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Friday, July 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Taking us to task for wallowing in mudslinging of Clinton bashers

Special to The Seattle Times

In the past few months we've seen leftist critiques of corporate pathology ("The Corporation"), McDonald's ("Super Size Me"), the Bush administration ("Fahrenheit 9/11"), and the Iraq war and the mainstream media ("Control Room"). Waiting in the wings are documentaries about Fox News ("Outfoxed") and senior Bush adviser Karl Rove ("Bush's Brain").

And now — for those on the left with voracious appetites — there's "The Hunting of the President," a documentary about what Hillary Clinton famously called "the vast right-wing conspiracy" against President Clinton.

It was written and directed by Nickolas Perry, who helped edit several Clinton promo films ("A Place Called America"), and Harry Thomason, a Clinton confidante who directed several Clinton promo films ("Legacy"; "Hillary 2000"). Objectivity is not expected.

Were Clinton's enemies at best unethical and at worst illegal? The film starts in Arkansas, where Larry Case and Larry Nichols were freelance operatives who provided lurid details to visiting big-city journalists. About L.A. Times reporter Bill Rempel, Case brags: "I pulled him in like a trophy trout." Rempel helped break the "Troopergate" story, which alleged that state troopers helped facilitate extramarital affairs for Clinton. The troopers themselves, according to the doc, had suspect motivations for coming forward with their charges, ranging from money to revenge, while their unofficial stage-manager, Cliff Jackson, was an Arkansas lawyer and former Clinton classmate who was supposedly motivated by envy.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***
"The Hunting of the President," a documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman, with Paul Begala, David Brock, Dan Moldea, Jeffrey Toobin. Written and directed by Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry. Based on the book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. 89 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences (contains discussions of sexual matters). Varsity.

The film also focuses on D.C. billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who funded American Spectator magazine and the Arkansas Project, both of which fanned the flames of rumor and innuendo long enough to attract the interest of the mainstream media. In this way, Troopergate led to Paula Jones. Clinton aide Vincent Foster committed suicide, and dark rumors about his death surfaced. Then there was the whole Whitewater wrangle, which never went away, even though some reporters, according to the film, complained to their editors, "There's no there there."

It was Whitewater that caused Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint Special Counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican lawyer, to investigate the matter. When Congress reauthorized the Independent Counsel Act six months later, Fiske was pushed out, replaced by Ken Starr.

In "Hunting," Starr's team comes across as bullies, threatening and urging people to lie under oath.

Unfortunately, most of "Hunting" still amounts to "he said, she said." What's new here? Mea culpas from the press, and commentary from former Spectator star David Brock ("Blinded By the Right"), who gives insight about the inner workings of Clinton's enemies.

The last third of the film is devoted to its most important accusation: How this campaign from the right came to dominate the post-Watergate, post-cable TV media. The most damning talking head may be Dan Moldea, author of several books debunking conspiracy theories of both the left and right, who calls the press coverage of the Vincent Foster case "the most corrupt act of journalism I have ever seen."

Poet W.H. Auden once referred to the 1930s as "a low dishonest decade," and it's not a bad epitaph for the '90s either. We were not a serious people. Clinton had personal failings, many of his opponents were noisy buffoons, and the press listened to them and we all tuned in. Meanwhile, enemies gathered elsewhere.

"The Hunting of the President" is as faulty as its titular subject, but it raises important questions and will probably get your blood boiling. Go with someone you can debate.

Erik Lundegaard: elundegaard@comcast.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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