Published March 1, 1998
The key line in Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Joe Klein’s Primary Colors comes as Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), hot on the trail of the presidency after having just disposed of his last rival for the Democratic nomination, tries to persuade his idealistic young aide, Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), to stay with the campaign. Henry is disgusted with what Stanton calls “hard ball politics” and the fact that its successful practitioners marinate 24 hours a day in lies and fakery and b.s. Stanton takes all that for granted, treating young Henry as a mere naïf for thinking that politics has ever been or could ever be otherwise. “You don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was President?” he asks, and goes on to paint a picture, more or less in Klein’s words, of the Great Emancipator in the colors of a man as unprincipled as Stanton himself.
In Klein’s novel, there is a hint of irony about this passage. Stanton the b.s. artist is never more fake than when he is at his most sincere, and Henry recognizes that, paradoxically, it is his sincerity rather than his fakery which is the most dangerous thing about him. In the movie, all this subtlety (such as it is) washes out and the audience is invited to take the charming Mr Travolta at his word. A quarter century or so of the popular culture’s bogus sophistication about politics has done its work. Decades of homage on the part of both journalists and writers of fiction to the cheapest of clichés about the corruption of power have, it would seem, finally eradicated the natural idealism of the American people. “Yeah,” we think sadly, “Honest Abe probably was a whore.”
But was he? What reason do we have for thinking so? It is only that, like Henry, we are afraid of being thought naïve for thinking otherwise — so afraid that we do not proceed to the obvious reflection that every whore wants you to think that the whole world is as morally abject as she is. That gets her off the hooker, as you might say. But it is mere cynicism if not nihilism to believe so, tantamount to a denial of all moral principle. Thus the most offensive line in the picture is not even the one about Lincoln but the one where Daisy (Maura Tierney), the Mandy Grunwald character, says in an interview, by way of apology for Stanton’s philandering, “They say Hitler never looked at another woman after he met Eva Braun. Does that make him better than Jack Stanton?”
Such a line is quintessentially Hollywood, which has shown over and over again that if it believes anything at all these days, it believes that sexual fidelity equals sexual “repression” equals Naziism. The moral and intellectual imbecility of that belief ought to outrage us all. But then there are a lot of things that ought to outrage us all and, because we have become inured to them, no longer do. Are we in America in the 1990s really as demoralized as that? Well, there is more than this movie as a reason for thinking so. There is also Wag the Dog, an even more cynical movie, which took in nearly $40 million in January and February as the latest in a long line of films which have portrayed our national leaders as lying, cheating, cowardly scumbags capable of any crime, including murder.
Nor is such cynicism an attribute only of political movies. Look at the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award as best picture. Titanic suppresses historical instances of heroism and self-sacrifice in order to show the rich and powerful as being almost uniformly without a scruple in seeking to save themselves at the expense of others. The Full Monty implies that uncaring government is responsible for the misery of the unemployed steelworkers while Good Will Hunting contains a stupefyingly idiotic tirade against putative government ill-doing by a man who is supposed to be a genius. L.A. Confidential is entirely based on the premiss that the Los Angeles police department of the 1950s was corrupt from top to bottom and utterly ruthless in covering it up. Only As Good as It Gets avoids the Scylla of cynicism — only to fall into the Charybdis of sentimentality.
Clearly, if we are not yet a nation of cynics, Hollywood thinks we are. And that it has some reason for thinking so, we can call to witness the Boy President’s seemingly unsinkable approval ratings. That prominent moralist, Mr Gary Hart, told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times that “the reason the American public is shutting this out is because it is growing up, finding out there is not a Santa Claus” — and he was not, it should be added, immediately hooted at and ridiculed for it. Don’t tell me that the popular culture is not influential when the great political films of the 1930s and 1940s told us that one man could make a difference while this misbegotten movie can only parrot what the polls tell us most Americans now think, namely that they all do it, and congratulate itself for its wisdom.
In fact, Primary Colors is just Hollywood’s Valentine to Bill Clinton, the first American president to have absorbed, and indeed embodied, Hollywood’s idea of political virtue as putting on a good show. Here the patented Clintonite technique of making a great parade of one’s sympathies with “the folks” is presented without irony or criticism as what politics both is and ought to be concerned with. Thus the inspirational music comes up as Stanton says of the hard working man in the donut shop making $5.25 an hour, “You let a man like that go down, you don’t deserve to take up space on this planet, do you?” Of course there is never the slightest hint, either of how exactly Donut Dan can be said to be going down or of what caring Jack Stanton proposes to do about it if he is. The point is made, in the movies as in real life, if he can just sell the line about his being sympathetic.
The only hint of anything politically substantive anywhere in the film comes as Stanton is speaking to some unemployed shipyard workers whom he tells, with what is apparently supposed to be brilliant political insight, that they will have to retrain for the jobs of the future. And the political virtue of that line is that it is just controversial enough (for a Democrat) to make him look courageous. Show people naturally assume that politics is just a branch of show business and take it for granted that the feel-your-pain stuff is all an act. But it does not follow, as Mike Nichols apparently thinks it does, that the act is all there is. Thus Henry is overwhelmed by his introduction to Jack Stanton on the grounds that “I have never heard a president use words like ‘destiny’ and ‘sacrifice’ without thinking, ‘bulls***!’” Stanton, he is thrilled to realize, can pull off this remarkable feat — like Kennedy. “It was bulls*** with Kennedy too,” he says, “but people believed it.”
In other words, it’s the guy who can sell the line who is the good president or the good actor. Nobody cares, afterwards, if it turns out to be bulls***. And, indeed, smart guys like Henry know in advance it is bulls***, because everything is bulls***. The values of show business have taken over politics—in the view of show business anyway. And part of the show business credo is that you can do anything you want so long as you tell the other people you screw in the process that you really feel badly about it. Jack Stanton really feels badly about dabbling in the gutter politics that so disgust the remarkably innocent Henry, and finally he feels so badly about it that Henry is prepared accept that this is just “hardball.” Meanwhile, a ridiculous lesbian called Libby, played by Kathy Bates and meant to be Betsy Wright, kills herself out of regret for the lost idealism of her youth during the McGovern campaign.
This gesture of despair was in the novel one of many indications of Stanton’s darker side. Klein appears to have had at least some rudimentary sense that the people around his hero really were damaged by what he had become. In the movie, the suicide simply makes no sense. Stanton having been portrayed as just a run-of-the-mill sort of “hard ball” politician, the fact that Betsy/Libby hadn’t the stomach for such politics merely shows her to have been a wimp. The film’s version of the governor hasn’t even done anything very bad. The Gennifer Flowers character, called Cashmere McLeod, proves to have forged the incriminating tape with the help of the governor’s enemies and, although he fakes the blood test to determine the paternity of his black baby-sitter’s child, Libby says she thinks him “probably” not guilty even of that affair.
The closest we get to identifying any actual wrong-doing is when Libby says to Stanton that “It’s not like you’re an innocent because the tape is phony.” Her idealism is apparently so fragile that it cracks for no better reason than that Stanton considers leaking to the press something discreditable he has found out about a political rival. This is worth killing yourself over? Likewise, Henry’s deep feelings of ambivalence toward Stanton do not make much sense when the latter has done so little for him to be disgusted about. Henry’s own political and moral standards can hardly be that much better than Stanton’s anyway, since he says that “I can tell the difference between a guy who believes what I believe and lies about it” — that is Stanton as he lies to get himself elected — “and a guy who just doesn’t give a f***.” In other words, any Republican. “I’ll take the liar.” So what’s his problem if Stanton has done nothing worse than tell a few white lies?
All this is to say that the cost of the film’s earnest efforts to tidy away the character flaws in Klein’s Jack Stanton in order to make him more lovable is to render the plot fundamentally incoherent. Nor are these the only false notes struck by this deeply dishonest and loathsome film. If John Travolta’s Stanton is a perfectly tidied up Bill Clinton, Emma Thompson’s Susan Stanton, his wife, remains a complete mystery. Miss Thompson, unlike Mr Travolta, does not essay a sly mimickry of her subject, perhaps because she looks less like Hillary Clinton than Mr Travolta looks like Bill. But there is not the slightest attempt to probe the mystery, either of Mrs Clinton or of Mrs Stanton. There’s hardly a hint that there is any mystery. All reduces to the anodyne moral that the Clintons/Stantons are decent and charming people no worse and possibly better than other politicians.
Thus, Primary Colors sets out to be a healthy and humane recognition that life is not all a matter of black and white, but it ends by insisting that we close our eyes to some necessary distinctions to be made between various shades of grey.