The Return of the War Room

The Return of the War Room

The Return of the War Room is a companion piece—sixteen years later—to The War Room, the documentary about the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign.

The War Room is interesting in the way it shows the people at work on the campaign, kind of an inside view (though always with the caveat that they know they’re on camera), but my main dissatisfaction with it was the lack of analysis, the lack of commentary on what we are watching them do.

The Return of the War Room is almost the opposite. It takes (mostly) the same people, but this time interviews them about the campaign and their role in it, now that many years have passed and they’ve gained some perspective.

The films taken together are much better than either alone. Each makes up for gaps in the other.

The commentary from these folks—Carville, Stephanopoulos, Begala, etc.—is interesting here and there, but most of it’s not stuff that is going to stick with me. It’s no better than listening to an hour or so of musings on politics from David Gergen and a few of the above average TV pundits.

I still have trouble with the Mary Matalin thing, the way the films, and most or all of the participants, treat her and her ilk as morally equivalent to those who work to elect more liberal candidates.

People who devote themselves to facilitating the further enrichment of the already most privileged, and the further oppression of the have-nots, are not different but equal to those fighting for social justice. They’re either as evil as their paymasters and actually believe in what they’re doing, or they’re amoral hacks willing to work for the highest bidder.

So the fact that Carville can sleep with and marry someone like that without retching makes me wonder about him. I’m not going to fall in love with and have children with Ann Coulter. I understand there can be tactical reasons for not openly blasting someone like that as a deceitful polemicist seeking to make the world a worse place, but treating someone with a strategic civility is a lot different from accepting them into the most intimate role in your life.

There is one scene in this movie that struck me more than any other. They’re analyzing one of the debates between Clinton and Bush, and they show a clip of the candidates taking a question from a woman in the audience, with Bush going first.

The question is something like “President Bush, can you tell us how your life has been affected by the deficit? I just don’t see how a person who doesn’t suffer as a result of the deficit the way we regular folks do can truly understand the urgency of the problem.”

Bush politely asks for clarification, wanting to know the connection she’s alleging between the deficit and the day-to-day life of people who are struggling economically.

The commentators chuckle at the gaffe. And they admiringly contrast it with the way Clinton then strides toward her and makes a personal connection with her (and the audience) by expressing empathy for those who are suffering through economic hard times, and promising to do all he can to help them.

They’re right that as a performance, as a matter of persuasion, Bush blew it and Clinton did very well. But this is a rare instance where I really can’t fault the conservative. On its merits, his response was fully appropriate. Her question made no sense, or at least I would have been as puzzled by it as he was. (My guess is she doesn’t know what the deficit is, but she had heard the term and knew it had something to do with the economy. So really her question was about whether those who are doing well financially can understand and care about those who aren’t, and she just tossed the word “deficit” in there because it sounded to her like the kind of fancy term smart people use when they’re complaining about the economy.)

Bush tried to converse with her to clarify the question so he would know what he was supposed to address, while Clinton ignored the incoherence of the question and instead used the occasion as an opportunity to score some empathy points.

Advantage Clinton, but my sympathy is with Bush, for a change.

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