Few movies get the second chance to enter the public’s consciousness that Primary Colors now has. But with Hillary Clinton running for the White House, Mike Nichols’$2 1997 adaptation of Joe Klein’s sleazy roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign deserves another look—if not for its political insight, then for what it might tell us about the current Clinton campaign.
The “Hillary” of this movie, named Susan Stanton and played by Emma Thompson, doesn’t hold any office. But in the movie’s view, she’s certainly running for one. As the wife of Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a Southern governor whose long-shot presidential candidacy takes off after the New Hampshire primary, Thompson conveys the barely concealed impatience of someone who has put her own ambitions—and smarts—on hold. When an unctuous political aide takes a seat next to her at a picnic and asks whether she minds if he talks business with her husband, Susan answers, “Oh no, that’s how I learn.” The forced smile Thompson gives makes you understand just how much pride that kind of dissembling costs this woman.
The movie also acknowledges the pain Jack’s philandering brings Susan (in one scene, she slaps his face right in front of an aide), yet without making the mistake of thinking she’s diminished as his partner. When Jack’s aides get word that a hairdresser (the movie’s Gennifer Flowers character) is threatening to go public with details of an affair she had with him, it’s Susan they turn to. She takes a no-nonsense, nothing-personal attitude and briskly assesses the options. Her own feelings are something to be dealt with in private—this is strictly politics.
The moment shows off the brains Emma Thompson brings to the role, but it also suggests the dilemma facing Hillary Clinton. If she learned from the gaffes she made during the ‘92 campaign (particularly her dumb remark about Tammy Wynette’s great “Stand by Your Man”), she has never seemed fully at ease with the smiling public face she has adopted since then. For Hillary Clinton, that public face, the pressure to make nice and act nice, the constant knowledge that women have to prove themselves capable but not act “manly,” may be a distraction from the real work of politics. The catch, of course, is that the public face has to be winning if she’s ever going to have the chance to do that work.
If Primary Colors had the sophistication to capture those two sides of the Clinton/Stanton character—and of politics in general—it might have been the savvy realist look at American politics that some political writers, generally clueless when it comes to assessing culture, hailed it as. (Writing in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg told us the movie had something you don’t often find at the multiplex: wisdom.) But Primary Colors winds up being just as naive as the idealism it means to dispel.
Intended as an object lesson in the dirty reality of politics, Primary Colors contrasts one character who lives with that lesson with one who can’t. Adrian Lester, one of those actors whose understated work seems always in danger of being thought of as merely good, plays Henry Burton, the grandson of a revered civil rights leader. Burton, who is so clean-cut that three decades before he would have been the proverbial credit to his race, comes to understand, ruefully but cannily, how the game is played. Kathy Bates, meanwhile, plays the raucous yet fragile Libby Holden, the Stantons’ political cohort who is destroyed by learning how willing her old friends are to play dirty. After a stroke forces Stanton’s main competition out of the race, he finds himself facing even stiffer competition from Fred Picker (Larry Hagman, in a superb pro’s performance), the old political hand who steps in. When Holden uncovers a potential bombshell about Picker, she turns it over to the Stantons, trusting them to do the right thing—not understanding that, in politics, the right thing is often the expedient thing.
A real evaluation of that expediency, one with the wisdom Hertzberg thought he saw, would require something more than what Nichols delivers. Pauline Kael wrote that Nichols’$2 1971 movie, Carnal Knowledge, was “a neon sign spelling out the soullessness of neon,” and, watching Primary Colors, you can see what she meant. Nichols looks at Jack and Susan Stanton and sees nothing more than a pair of Dogpatch pretenders to the throne, people whose every pragmatic move is held up as proof that their talk of accomplishing something is just a pretense to accumulating power. It never occurs to Nichols that power itself is morally neutral, that the savviest politicians understand that amassing power is the way to get things done.
And though there’s plenty of good acting in Primary Colors—from Lester, from Maura Tierney as a campaign worker, and from the wily Billy Bob Thornton in the James Carville role—Nichols’ attitude undermines Travolta’s leading performance. As Stanton, Travolta delivers a marvelous, affectionate parody of Bill Clinton, capturing the gleam in Stanton’s eye when he spies a pretty girl or the welcoming neon of a Krispy Kreme on a cold night in New Hampshire. But because he’s portrayed as first and foremost a slick operator, Travolta can’t go beyond parody when Stanton is genuinely riled up by an issue, or when he wants to express empathy with someone’s hard luck story.
In the end, Primary Colors has more bait for Clinton-haters—who have always included liberals and the allegedly liberal press as well as the expected right wing operatives—than understanding or empathy for the couple. The film even resurrects the most notorious Clinton rumor, that he fathered a black child. But the deeper problem of Primary Colors isn’t that it trades in gossip but that it endorses a brand of idealism that’s as destructive to politics as corruption. Liberals (and I speak as one) have an unfortunate tendency to confuse compromise with corruption, to mistake the ballot box for the confessional and assume the choice made therein should leave our souls clean. (That’s why so many of us have gone off the deep end and voted for Nader.) The challenge the Clintons have always posed to liberals is the challenge of growing up and realizing how things get done. It’s the inability to accept the compromises of politics that strands Libby Holden in her Neverland (Kathy Bates’ performance strikes the movie’s only genuinely tragic notes).
Nichols seems to disapprove of the Stantons’ ability to play in that dirty a game. Would he feel the same way now, given what happened to John Kerry, who chose to stay above the fray in the Swift Boat smear? Would Nichols consider it dirty politics if Kerry had deigned to fight back?
Remember the line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels? It’s not true, but it makes a point. God only knows what smears are being prepared against Hillary Clinton. But it must be obvious to the goons readying those attacks that she’s not just going to take them. The coiled energy of Thompson’s Susan Stanton, that palpable resentment at having to downplay her own intelligence, suggests what might be unleashed in a Hillary Clinton no longer in the supporting role of candidate’s wife. Not only is she capable of fighting back—she can do it in heels.