The Hunting of the President


In late March of this year, the Office of the Independent Counsel for the Whitewater matter quietly shuttered its D.C. operation. All told, Kenneth Starr waged the most expensive independent counsel inquiry in the nation's history: Ten years after it began its witch hunt against Bill and Hillary Clinton, the office had spent $80 million in taxpayer dollars but had very little to show for it.

In 2001, journalists Gene Lyons and Joe Conason coauthored an exhaustive takedown of the Starr investigation; The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton became a New York Times bestseller. On June 15 a documentary film, directed by Harry Thomason, based on the book will premiere in Little Rock; the movie will be released nationwide on June 18. The Hunting of the President reveals the players who conspired to take down a president, as well as the lives that were destroyed in the process.

The American Prospect's writing fellow Ayelish McGarvey recently spoke to Conason and Lyons by phone about the film.

What role did you have in the development of the film?

Conason: We decided to sell the book to Harry Thomason for development, and then we conducted the interviews. We conducted all of the interviews for the film together, with the exception of Susan McDougal – Gene couldn't make it out to Los Angeles for that one.

But every other interview was done by a team of Gene and me; Doug Jackson, who was there to help produce; and [cinematographer] Jim Roberson and the rest of our crew, who were all on hand. The interviews were turned over to [Thomason] as raw footage, and the production team added the other clips, the narration, and so forth. As the movie was cut, we saw different versions and added our two cents from time to time. We actually had some strong arguments with the production people about what should and shouldn't be in the film. And I should say, I think Gene and I are pretty satisfied: Most of the content we hoped would be part of the film was in included. There was much more we wanted to include, but we just couldn't fit it all – it's a 90-minute movie.

I was wondering about that. The book is nearly 400 pages long, and covers a complex series of events and characters. How is a book like this is transformed into a smooth, 90-minute movie?

Conason: Leave a lot of stuff out!

Lyons: If I had been responsible for making the film, it would have been longer than The Sorrow and the Pity, and twice as depressing. There was just too much detailed information – you can't include all of that in one film. I learned a lot from [Conason] during this process. I've always been the kind of writer that follows the sounds of words around, and chases metaphors. Mine are literary antecedents – I used to be an English professor.

The structure of the film was very important, and we were forced to come up with a simple one, which I would describe this way: The film becomes the story of how the political right constructed a "bear trap" for Clinton that had two "jaws" – one jaw being the Whitewater investigation, which was a hoax, in my view. The other "jaw" was the fraudulent Paula Jones investigation. So the sex is on one side, and the money is on the other. And Bill Clinton gaily jumped into it all.

So that is the basic structure, and we go back and forth between the two. The difficult thing about telling the story is that there was no conservative politburo, for example, coordinating all of this; it was a bunch of disparate people with similar interests operating in parallel, sometimes coordinating with one another. It was hard to keep that simple narrative going, while still reminding people of the interconnections of the various players who set about to ruin both Clintons by any means.

Conason: It's interesting, because we wrote the book first, and then decided to make the movie. In a way, I hope that people will see the movie and then decide to read the book – I think they'll find it easier to understand the book that way. The film lays out the characters, gives you the dramatis personae, which we should have probably included in the book. It's complicated; there are so many people, and many of the names are unfamiliar. But this is the nature of investigative reporting: If you want to understand what really happened, you have to look at details.

Give me an example of something important that you left behind on the cutting room floor.

Conason: There were important themes that couldn't get into the film, because they would have required 20 minutes of exposition. For instance, the role of the last vestiges of the segregationist right in Arkansas, and their pursuit of Clinton. There was a man named Justice Jim Johnson, working behind the scenes. One problem with that? Johnson wouldn't talk to us, so there wasn't much to put on film about him. But the broader problem was that his story was at a level of detail and historical context that is hard to fit into a film of this scope – we're covering 10 or 15 years of a major politician's life.

Lyons: Johnson is a forgotten figure, even here in Arkansas. You would have to digress and loop back through the racial politics of the '50s and '60s in Arkansas, and it would take five or six minutes of screen time for someone who is not known to the national audience.

Conason: Another one of the disagreements I had with [Thomason] regarded two characters from the first chapter of the book. Rex Nelson and J.J. Vigneault were plotting against Clinton with Lee Atwater, and they both agreed to be interviewed, and they both confirmed that story for us on camera. (Mary Matalin has said that this wasn't true, and I thought it was important to include that fact in the story.) But in the end, [Thomason] was right; there is only so much you can include.

One of the tragedies of documentary filmmaking is not being able to include everyone in the movie. People spend time to talk to you, and then there is no room in the film. We had people writing us letters, asking us if they made it into the movie. We interviewed over 80 people, and only half of those were even included in the final cut.

Lyons: Let me say this about the local aspect of the story: For the people who were caught up in the Starr investigation in one sense or another, living in Arkansas in the '90s was not like living in America. Because Starr wasn't investigating crimes, he was investigating people. He would get dirt on someone by subpoenaing every piece of paperwork he could find – often going back to college, as was the case with Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. Starr would cobble together some kind of alleged crime and then squeeze. He treated the people of Arkansas who had tangential relationships with Clinton as if they were members of the mob. By the end of this, everyone in this small place knew someone they trusted who had been ground up and spit out, and they didn't believe Starr's people.

I read your book, and I followed the Whitewater investigation as it was unfolding. But it is a complicated story, and I never fully connected with the strong emotions of some of the players involved until I saw this film. What sentiment does the movie convey that was left out of the book or the news coverage?

Conason: Well, there is the absurd and the touching. The absurd is a scene with Paula Jones, for instance. She is on camera and looking over at her husband, wanting him to prompt her to remember her own story. [In the film, Jones is fiddling with her hair and squinting into the camera, obviously trying to remember something. "Democra...Is that what they're called?" she asks her husband.]

One interview that affected me a lot was that of Betsey Wright [Clinton's chief of staff during his years as governor of Arkansas.] Wright begins to cry when she is talking about Monica Lewinsky and what [Clinton's handling of that situation] meant to her. Clinton had betrayed so many people who had really given their lives to him. I thought that was really important to include in the film. Many people around the country felt that way.

Lyons: When we were interviewing Betsey Wright, I was so grateful to her for trusting us that much. It made a strong impact on me, because she spoke for every middle-aged woman I know. My wife and all her friends, like her, had supported Clinton, and then felt such bitter regret and disgust after the whole affair.

One episode that makes me laugh is an interview we did with Claudia Riley, the 76-year-old wife of former Lt. Gov. Bob Riley and friend to Susan McDougal. With great dignity, she told us how Starr's people investigated her sex life to the point where they asked her if she had slept with Bill Clinton. She drew herself up proudly and said, "He never asked."

How did you choose Harry Thomason to do this film? He has a famously close relationship with the Clintons – did that worry you?

Conason: There were other people interested in this project, but they weren't able to raise the necessary funds to make it happen. [Thomason] could do that. He had the necessary production skills, and the ability to raise the money – which was no small effort.

There were concerns, of course, because of his closeness to Clinton. But [Thomason] committed to us to make a film that reflected the attitudes of the book. The book was fairly critical of Clinton, although it was primarily about the people trying to bring him down. But ultimately our working with him was a leap of trust.

Lyons: There was a downside to working with someone close to Clinton, but it was very small. In the country right now it is illegitimate to criticize George Bush, and it's also illegitimate for any Democrat to have a point of view. We are going to be criticized, no matter what. Even AP stories reflect great skepticism about our motives, about [Thomason's] motives.

Conason: I actually think [Thomason] felt the need to prove that he could be separate from the Clintons. He feels a bit like Betsey Wright about the whole situation. [Thomason] and his wife both felt great disappointment in the president's misdeeds, and I think he was at some pains to show that. It wasn't hard to convince him that we had to show how people felt about what Clinton had done, and the part that he played in bringing this on himself. I think people should judge the film on what's in it.

The film excoriates many members of the press for lazy reporting and gossip-mongering during the Whitewater investigation and the Lewinsky scandal. Do you think members of the media look back on that episode with any sense of shame or regret? Have we learned anything?

Conason: I don't notice any great remorse on the part of colleagues about this. [The Whitewater affair] was the first big episode since Watergate where the press really got it wrong. Then came the Wen Ho Lee debacle, and then came the Iraq war. The press felt as though they had to express some remorse about poor coverage of those latter events, but nobody has wanted to stand up and say, "We got it wrong about Clinton, too."

However, if you look at the reception that Clinton is getting as his book is rolled out, very little of the discussion of him as a political leader concerns Whitewater and all of those so-called scandals. They will talk about the Lewinsky scandal – because he got caught, in that case – but what used to be rote references to his "scandal-ridden presidency," that's pretty much gone. I think there is a broad acknowledgement that those scandals turned out to be phony.

Lyons: This is a bit of an exaggeration, but The New York Times' relationship to Ahmed Chalabi was very much like the Times' relationship to David Hale and the other Whitewater entrepreneurs. They hitched their star to people like Hale and Starr – con-men! – who led them by the nose into a morass. And in the case of Whitewater, the Times never will admit it.

And we're talking about a lot of the same editors. For instance: When Joe Lelyveld reviewed Sidney Blumenthal's book [The Clinton Wars], he was still trying to justify the Times' coverage of Whitewater. He attacked Blumenthal, and us, for having the temerity to point out that The New York Times didn't have any pants on, so to speak. And he got the facts wrong, again! And we had to correct him all over again. The response that I got, when I started to point out inaccuracies in his coverage of the story, was something akin to: "We're The New York Times, and you're not. We don't have to answer to you."

Fine, don't answer to me. But are you a journalistic organization or not? Throughout the whole Whitewater crusade, the answer that came back from the Times and The Washington Post was: no. They are not journalistic organizations as I understand the term. Because journalists, when confronted with facts contrary to accepted stories, change their opinion. And that never happened.

Conason: But I do think that there is beginning to be a sense that if you get a story grossly wrong, then you have to do something about it. I should say, there are many, many good reporters at the Times and the Post who are appalled by these kinds of episodes, and want to do something about them. But it only takes a few bad reporters to make the entire institution look bad. It's the editors, really, who are responsible for this; it's the editors who allow their newspapers to be used as outlets for propaganda.

Lyons: When a paper launches a crusade – when you have a bunch of reporters and editors who have staked their careers on a certain storyline – and sane critics from the outside point out mistakes, the answer isn't to stick your fingers in your ears and close your eyes. That strategy led both of those papers down a blind alley. And because Clinton jumped feet first into the trap, it took that much longer to get out of it.

This is where the Whitewater and Chalabi episodes are similar: Reporters become captive to dishonest sources with an axe to grind, and when critics raise the red flag, those reporters don't pay attention.

Bill Clinton will spend some time in the spotlight this summer; this movie is coming out at about the same time as his long-awaited memoir. Joe, you have said that this film isn't about Bill Clinton, any more than The Maltese Falcon was about the bird. But there is something about Clinton that elicits extraordinary vitriol from conservatives. What is it about him that they hate?

Conason: A few years ago, a D.C. journalist came to me with the idea for a book about why people hate Bill Clinton so much. We had a long talk about it, but eventually he gave up on writing that book. It is sort of a mystery, just exactly why Clinton has always excited this kind of anger. Conservatives regarded him as a very serious threat; he took power away from them for eight years, at least to a degree that they hadn't experienced in a long time. Many Democrats believe that they were robbed of the election in 2000, after the Supreme Court decided the outcome. Similarly, many Republicans believed that Clinton was not a legitimate president when he took office. Due to Ross Perot's third-party candidacy, he had not gotten the majority of the vote. And I think they felt that this man was not of the stature and character necessary for the presidency. The level of vitriol towards Clinton, though, is unique – nobody is concocting plots to bring Bush down.

Clinton is incredibly smooth; he makes everything look very, very easy. It's really hard to ruffle him. That's very frustrating to his critics, as well.

Lyons: There is one scene in the movie that stands out to me; it captures an aspect of his personality that would infuriate other people, especially men. The shot is of Clinton walking into the Arkansas state legislature with two troopers on his side. And he is greeting people. He has this easy swagger; he walks like a racehorse. He exudes self-confidence. The truth is, he's extraordinarily intelligent, and he can outsmart you and out-charm you – and he has a maddening way of letting you know that it's easy for him. And that is one of the things that was particularly infuriating to a lot of people here in Arkansas. The guy didn't even play football – he was in the band!

Conason: As Betsey Wright said in the film, Clinton was the first baby-boomer president; he and his wife represented some significant cultural changes that are deeply resented in certain parts of the country. It's everything from race to sex to the war in Vietnam; these are all cultural and political issues that are still unsettling for us.

Lyons: And then there's Hillary. With Bill Clinton, you got two for the price of one: She was equally unsettling, as a symbol of women's liberation, to people who were just deeply opposed to those kinds of changes in society.

Would you two do filmmaking again?

Conason: Oh, in a minute. Especially if I could work with this crew. We drove around all day, doing interviews, and then ate and drank together in the evenings. We had a really fun time doing this movie.

Lyons: It's kind of like being on a minor-league baseball team: You're traveling, waking up early, and staying up late hanging out. I was on the road with the Corpus Christi Seagulls for a week once, and it was a lot like that. With the difference being, if you're with the Corpus Christi Seagulls and you show up in town to play a game and there are 250 people there, 200 of them are girls.

Conason: Stop right there.

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