"If someone says, 'It's not about money,' it's about money -- and if someone says 'it's not about sex,' it's about sex." -- Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers quoting H.L. Mencken at Clinton's impeachment trial
Well before Arkansas governor William Jefferson Clinton announced his bid for the United States presidency, he had enemies conspiring to derail both his and his wife Hillary's political future. Using the titular best seller by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason as their basis, the screenwriting/directing duo of TV producer and 'friend of Bill' Harry Thomason and independent filmmaker Nickolas Perry (who also served as editor) make a case that right wing conspirators planned "The Hunting of the President."
Thomason and Perry have a wealth of material, which, despite their MTV paced editing and irreverent treatment, builds to some devastating conclusions. Like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," this is one documentary that makes no bones about its agenda, and, indeed, its non-present directors display some of the same snarky attitude Moore is criticized for, yet the insidious nature of Thomason and Perry's subject is more chilling.
The affable 42nd President of the United States had enemies to spare motivated by profit, envy, politics, personal salvation, right-wing obsessiveness, moral outrage and just plain hatred. New Zealand reporter Andrew Cooper recounts his weird meeting with Everett Ham while he was camping on the banks of an Arkansas river. Ham offered Cooper lodging from which the young man observed secret meetings of A.R.I.A. (Alliance for the Rebirth of an Independent America), an organization formed to bring down Clinton, aboard Ham's houseboat. Writer David Brock (who wrote for the right-wing American Spectator throughout Clinton's presidency before infamously coming clean in "Blinded by the Right"), describes the workings of the like-minded Arkansas Project. The dubious local duo of disgruntled former Clinton employee Larry Nichols and local detective Larry Case, whose specialty was outing the sex scandals of public figures, brought the likes of Gennifer Flowers to the tabloids while Cliff Jackson, a former Oxford classmate of Clinton's, created Troopergate. Paula Jones is discredited as a political groupie who fell into the hands of the Falwell right. Falwell produced the Clinton Chronicles for TV, accusing the man of everything from drug smuggling to murder, then admits he couldn't verify all his facts.
At the time, I personally always regarded the reporting on Whitewater as so much white noise. It's gratifying to hear Reuter reporter Steve Barnes recall Newsweek's Jenny Carroll confiding that 'There's no there there' about Whitewater. The media is painted as a pack of competitors all afraid to be left behind on 'the next Watergate' story. David Hale, the chief Whitewater accuser who said Clinton pressured him into loaning money for the project, is shown to be a man so deep in his own nefarious economic dealings that he used Clinton to deflect attention. The film's second half is dominated by the heartbreaking testimony of Susan McDougal, who partnered with her husband Jim and the Clintons in the Whitewater development deal. She describes watching Jim slip into financial ruin and mental illness exacerbated by his agitation over an off the cuff unfulfilled promise Clinton made to his dying mother to give him a job. Jim was wooed and won by Ken Starr's team, but Susan's refusal to cooperate with them made her the martyr of the Clinton presidency. CNN analyst and New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin calls time out against Ken Starr's presumably impartial appointment to the Independent Counsel describing him as a walking political conflict of interest who went so far as to send FBI agents to pull high school students out of rural classrooms for evidence in his witch hunt.
Of course, Clinton wasn't entirely innocent in his own undoing. The filmmakers barely mention Monica Lewinsky, but her appearance heralds Clinton's stupidity in playing into his own enemies' hands, costing him the loyalty of many of his defenders in the process. Still, the millions spent to impeach the president (James Carville tosses out a figure of $80 million) resulted in two counts thrown out by the Senate. There is no telling what the hounding of the president (one person talks about being astonished when Clinton is stopped to discuss the Paula Jones case during an international crisis) cost the American public overall, including the 2000 elections.
It is compelling content, and not the work of Thomason and Perry, that make "The Hunting of the President" of note, however. The filmmakers use jokey, often tenuous at best, cutaways (often from old black and white public domain movies) and flippant sound effects that undermine the film, distracting the viewer. Those who can focus through the effluence of unrelated imagery may still have difficulty keeping track of the cast of characters. Some interview subjects are identified during each and every of multiple appearances. Others, like the prominently used Claudia Riley, are introduced so quickly amidst the barrage of editing that one may not realize the relevance of their point of view for quite some time. The usual 'where are they now' informational credits appear at film's end tinged with sarcasm and interspersed with unclear sentiments like '...and the beat goes on.'
In creating an argument that provokes thought, though, "The Hunting of the President" succeeds in spite of itself.
The documentary, by Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason based on the book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, opens with the 1999 impeachment hearings of Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States. What follows is the chronology of events, starting in 1989, of serious efforts by many groups whose sole task was to destroy Bill Clinton in “The Hunting of the President.”
We are all aware of the many and various scandals that have been associated with former president Bill Clinton starting years before his ascension to the Oval Office. The alleged 12 year affair with Jennifer Flowers; the “Troopergate” scandal with the state cops testifying about Clinton’s peccadilloes; the inexplicable affair with Paula Jones; Whitewater; the Ken Starr independent council’s witch hunt; and, most popular, the Monica Lewinski scandal. Perry and Thomason take these events, dissects and analyzes each and come up with a sort of loose conspiracy theory.
While it is always interesting and satisfying to the left leaning mind to think that all bad things in government and corporations are due to conspiracies, I don’t think the documakers prove the case of such against Bill Clinton. What the do prove is that Bill Clinton, intentionally or not, made many enemies since his start in politics by his own lack of loyalty in favor of his political, and other, ambitions. What is amazing about the film are the number of groups whose only mission in life was to assassinate William Jefferson Clinton – at least, politically.
The filmmakers give even shrift to each of the remarkable list of scandals. The Jennifer Flowers affair triggers the attack by conservative forces in Arkansas against then-governor Clinton as we are introduced to shadowy figures helping Flowers from behind the curtain. “Troopergate,” to all intent and purpose, was a manufactured plot with two goals: make money and get revenge against the governor for not repaying the state troopers’ loyalty with presidential perks.
However, the meat of “The Hunting of the President” is with the Whitewater scandal and the subsequent investigation made by independent council Ken Starr. If you remember, Bill and Hillary were involved in an Arkansas land development deal with Jim and Susan McDougal. Things didn’t go correctly and there were allegations of improprieties by the president and Mrs. Clinton. This prompted the Whitewater investigation, Ken Starr and over $50 million to prove the president’s culpability in the scandal. But, as reporter Ginny Campbell put it, “I’m trying to tell my editors, there’s no there there!”
Things take on a more ludicrous tone with the Monica affair, showing the lengths the media will go to in order to promote scandal over real news. This indictment against the press for sensationalizing the scandals is well placed. Perry and Thomason do not, by any means, try to whitewash Bill Clinton’s actions and personal misdeeds. They do build the case that there were those out to get the former president. Despite their efforts, Mr. Clinton was twice elected to the nation’s highest office. The film speculates what Bill Clinton might have done as president if he did not have to face the time consuming and stressful defense against unfounded charges. It makes you wonder.
While the information content, clear chronology and pacing are all well done there is one big false step the documakers make. Throughout “The Hunting of the President” there is the frequent and inappropriate use of non-sequitur cutaway shots throughout the otherwise serious film. By cutting to a close up of a smiling man or a grandmother type – for no discernable reason – distracted from the otherwise well-researched and executed visual document. I also had trouble with the use of rock and pop music over the proceeds, especially when the lack of score would be more effective. While “The Hunting…” is an otherwise solidly made documentary these little nit picks keep it from being on top of my best documentary list. I give it a B.
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