Bright Lights Film Journal

The Clinton Syndrome, or the Survival Legacy: <em>Wag the Dog</em>

Revisiting the failure of Wag the Dog and other, more troubling failures

“And the public, by and large, seems willing to live with the fact that the most powerful man in the world is … well, a man.” – Newsweek (Feb. 9, 1998)


By a strange historical refraction, Clinton’s sex scandal occurred on the heels of JFK’s; namely, the publication of Seymour Hirsch’s The Dark Side of Camelot in late 1997. Even odder, neither dented the respective president’s popularity. While the Clinton-Lewinsky affair unfolded, the media coverage was outweighed only by the media covering itself covering the scandal. More quickly than the public had tired of landings on the moon, the news media questioned its own propensities while unable to release itself from the grip of scandal coverage. Newsmen wondered (laboriously) why the public remained stoic to all the shenanigans; meanwhile, the players in the drama were elevated to celebrity status each day, and the Special Prosecutor and moralists reminded us of the true value of the charges against Clinton; the team in the Clinton bunker also reminded us: it’s good polling numbers, stupid, that dictate how much we should worry about morality.

Mention of Clinton and Kennedy here is by no means spurious. Clinton’s affinity to the New Frontier ran as deep as the “new generation” appeals made during the 1993 inaugural. Clinton made a long speech but only so no group would be offended by being omitted (a key strategy to getting elected). We hadn’t realized that Clinton and his advisors had also appropriated Kennedy’s ineffectuality: they had plenty of programs but none that would pass Congress (Kennedy’s were eventually passed under Johnson’s administration). Clinton and his War Room were just giddy rising to the place where they could make things happen. But reality harshly bared itself to Bill and Hillary, James and George, as it had to the Kennedy clan: wielding power was more difficult than creating the image of wielding it purposefully. Thus, the keeping of political power would become the mission of the presidency as it had for JFK – that is, if you believe his commitment of troops to Vietnam was solely meant to hold the right wing at bay. The Clinton White House stumbled early and often until the crisis for re-election began in 1994 when the Republicans gained full control of Congress. Bill looked like a dead duck. His image of power was dealt a severe blow. He needed help. To keep the updated versions of the evil right wing out of the White House, he hired Dick Morris, a man who understood how to reinflate image, to run the War Room. He saved the President but couldn’t save himself from his own sex scandal. When Clinton got into trouble his second term, the War Room gathered as would the Kennedy clan during a crisis, with one thing in mind: to deflect as much hurt from their boss as possible.

Meanwhile, a movie called Wag the Dog (1997) seemingly wagged the Lewinsky scandal; we actually thought Clinton would start a war with Iraq to take our minds off his problem. All the Wag talk crowded out truer analogies. The longer the scandal proceeded, the thinner public memory was becoming, the easier the counterattacks from the Presidential War Room could steal our attention. Free-flowing information about the scandal from all media directions clouded our ability to judge one truth from a better or worse truth. At this point –we were at this point the first day Linda Tripp’s story broke –the stories about Presidential misconduct (although which ones were believable), as well as the stories about the stories of Presidential misconduct, became irrelevant. The seeming invincibility of Bill Clinton to all charges of misconduct from the moment he started running for president suggested this conclusion as strongly as the Kennedy-Nixon debates announced Kennedy as the irresistible master of the image.

By definition all comment on and activity around the scandal was automatically obsolete. It’s the irresistibility of the process, stupid! The nature of our morbid fascination. Starting with the onslaught of Kennedy assassination conspiracies (we can’t escape JFK). The attempt to regain something the nation had lost. Yet the possibility of conspiracy titillates. Irresistibly, the media perform their mission by perpetuating the titillation. We have devoted ourselves to the minutiae of many events in the last twenty years: the English nanny case in Massachusetts, Jon Benet Ramsey, the Versace murder, O.J., retro-Kennedy and Clinton indiscretions. In the mid-sixties Paul Simon wrote that he had been “John O”Haraed and McNamaraed,” in a folksy if weary response to the ways of power. In the ’90s I nearly expected an older Simon to write a song that would update the verse to read that he’d been “James Carvilled and Disney whirled!”


Depending on your perspective,Wag the Dog could be considered a fictional remake of or fictional sequel to the D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Higgins documentary The War Room (1993). The documentary focused on the two main pistons of the 1992 Clinton campaign engine, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, and while they alone did not win the election for Clinton, they handled their candidate’s strategy, which meant spending time dealing with Clinton’s delinquencies. Primarily, they kept Bill Clinton focused on winning presidential power. Carville and Stephanopoulos took to heart the lessons of Michael Dukakis’s defeat in 1988 and would not respond passively to any accusations against their man – most pointedly, they knew that Bush’s people were up to their old tricks when they made outrageous insinuations about Clinton’s visit to Russia during the Vietnam War.

Clinton’s War Room was created from absolute necessity to deal with the Republicans, to throw their tactics back at them, but it’s eerie to view the documentary today because we see how the essence of Clinton was captured therein – much like Joe McGinniss “captured” the essence of Nixon in The Selling of a President.Clinton’s team mastered the art of pulling their man’s butt from political hell (how easily Clinton could have joined our fading memories of Gary Hart and Joe Biden). Subsequently, all of Bubba’s Men continued to keep the presidency together – with no small help from the man who would not be denied his eight years as president.

Coming away from The War Room, if not from reports of the Clinton White House during its campaign financing, Paula Jones, and Whitewater travails, we must be impressed by the passion elicited by his two main men and their team. They believed Bill Clinton should be the man in the White House, and nothing could lessen their passion for the man.

Slowly it was clear: The War Room became the Clinton presidency.

What separated the presidential handlers in Wag the Dog from The War Room was this very passion. Robert De Niro’s and Anne Heche’s characters essentially saved a presidency they didn’t believe worth saving. This was the first of Wag the Dog‘s failures to be a successful satire.

The movie’s inability to rip the guts from the political process as it now operates stemmed from its characters’ lack of passion. De Niro and Heche acted too superciliously to the process that they were creating, which inspired in the audience the idea that an individual’s deeds can be separated from his/her morality. This would have been roughly the equivalent of blaming a catastrophe on a giant octopus or Bigfoot. We could have left the film sufficiently scared but also would have felt relatively safe from the allegedly monstrous evil lurking out there.

The strategy was to have us believe we were watching something unprecedented: the government had reached a new low in deceit! Media masters masturbating the media. De Niro wanted a man, a team that could create a seamless public lie. He flew to Hollywood to manufacture a war (the reference point: Reagan’s Granada invasion in 1983, ostensibly to blot from the headlines the terrorist bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Marines). Then came the movie parallel to end all parallels (at least since The China Syndrome, 1979); namely, when the Clinton administration turned the heat on Saddam Hussein at the time of the impeachment vote.

The illusion created by Wag the Dog – better, the start of Wag‘s own self-deceptive wag – came from the title. Director Barry Levinson wanted us to envision a clique of media manipulators feeding the public constant bullshit and controlling the focus of government concerns. Another reason to distrust government. What seemed to slip by was that the movie operates within a 30-year-old Hollywood continuum: the government will intrigue against its own people. That is, the government would do anything to protect itself from having its indiscretions aired publicly. A small step from government (Pentagon, CIA, FBI, IRS) to the Oval Office. Ultimately, in Wag, it would be the offices of government that would provide resources for both a phony war and the cover-up of that phony war. We’ve seen this kind of deception in movies ad nauseam.

Inevitably, Newsweek had asked Levinson to comment on the life-imitates-art scenario, but all he managed to say was that the line between truth and fiction was becoming blurred. Had Levinson been on his toes, he would have made the connection to The War Room. Instead, we heard the predictable “blurring” comment when what was needed was a more imaginative vision of this blurring.

Indeed, Wag the Dog demonstrated the movies’ complicity in this blurring but also unconsciously reveling in the process it was criticizing.

Much time was spent showing the image of a woman refugee carrying a dog through a bombed village in Albania. What allowed the image-makers to accomplish this feat was the drawing card for Hollywood movies for the past several decades. The audience would be awed by the technical razzle-dazzle; Levinson and his screenwriters had failed to make this process repulsive enough! The creation of the “perfect image” by special effects became a way for the audience to absolve the recipients – ultimately, themselves! – of any responsibility for believing in this image. The real blur was happening in our conscience.

Yet the movie didn’t completely fall apart until Woody Harrelson appeared as the soldier who had been selected to be the hero in the war against Albania. Wag opted for easy, uncomplicated laughs and reactions, knowing Harrelson’s presence would provide fifteen to twenty minutes of interest during a stretch when the movie’s satiric thrust was waning. Although the right actor may have been cast, the role seemed too pat, telling us that there’s nothing at stake except the laugh.

To understand how weak the casting of Harrelson was – in a role whose premise is admittedly strained – compare Oliver Stone’s casting him as a mass murderer in Natural Born Killers (1994), where he looked and enjoyed the part, with the added resonance that the actor himself quivered with his hit-man father’s genes. For this reason, Harrelson was more believable as a murderer than, say, Martin Sheen was as Charlie Sheen’s father in Wall Street(1987)! Wag the Dog avoided any kind of reflexivity toward the image-making process and let the audience off the satiric hook.

Dustin Hoffman’s murder at the end of Wag confirmed our feeling that the government was getting away with something, and that we’re powerless to do anything about it. Safe from Oliver Stone, Levinson could have the milder Hollywood-inspired government conspiracy spun in our minds. Powerless but feeling superior to the process that made us so, we returned home and surfed the news shows for the latest in tabloid weather, highway accidents, and high-profile murders.


Great movie satires are rare if only because today the distinction among the various forms of humor – satire, comedy, parody, lampoon, farce, travesty, and burlesque – goes virtually unappreciated by moviegoers. Most comedies employ some form of all of these, especially satire; thus when a full-blown satire hits us we’re taken aback. One movie underestimated for its satire was Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone meant many things for critics, but social satire was not one of them. Moreover, the content of NBK was so overwhelming that a necessary function of satire, the audience assuming the satirist’s moral standpoint, failed to happen. In Wag the Dog, the opposite was the case. The moral stand of its director and writers was not stated strongly enough, the audience not outraged enough, because the actions of De Niro, Heche, and Hoffman were not monstrous enough.

Some reviews had compared Wag the Dog to one of the supreme movie satires,Dr. Strangelove (1964). I wouldn’t want the validity or nonvalidity of this comparison to affect my uneasy feeling about Wag, but I mention it here because the vision of Dr. Strangelove appertains to the breadth of issues discussed above. Director Stanley Kubrick received some criticism for Strangelove’s “pop nihilism,” a charge which would be revived against his equally forceful satire A Clockwork Orange (1972), the progenitor of Natural Born Killers in style and content (NBK contains several references to Clockwork). What bothered Strangelove critics, besides objections to Kubrick’s distance, coldness, and lack of compassion, was its subversive critique of the liberal power structure. His president, Merkin Muffley, emulated the look of Adlai Stevenson and the image politics of John Kennedy: “Do you want me to go down in history, General, as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler?” This president was part of an earlier War Room circle that linked him with the likes of General Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove. These elected leaders and a cadre of advisors managed our doom, making decisions predicated on their maintaining power. The hotline connected this president to the Russian version of a circle of doom: Premier Kissoff and the doomsday device, which would eliminate humankind – the film’s version of Mutual Assured Destruction. As the world came apart, the aura of compassion faded from President Muffley and he intently listened to plans to preserve his presidency beyond the near mass-extinction of the human race. The mask was off. The man of compassion for the people will, alas, be also recognized as a selfish man!

This was Kubrick’s construct of power as it operates in our world: killer apes clean-shaven and dressed in business suits. Maybe history was nothing but rear-guard actions, like these in The War Room, by earlier ruling elites. The ruling circles eventually died out, but their inheritors were no smarter and made the same mistake: an inability to find a moral equivalent to their power. Or simply found repugnant the notion of giving up their power. Death would have been preferable, survival the last recourse. The Power game at its most destitute stage became a matter of survival. Missile gaps no longer mattered in a postapocalyptic world, only mineshaft gaps. And something always dogged the survivors. In the post-Cold War age, missile gaps have given way to gaps in polls that on the one hand say a majority believed the President Clinton had had trysts in the Oval Office, but also said with nearly the same numbers that a majority thought he was doing a great job. If those numbers had turned inside out, the Clinton pocket of advisors would have gathered in the War Room and considered retreating to the mineshafts.

Dr. Strangelove brought to a singularity the Cold War cloistered presidential advisors invigorated by political power and sexuality. The Russian ambassador sheepishly explained why Premier Kissoff was drunk: “He’s a man of the people, but he’s also a man. If you get my meaning.” Clinton’s actions were justified with a similar argument. He was under enormous stress and needed a release, etc. And speaking of “meaning,” the nexus of words and power was revealed in a seemingly Kubrick-written critique during Clinton’s grand jury testimony: “It depends upon what the meaning of theis means. If is means is, and never has been, that’s one thing. If it means, there is none, that was a completely true statement.” The inherent sexuality becomes clearer when one reads Norman O. Brown’s remark in Love’s Body: “Intercourse is what goes on in the sentence. In every sentence the little word ‘is’ is the copula, the penisor bridge; in every sentence magically, with a word, making the two one flesh.”

Yet the menace during the Cold War originated with Communism and the Soviet Union; the Cold Warriors responded to that threat. But Kubrick never showed the enemy in Dr. Strangelove, the real enemy being the men in power who had sunk to the level of attacking their own troops. The last eight years, the enemy (Clinton’s libido) resided inside the president; it had spurred the men in the War Room to many media battles. They seemed to win the struggle to keep their president in office, as did De Niro and Heche in Wag the Dog. They also carried their man into a second term and have hung his legacy on a declining national debt and lower crime rates.

In their glory within the War Room, they probably have congratulated each other, may even have said a prayer after each scandal died down and before another was broken by a news media, which thrived on contention and crisis itself, and what did the advisors care about people offended by their man’s morality and prevarication (on television or before Grand Juries), he was still president and they’ve got books to write to tell us how successful Bill’s presidency was – successful because he had won a second term. Who cared whether they were considered to be sycophants and spin doctors; nobody could tell when they were telling the truth or not, and wasn’t that what they’re paid to do? Wasn’t this how their success could be judged? If their morality seemed foreign to the rest of the society, fine, the rest of society didn’t count anyway. Nothing mattered outside the Clinton Presidency. As long as it continued to survive and, in January 2001, could emerge from the bunker, stand on its feeble legs, and pointlessly stagger a few steps onto the bridge to the twenty-first century.