing tens of millions of dollars, Starr is starting to get desperate. He starts investigating the three-year old suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, trying to link him into the mix. Nothing. It's only when the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks that finally Clinton's tormentors have something tangible, although arguably completely inconsequential, to beat him with, and they go to work with gusto, recording and broadcasting the 8-hour video of his testimony in which he's grilled in the most demeaning manner about the intimate particulars of his affair with Lewinsky. It's not enough to bring about the coup d'etat they were hoping for (Clinton is found not guilty on the two articles of Impeachment) but the documentary avers that the Republicans who were behind the campaign against Clinton have every reason to feel satisfied; they had extended the boundaries of their influence by proving that you could legally Impeach a President for lying about a personal matter. The documentary ends with a stark series of text-only statements outlining several other examples it claims they've undertaken with this new found freedom, including the manipulation of the legal system used to shut down the Florida recount of the Presidential Election vote in December of 2000.
Any documentary is going to present a particular point of view and, in doing so, will miss out other parts of the picture. 'The Hunting of the President' obviously depicts Clinton in a favourable light, as the wronged victim of a MaCarthyist witch hunt. It scoots very,very quickly over the Lewinsky scandal and while it's understandable that the Democrats wouldn't want to finger this particular sore again, in the interests of a balanced documentary I felt that a bit more time should have been spent on it, at least to outline the facts. It's also worth noting that Hilary's commodities trading profits, another aspect of Whitewater, aren't dealt with in the documentary at all.
However having said all that, the fact remains that, as Senator Bumpers makes clear at the beginning of the documentary, Clinton committed a breathtakingly stupid marital infidelity, not a breach of the public trust or a crime against society. It's hard to see how his various hijinx with Monica could seriously have affected his ability to govern the country, while it's very easy to see how the constant distraction of the ongoing investigations against him could have. If the right wing forces behind Whitewater were really interested in the welfare of the United States as a whole, instead of just securing power for themselves at any cost, then this would surely have prevented them from taking the extraordinary measures they did. While Clinton is a very long way from being an angel, this documentary helped underscore - at least in this writer's mind - how bad the bad guys in that country's political system really are.
"You have to understand there is an honest disagreement in America today, in the aftermath of the Cold War and in a globally interdependent world, as we move from an industrial age to a global information age, where the way Government has operated before is not entirely relevant to the present and has to be changed. The [Republican] anti-government values crowd basically believes that the most important thing to do is get the right people in power and then concentrate power and wealth in their hands. That's what they honestly believe. They don't think they're bad people, and I think it's a mistake for us to treat them the way they treated us, because if we do that, then they own us."
There's only one special feature, but it's rather a fascinating one: Clinton giving a 45-minute talk after the premiere of 'The Hunting of the President' in the U.S earlier this year. Having only ever seen Clinton in brief sound bites, usually denying something sordid, I wasn't aware of what a powerful speaker he can be. Appearing extremely relaxed and comfortable onstage, Clinton provides some broader historical context for the events seen in the documentary, as seen from his perspective. He gives a brief potted history of the rise in power of the right in America and paints a picture of America's past as consisting of brief, tumultuous periods of intense political and social upheaval intersected by longer periods of peace and relative stability. He starts with the brutal fighting between Washington and Adams to determine whether the nascent America would have a national currency and legal system, leads through the debate over the Union, the arrival of the industrial revolution and then continues, through the civil rights and women's rights revolutions, to the present day, which, unsurprisingly, he sees as being one of these 'hinge points' in the country's history, in which unprecedented religious and racial diversity, gay rights, the role of government in the post-industrial era and a host of other pressing issues are again demanding change (and not just in America, by the way...).
Clinton's oracular style is extremely eloquent and compelling. He refers easily and convincingly to the founding principles of America, to find a '...more perfect Union,' and uses this as the central crux of his argument, positioning the documentary as an example of the kind of abuse of power that the Democratic party was in its essence conceived to constrain. In doing this, and during the question and answer session that ends this special feature, he sometimes lapses into the 'Aw gee shucks,' persona that must have held such sway with the mass of the voting public in the U.S (even saying at one point 'What do I know? I'm just some guy from Arkansas.' Yeah, right) It's interesting how the falseness of these asides stands in stark contrast to the majority of his talk, which is reasoned, erudite and extremely well informed. One may well say that he should be able to talk about the history of America and the U.S Presidency, as he was one for 8 years, but it's hard to imagine the man currently holding that office delivering an address as skillful, wide-ranging and passionate as this.
'The Hunting of the President' is presented in anamorphic widescreen and generally looks very good. The interviews look excellent. Altogether, while this isn't a title you're going to study for its cinematography, it's a good looking disk. The packaging says it's a double sided, dual layer disk, but it's single sided.
A Dolby Surround track only, but it's clear and strong, conveying the often ominious, synthetic musical score, (reminiscent of an 'X-Files' episode) with clarity and depth. Crucially, dialogue is clearly audible throughout.
Whatever the nature of one's politics and whatever one feels about Clinton personally, this is a well produced and thought-provoking documentary that deserves watching. That's not to say that 'The Hunting of the President' is perfect; it uses the contemporary technique of combining melodramatic music and stock footage to illustrate key points in the narrative, which I think lessens the integrity of the material and distracts from the very compelling hard facts it contains. At the beginning, there's even some instances of 're-enactment', a terribly lowbrow technique, plus some rather over-the top editing. However, As November approaches and the prospect of being saddled with President Bush's divisive, aggressive, isolationist administration looms ever nearer, 'The Hunting of the President' is a cogent, powerful reminder, if one were needed, of the pernicious nature of the ruling party currently in office in the most powerful country in the world, and of how far they are willing to go to gain power. One of Clinton's stories tells it best; during his talk he recalls a Republican friend telling him at the time of Whitewater: "I really hate that we do this to you, but if we fought you fairly, you'd win every time."
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10