During a recent viewing of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebarker’s wonderful 1993 documentary The War Room I was reminded of a particular era in American politics, of my father, and of a truck.
My father drove a rusty truck for most of the 1990s. During that time he was employed in manufacturing and had risen into management. This afforded us a humble yet comfortable lower-middle class existence.
Needless to say, the teenaged me took as a personal insult his decision to tool around town in a piece of machinery that was literally decomposing before our eyes.
This was a conscious act on his part and I now believe that he did so to both prove his frugality to the world and to affirm his working class identity.
Before moving forward, you should know that my father was a Republican. And when I say “Republican” I actually mean the Republican. His was the type of Republicanism wherein issues only became complicated when they were fully considered from multiple viewpoints.
When I came of age and registered to vote, his advice to me was, “straight Republican ... every time.” I only mention his political leanings because they will help you understand the following gem from my adolescence.
Once I was riding shotgun while my father made his typical Saturday morning rounds – likely heading to the hardware store with no particular purpose in mind – when I happened to notice a dead insect upon the dashboard. I pointed it out to my father, to which he replied, “Oh, what? That bug? I know about it. I’m keeping it there. That’s Bill Clinton.”
I was vaguely aware that there had been an election in the recent past and that things hadn’t gone the old man’s way, but having lived most of my existence to that point during the Reagan-Bush years, I hadn’t been exposed to my dad’s unique brand of political protest. I couldn’t decide if he was joking or actually intended to keep an insect carcass on his dashboard as a reminder of his disdain for Democratic fiscal policy. What’s more, I wasn’t sure which would fully decompose first – the truck or the bug.
Which brings us to The War Room. The filmmakers were given permission to follow two key figures in Gov. Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency – George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s communications director, and lead strategist James Carville – as they masterminded his run for the highest office in the land. Certain elements may have changed during the years since, notably technology and fashion (the ‘90s fashion show alone makes the film worth viewing), but I found the experience incredibly illuminating of the current Presidential election.
The film provides a wealth of insight into how modern political campaigns are run and how historic moments often begin as ideas being spitballed back and forth by a small group of motivated individuals working together. I was especially impressed with Hegedus and Pennebarker because I don’t know if anyone else has so successfully documented the process by which modern political sound bites are handed down to us.
I was also impressed by how objective their final product seems despite their chosen subject matter. Sure, the Democratic heavyweights displayed in the film have an obvious bias, but I left the film with the sense that documenting the progression of a campaign and not selling a particular political viewpoint was the primary goal for the film.
Bottom line, you’ll love the film if you think highly of the Clinton years and are looking for another reason to admire the 42nd President. If you so happen to appreciate the pairing of stonewashed jeans with improbably patterned windbreakers, you’ll definitely take something away from this film.
And if you’re rusty dead insect-adorned truck-driving lifelong Republican like my father who believes that President Clinton was the ruination of everything good and true accomplished during the Reagan-Bush years ... well, you may not exactly love the film but I honestly believe you’ll get a kick out of witnessing just how a group of bums working out of a small office in Little Rock managed to steal the Presidency.
Happy election season, everyone!
About the Author
Michael Wells is a staff member in the Missouri Valley Room. He has degrees in history and education from UMKC and loves that his work allows him to help connect people with the past. He lives in the River Market area of Kansas City, where he spends entirely too much of his free time working on bicycles, reading epic fantasy, and watching entirely too many movies.