Primary Colors (review)

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Clinton: One Okay Guy?

I thought Primary Colors would bore me because of the Bill Clinton overload we’ve all been subjected to these days. (I mean, I’m the biggest news junkie there is, and even I can’t stand CNN lately.) I figured, Here’s an apologist flick that’s gonna tell me why Billy Boy should still be considered cool. And the weird thing is, as tough as Primary Colors actually is on Clinton (it’s far from apologist), it actually made me see the president as, well, a pretty okay guy.

Jack Stanton (John Travolta) isn’t Clinton at all, of course. No, it’s just a coincidence that he’s the doughnut-chomping, skirt-chasing, “I-feel-your-pain”-crying governor of a Southern state who’s running for president. And his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) should in no way be interpreted as a stand-in for Hillary Clinton — even though Susan is probably more qualified to be president yet has to play the dumb little woman at times.
Whatever. Take Primary Colors however you wish — it’s still a surprisingly moving story about what it takes to run for president in the United States. Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is our entree into the peculiar world of primaries and campaigning and mudslinging. The son of a famed civil-rights leader, Burton signs on as Stanton’s deputy campaign manager because he’s looking for something to believe in — and he finds it in Stanton.

Despite the bimbo allegations and the less-than-legal activities of campaign troubleshooter Libby (Kathy Bates), Stanton is a man who can talk to a mildly retarded doughnut-shop worker, adult literacy students, and disgraced former senators with the same grace and concern. So maybe the story Stanton tells about his war-hero uncle isn’t exactly factual — it’s the truth of the sentiment that Stanton really embraces. It sounds disingenuous, but as Stanton says to Burton (in essence): Who would you rather follow: the man who lies and cheats because it will get him to a position where he can ultimately help the little guys, or the man who lies and cheats for nothing other than the prize of the presidency?

George Bush was excoriated for being too elitist (remember the incident with the supermarket scanner?). Al Gore is the butt of late-night comics for being too much the Boy Scout. And Bill Clinton gets ragged on for being too down-to-earth (oh boy, another joke about McDonald’s french fries). A guy just can’t get a break, can he? Okay, maybe Clinton is a jerk — maybe he did all those stupid things all those women are accusing him of. But I’ve always felt that Clinton is genuinely concerned about all Americans who aren’t lobbyists or CEOs or movie stars — Americans most other politicians don’t even deem to acknowledge. Primary Colors went a good way toward convincing me of that.

Oops, I forgot. Primary Colors isn’t about Bill Clinton at all.

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