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Up Close and Presidential?

A recent video parody of the President -- starring the President himself -- has ignited a firestorm of Internet downloads and talk-show controversy.
 
 
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Bill Clinton is an exciting man to be around. Just ask David Corman, who edited a recent video parody of the President -- starring the President himself -- that has ignited a firestorm of Internet downloads and talk-show controversy.

"It was incredible," Corman says about filming the six-minute video, which first showed at this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. "It was the chance of a lifetime to work that closely with the President."

The widely-talked about video featured footage of Clinton wandering the halls of the White House, asking "Anybody home?" and making origami ducks -- a spoof on the emptiness of his Administration's final days. The intimate "mockumentary" was especially appropriate for its target audience: reporters who cover the White House. Once a year, all the White House Correspondents gather to present awards for White House coverage and scholarships for high school students. The President's appearance is traditional. But this year, according to the official spin, Clinton had wanted to do something special. What better way to score extra charisma points than with an exclusive film showing Clinton fooling around with a camera crew in the White House?

"It was done to be a humorous goodbye, so to speak, to the White House Correspondents," explains Mark Kitchens, the White House Director of Internet News. "And we had a good time with it." But even Kitchens was surprised by the response it got. "I think it's been amazing to see the widespread reaction."

Maybe Kitchens shouldn't be so amazed. How many videos can boast an appearance by the President of the United States riding a bike down the empty hallways of the White House? The chief executive is also shown running after Hillary's limo yelling "You forgot your lunch!" and feeding popcorn to Buddy the White House dog while watching 101 Dalmatians.

The video snuck into the public dialogue when the Correspondents Dinner was broadcast on C-Span, but it didn't make a splash until it found a second life on the Internet. When a digitized version of the video was displayed at AdCritic.com -- under the headline "Clinton Washes Dirty Laundry" -- it was downloaded 200,000 times in its first week, estimates site founder Peter Beckman. ("People love it! They love to see that Bill Clinton has a sense of humor!") But then again, it was just a matter of time before the intriguing video percolated out into the Web. "It's been on many different sites," says Kitchens. "All the major news sites have posted it at some point. The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, FOX -- all of them had either the entire video or just snippets."

A few voices sniped that the President shouldn't be using his time filming comedy, but Corman says he saw that controversy raised and defused on an episode of Politically Incorrect. "Bill Maher stuck up for him and said it was two hours out of his day," says Corman. "Which is absolutely true. It was probably LESS than two hours."

Intimate Glimpses

The sub-text to the whole affair, of course, is how rare access to the powerful really is. The video's unpredicted popularity, both on television and on the Internet, suggests a growing demand for more intimate portraits of popular politicians. Pre-recorded videos have indeed become a low-risk technique to create a positive impression. Years ago Bill Gates began accompanying his speaking engagements with a video filled with technology skits. Presidential conventions now routinely dim the lights to watch a political video, effectively converting any news coverage into a political advertisement. The Associated Press reports Clinton is showing the recent video to audiences in Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio, where he was promoting his education platform.

Ever since he resuscitated his 1992 Presidential campaign playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, Clinton has known how to appeal to voters with what is essentially innocuous footage. In one sense, this video is just another incarnation of the media savvy that infuriated conservatives convinced no one would elect a man they'd perceived as a pot-smoking draft dodger. With eight months before he vacates the White House, Clinton is still going after voters' hearts. "I thought it was a really good move," says Beckman. "Too bad he didn't do it earlier in his Presidency!"

Blue Rock Editing Company, the company David Corman works for, expected the video to garner a big reaction, but not this big. "I don't think anybody associated with it considered that it was going to get that much play," says Denise Wanat, an executive assistant at Blue Rock. After the video first aired, Wanat says, Blue Rock started getting calls from all over the U.S. -- and even Canada and London. "This has been unlike anything, because I think it reached every sort of demographic," says Wanat. "EVERYONE saw this, not just industry people."

Goofing Around with Bill

As editor, David Corman didn't really have a reason to meet the President in person. But the film's co-producer, Richard Rosenthal, and its director, Richard's brother Phil, (who helped create and write "Everybody Loves Raymond") decided that Corman's work would be easier if Corman watched the film being shot. So Corman found himself on his way to the White House.

Meeting Clinton was a surreal moment, Corman remembers. "I never was IN the White House before. I used to live in DC, but I never even took the White House tour," Corman jokes. But soon after entering the hallowed hallways and crossing the rugs with Presidential seals, he was face to face with the country's most powerful man. "He comes in, and he's chatting with everybody," Corman remembers, "and then you're just doing it. You're shooting the thing!"

The film crew got to spend an hour with "BC" that afternoon ("and then he went off to do some things that he does ... meet with the Russians or something...") and another 45 minutes of filming that night. Corman and the rest of the crew found themselves all over the White House. After the euphoria wore off ("He's the President of the United States! You never get that close!") there was nothing to do but get down to business -- and after half an hour, Corman admits, "it's sort of like he's an actor." Director Phil Rosenthal knew how to coax a funny performance, and Corman remembers that at least once, the President improvised. "There was one thing that he hadn't really been asked to do. There's a scene where he's staring at the laundry and his head is going around. He just started doing that..."

The film features a number of brief cameos, all included for comic effect. Clinton and General Henry Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are shown completing a game of "Battleship." Clinton later appears with Kevin Spacey -- along with his Best Actor Oscar -- and even Michael Maronna, better known to the world as "Stuart," the mullet-headed slacker from the Ameritrade commercial, who shows Bill how to buy a smoked ham on eBay. ("All right, Mr. P? Ready to start?") Keeping their audience of journalists in mind, the film-makers also peppered their depiction of Clinton's supposed isolation with appearances by real-life White House correspondents like Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas.
The film culminates with a happy ending: The President shows Stuart how to swipe ice cream sandwiches from a White House vending machine without paying.

Corman had nothing but compliments for the chief executive's ability as a performer -- and as a co-worker. "He's just a very charismatic guy. He really seemed to get energized by people, like he wants to connect with everybody."

Making a Splash

When the crew showed the edited version of the film to White House press secretary Joe Lockhart and the President's speech writers, it got an outstanding reaction. "They loved it," Corman remembers. "They cracked up." After making a few minor changes suggested by the White House staffers -- like making the gags more visual -- it was on to White House Correspondent's Dinner. Like Lockhart and the speech writers, the reporters fell for the video head over heels. "People were on their feet," says Corman.

Aside from fulfilling the fantasy of an up-close-and-personal encounter with the President, Mark Kitchens, the White House Director of Internet News, also thinks the video's continuing appeal stems from 21st century technology. "I think it highlights one of the brilliant aspects of the Internet," says Kitchens. "You've got the ability to watch the video at will -- any time you want. You don't have to wait for the news organizations to show it."

But how the public responds to such technology is still unpredictable. AdCritic's Beckman notes that even comedy from the President will only get you so far; by Sunday Clinton's video had dropped out of first place in popularity, behind Budweiser's newest "Wazzup" commercial. (The one at the sushi shop...) Beckman says Budweiser's original Wazzup commercial still holds the title of most-popular ever, with over a million downloads -- followed by the Nike ad where Tiger Woods bounces a golf ball on his club. Celebrity and personality only command limited attention from a fickle public already looking for the next round of images. But the Internet at least gives them that opportunity, because it wasn't cordoned off at a private association's dinner. For better or worse, that much access to the President -- or the appearance of access -- has been democratized.