“The War Room” Sixteen Years Later

Posted on 09 October 2008

 

By Marissa Maier

At the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival, Sag Harbor residents, and acclaimed husband and wife filmmaking duo, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus will present their film “The Return of the War Room.” The work revisits material from their Academy-Award nominated 1993 documentary “The War Room,” which followed Bill Clinton’s talented and young campaign staff for the 1992 presidential election. Many of these Clinton staffers, including James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, were re-interviewed for the new film.

Despite the political nature of the original documentary, Pennebaker doesn’t believe “The War Room” is a political film. According to Pennebaker, the piece centers around a cast of entertaining characters who happen to work in politics. “Most of our films follow people who know how to do something well, are passionate, and are taking a huge risk. Running for president is one of the riskiest things you can do,” says Hegedus.

Hegedus and Pennebaker stumbled upon Clinton, who was then a governor from Arkansas best known for his long speeches. George Bush Sr.’s camp wouldn’t allow them to film his campaign, and at the time Perot refused to announce his bid to run for office, leaving Clinton as the only candidate willing to accommodate the two filmmakers.

In the beginning, Hegedus and Pennebaker encountered some difficulty in filming Clinton, who was already being followed day and night by a journalist and photojournalist. It was at the Democratic convention that Pennebaker decided to focus his lens not on Clinton, but on James Carville.

“Hilary had appointed him. I didn’t know who he was [at first], but he was the underground ruler of the whole campaign,” says Pennebaker. Hegedus adds, “We stumbled upon James [Carville] and George [Stephanopoulos], who were such unlikely characters and we stuck with them.”

As the campaign progressed, Carville and Stephanopoulos gained national notoriety. Carville was known for his short, biting slogans, such as “It’s the economy, stupid.” Stephanopoulos’ boyish charm, and academic achievements — he is a Rhodes Scholar — made him a press favorite.

“’92 was the first campaign were the behind the scenes people were so glamorous to the press, all of it coming together was really operatic,” says Mary Matalin, the noted Republican political pundit and wife of Carville, in “The Return of the War Room.”

“The War Room” focused on the friendship between these two characters, and tapped into the human element of the campaign story. “With Clinton it was all front parlor talk,” says Pennebaker, “[but with Carville and Stephanopoulos] we were much closer to the nerve centers of the campaign.”

The political tactics Carville and Stephanopoulos honed during the 1992 presidential campaign revolutionized campaign management. Commentators in “The Return of the War Room” recall the time before “The War Room,” when campaign staffers would compete with each other. Campaign employees used information as a way to launch their personal careers and each department within the campaign worked independently.

“[Carville] said people always want to have a War Room, but they don’t want to do the things that make a War Room … You have to share information, have a unified message.”

Carville shattered this previous campaign model. Everyone in the Clinton campaign shared information amongst each other, and staffers in all departments worked side by side.

“I think ‘The War Room’ took its nature from some of the people involved, particularly Carville. He liked [everyone working] in a room the size of a basketball court. He felt it bred the democratic spirit … And Stephanopoulos was a very smart person who saw how to make that work,” says Pennebaker, “They had a one-two punch, even when faced with unbelievable scandals.”

The staff of the war room were known for their aggressiveness when handling unsavory allegations, such as Gennifer Flowers alleged affair with Clinton, and had a talent for spinning a scandalous story into a positive one.

Since the 1992 presidential elections almost every major political campaign has incorporated political strategies pioneered in the War Room. Tony Blair hired Carville to recreate the War Room for his campaign in such detail that they used the same floor layout. Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and pollster, told Hegedus, that “Clinton was able to use language. [Frank] told me that he put the spin on it that he wanted, but [Clinton] used it for the right instead of the left.”

More importantly, the war room changed the way the Democratic party was seen on the political stage. Before Clinton was elected, the Republicans controlled the White House for twelve years. Bob Boorstein, deputy communications manager for Clinton’s 1992 campaign, likens the shift to a scene in Brian De Palma’s film “The Untouchables.”

“The guy goes to kill Sean Connery’s character and the guy goes in holding a knife and Connery knows he is there and he turns around with this shot gun and says ‘isn’t that just like a whoop carrying a knife to a gun fight’ and that’s what Democrats were like before ‘The War Room.’ We were the ones carrying the knives,” says Boorstein.

Although, “The War Room” reinvigorated the Democratic party, and subsequently transformed campaign management, Hegedus and Pennebaker are doubtful whether an equivalent to it exists in this year’s election.

“The people who were involved in that campaign were a unique, wacky group. I am not sure if you find that in a campaign any more, [at least] not as a group.” In “The Return of the War Room,” Stephanopoulos says he wouldn’t know how to run a campaign today. The advent of user-controlled websites, like YouTube and Facebook, has created a level of transparency and flow of information absent in previous elections.

“People are more aware of the power of the camera. We are observing people’s lives non-stop. Everything candidates do is so covered. There are no private moments on the campaign trail.”

There are certain similarities between the issues raised in “The War Room” and this year’s election. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton widely discussed the nations failing economy. Clinton, aided by his campaign staff, transformed himself from a virtually unknown politician into an eloquent candidate with a fresh perspective. He represented himself as the voice for change. Barack Obama, this year’s Democratic presidential hopeful, has no doubt taken pointers from Clinton and the War Room staff. Obama has infused the Democratic party with new blood and a fresh message, much like Clinton, Carville and Stephanopoulos worked so hard to do sixteen years ago in “The War Room.”

 

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