Movie Review: The Hunting of the President (2004)
The extent to which Eric Alterman’s famous rejoinder “What Liberal Media?” is correct is indicated by how many leftists are flocking to the documentary form to get their message across. In the last few months we’ve seen leftist critiques of corporate pathology (“The Corporation”), McDonald’s (“Super Size Me”), the Bush Administration (“Fahrenheit 911”), and the Iraq War and the mainstream media (“Control Room”). Waiting in the wings are docs about FOX News (“Outfoxed”) and senior Bush advisor Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”). if the mainstream media were truly liberal, wouldn't folks just turn on their TV sets for this? Wouldn't we just wait for Katie Couric to report?
Now there’s “The Hunting of the President,” a documentary about what Hilary Clinton famously called “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against President Clinton. It was written and directed by Nickolas Perry, who helped edit several Clinton promo films (“A Place Called America”), and Harry Thomason, a Clinton confidante who directed several Clinton promo films (“Legacy”; “Hilary 2000”). Objectivity is not expected.
Were Clinton’s enemies at best unethical and at worst illegal? The film starts in Arkansas, where Larry Case and Larry Nichols were freelance operatives who provided lurid details to visiting big-city journalists. About L.A. Times reporter Bill Rempel, who helped break the “Troopergate” story, Case brags: “I pulled him in like a trophy trout.” The troopers themselves, according to the doc, had suspect motivations, ranging from money to revenge, while their unofficial stage-manager, Cliff Jackson, was an Arkansas lawyer and former Clinton classmate, who was supposedly motivated by envy.
In D.C., meanwhile, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded “American Spectator” magazine and The Arkansas Project, both of which fanned the flames of rumor and innuendo long enough to attract the interest of the mainstream media. In this way, Troopergate led to Paula Jones. Then Vincent Foster died and a scandal was born. Then there was the whole Whitewater wrangle, which never went away despite the fact that journalists complained to their editors, “There’s no there there.”
It was Whitewater that caused Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint Special Counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican lawyer, to investigate the matter. When Congress reauthorized the Independent Counsel Act six months later, Fiske was pushed out, replaced by Ken Starr, who was less moderate.
Indeed, in the doc, Starr’s team comes across as bullies, threatening and urging people to lie under oath.
Unfortunately, most of “Hunting” still amounts to “he said-she said.” What’s new here? Mea culpas from the press, and commentary from former “Spectator” star David Brock (“Blinded By the Right”), who gives insight into the inner-workings of Clinton’s enemies.
The last third of the film is devoted to its most important issue: How this right-wing mudslinging came to dominate the post-Watergate, post-cable TV media. The most damning talking head may be Dan Moldea, author of several books debunking conspiracy theories of both the left and right, who calls the press coverage of the Vincent Foster case, “The most corrupt act of journalism I have ever seen.”
Poet W.H. Auden once referred to the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade,” and it’s not a bad epitaph for the nineties either. We were not a serious people. President Clinton had personal failings, many of his opponents were noisy buffoons, and the press listened to them and we all tuned in. Meanwhile, enemies gathered elsewhere.
-- Originally published in The Seattle Times, 2004.