Bill Clinton on History and “The Hunting of the President”
by Brian Brooks
Amidst all the talk about Michael Moore‘s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a film that skewers the current U.S. President, comes another explosive documentary, “The Hunting of the President.” The film, which Regent Entertainment will open today at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan, is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, giving an account of a 10-year right-wing campaign to derail and depose former U.S. President Bill Clinton. The filmmakers identify what they call “a loose cabal of enemies, who were motivated by spite, ideological zeal, and personal gain.”
Former President Clinton and Whitewater figure Susan McDougal were among those that packed Wednesday’s New York premiere of Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry‘s riveting doc at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU Wednesday evening. Not surprisingly, Ken Starr, the independent counsel appointed to further investigate Whitewater after the previous Republican independent counsel exonerated the Clintons in 1996, figures prominently in the new film. Appearing on stage after the screening to a thunderous standing ovation, former President Bill Clinton told the audience, “Ken Starr was an instrument of a grand design.”
“The (current) rise of the right in America started in the ’60s [as a reaction to] the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Then later, the Berlin Wall fell and they had [few] identifiable enemies. I served as the next best thing,” Clinton detailed. The former President, whose memoirs will be published next week as he embarks on a high-profile media tour, then launched into an animated lecture tying his own viewpoints to historical fact and context — all seemingly off the top of his head. He spoke to an audience including notables Robert Altman, actor Glenn Close, writer and radio host Al Franken, musician Moby, author Salman Rushdie, actor Alec Baldwin, and many others.
Clinton went on to give his account of why the right harbored such a venomous hate towards him, as depicted in the new film. The former president said that he believed the right thought it had found a winning formula for holding power and that the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 was an anomaly due to the Watergate scandal. He said they labeled Democrats as, “weak… elitist… can’t be trusted to protect the country… always giving money to the poor, most of whom were people of color…” and perpetuated a distrust of progressives. Continuing, Clinton said, “So in ’92, they thought the natural order of things broke down,” later adding, “Ken Starr saw himself as throwing the infidels from the temple.”
“I think it’s a mistake for us (fellow progressives) to treat them in the same way,” Clinton conceded, praising the founding fathers for their foresight in forging democratic principles as well as the idea of pursuing a “more perfect union.” He said, “Democracy isn’t just about majority rule, but also minority rights. Susan McDougal was a victim of [overreaching] power.” In the auditorium, Clinton called McDougal “My heroine,” and asked her to stand as she fought back tears and the audience cheered. McDougal spent two years in prison for refusing to cooperate with independent counsel Starr.
“This doesn’t exonerate me on the personal stupid things I did,” said Clinton, referring to his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The former President added that during the investigation, he naively believed the press would pursue the truth about Whitewater and other accusations. The film, however, argues that the independent counsel and the press corps formed a loose alliance feeding off the salacious accusations, while Ken Starr’s office illegally leaked information in their effort to damage Clinton publicly. At one point in the film, famed Democratic strategist James Carville described the situation as he viewed it: “We’ve all done stupid mistakes. We just haven’t all had hundreds of people spending five years and $80 million trying to find them.”
In retrospect, Clinton told the crowd he was not “consumed by outrage,” adding, “If I were, I’d be a dead man.” At the end of his speech, Clinton said that among the things he personally liked about the film was its account of what he called “the abuse of power” and the “sympathy [it shows] for the people who were wronged,” and he urged progressives to be optimistic and argue on the issues.
Concluding Clinton warned, “You should not be pessimistic, but you should know you’ll be rolled over if you lay down.”