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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Primary Colors

My wife and a I belong to a monthly movie group that meets to discuss one or two films, and last month we looked at the two versions of All the King's Men. Neither, in my opinion, comes close to the book, which I think is the greatest tragedy written by an American, but the second version made a more honest attempt to do so, even if the director lost his nerve and omitted the last few critical scenes, the most powerful ones in the book, that tie up the story after "the Boss" is dead. But at the end of the discussion I mentioned the obvious parallels (largely missed at the time) between All the King's Men and Primary Colors. The no-longer-Anonymous Joe Klein loves code, and he gave the game away by naming the Clinton figure Jack Stanton (borrowing the last name of two key characters from the earlier work) and his narrator Henry Burton (the same role is played by Jack Burden in All the King's Men.) Both works also include a suicide by an idealistic Prophet, and both, of course, turn on the dilemma of trying to bring justice to an imperfect world. In the end we picked Primary Colors for one of this month's movies, and when my wife and I watched it early last week--not for the first time, but for the first time in many years--we found ourselves staring at each other in amazement.

When the book came out in the 1990s, attention focused upon Jack Stanton, the charismatic, philandering governor of an unnamed southern state (capital: Mammoth Falls), whose campaign hires an old friend to anticipate and deal with accusations of adultery. His wife Susan was alternately calm and violent, precise and foul-mouthed--a portrait which Hillary Clinton's friends immediately denounced, but which, I was informed by an acquaintance who had been in an excellent position to know, was actually totally accurate. Susan/Hillary was often infuriated by her husband--whom she described to a new acquaintance, the narrator, as "a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined shit"--but the chains that bound them together--a common ambition for power--were far more powerful than any ordinary love. His antics reduced her to tears, violence, and, on one occasion, adulterous retaliation, but the campaign always came first. And in the film, Emma Thompson gave a magnificent performance.

One inevitably focuses more upon that performance (and, actually, wishes that Klein might do a sequel!) since it is now Hillary who seeks the White House. The contemporary parallel is weirdly accentuated because the book and movie's main character, Henry Burton (also played by an Brit, Adrian Lester, whose career never took off) is bizarrely similar to Barack Obama: somewhat black, northern, very well-educated (the James Carville character calls him "Hotchkiss" after his prep school), and relatively cool and unemotional amidst a herd of uncontrollable Boomers. (Burton was obviously George Stephanopoulos, but Klein managed to introduce a lot of interesting racial issues by making him black.) One could say a great deal about Susan Stanton in today's context, but two things stand out--one tactical, one more profound. First, Susan is the most cold-blooded when it comes to using dirt against Stanton's Democratic opponents--she's the kind of woman who would say that Barack Obama is not "as far as I know" a Muslim. Her excuse, when challenged by an old friend, is that if the Stantons don't use the dirt to win the nomination, the Republicans will use it to win the election, and who wants that? It was the day after we saw the movie that the Reverend Wright made his notorious appearance before the National Press Club, and I was not surprised ot learn that Barbara Reynolds, the woman who apparently arranged it, was a long-time Hillary supporter.

But the more profound message involved Susan/Hillary's whole life. We all know about her marital difficulties, but we haven't given enough attention, it seems to me, to the toll her marriage took in other ways. This Chicago-born, Wellesley- and Yale-educated woman found herself, at the age of 28, transplanted to Little Rock, where she remained for the next seventeen years. It would not have been easy to find a less hospitable environment for an intelligent, assertive, liberated Yankee woman in the 1970s, but she put up with it, as well as with her husband. Her years in the White House, when she began as a co-President, then went into virtual exile after the 1994 elections, and finally emerged in the degrading role of a betrayed but loyal spouse, could not have been easy either. Once again the parallel with Richard Nixon, who never felt remotely at home in the upper reaches of American life but felt irresistibly drawn to power, comes to mind. Both of them put up with humiliation that normal people simply do not have to experience to get where they got, and both of them, clearly, feel that they have earned their reward. And both of them became so used to doing whatever was necessary that it was very hard to tell in what, if anything, they truly believed. (That now applies even to the nuts and bolts of economic policy, where I have previously given Senator Clinton some credit. She does talk sensibly about income taxes, but her endorsement of a gas tax holiday that seems designed to increase both consumption and price is inexcusable. A significant heating oil subsidy to deal with the 66% increase in price that I and my fellow New Englanders are dealing with would do a lot more for the Democratic base, and without increasing energy consumption. Just my opinion, of course.)

Meanwhile, Barack Obama's travails do make me wonder whether he is the man of the moment. Once again Strauss and Howe provide an invaluable insight. Obama, born in 1962, identifies himself (as they did) as a Gen Xer, and his cool, unemotional approach, his very real desire to move beyond partisanship, is totally characteristic of a member of a Nomad generation. He would have been an outstanding President in another twenty years, after the crisis was over. He may be an outstanding one now--but he is out of sync with the Boomers who still dominate our political life and who, along with older Silents, have kept Hillary alive in one Democratic primary after another. On the other hand, if Obama is nominated (as he almost surely will be), an unprecedented registration drive could finally turn the youth vote, which overwhelmingly favors him, into a decisive factor. We could have a different, more peaceful crisis--and that could be all to the good, too. As against Obama, we have Hillary, the most frightening type of prophet--one whose righteousness has degenerated into self-righteousness--and McCain, who has totally capitulated to the worst Boomer excesses of his own party on one issue after another. For me, that still remains a relatively easy choice.

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