September 1, 2008

'Hope' Springs Eternal...Or at Least for This Election Year

Bill Clinton campaigning for President in 1992

Even today, watching Jeffrey Tuchman's The Man from Hope--a short biography made for the 1992 Democratic National Convention about Bill Clinton--it's tough to not get a knot in my throat. Watching Clinton and his family tell us how his humble beginnings in the small town of Hope, Arkansas prepared him to soar to great heights, hits me right where I was politically and emotionally then and am again today. So many of us on the right and left felt then (and now) that the world was going to hell in a handbasket, as the expression goes, but Clinton gave Democrats hope and that hope propelled him to the White House.

"Bill Clinton was the presumptive nominee, and we were about to go into the general election," Tuchman reflects. "The primaries were well covered by the media, but there were a series of misconceptions about who he was-that because he had gone to Oxford and Yale, and was a Rhodes scholar, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His opponents were characterizing him as slick and packaged and not in touch with his constituency."

The Man from Hope was made in just three weeks, with Tuchman directing and co-writing with producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason under the guidance of Clinton's director of advertising, Mandy Grunwald. (You can watch it for free at: http://video.aol.com.)

The Man from Hope was intended to run in the background of the Democratic National Convention. "It was made to address the issue that while people were familiar with his political agenda, they were less familiar with him as a man," Tuchman notes. "There was a sense that if people knew him better, they would connect to him far better than they had." In addition to the convention, the Clinton campaign bought informercial time on television and ran the 14-minute piece in random blocks around the country. The film went on to win a 1992 Pollie Award, given by the American Association of Political Consultants for excellence in political media, and it remains one of the top pieces of its kind for its documentary-like qualities. But Tuchman, whose filmmaking career is highlighted by his award-winning documentary work (see www.documaniafilms.com), is quick to note that The Man from Hope is not a documentary. "This is political media, even though it was biographical and unscripted."

The piece was seductive enough in its persuasion that Michael Moore decided to debunk the premise that Clinton was from Hope, Arkansas. On his show TV Nation in 1994, there was a segment by correspondent Louis Theroux, Clinton: The Man From Hope?, which explored, in typical Moore style, where Clinton actually grew up-in Hot Springs, Arkansas, it turns out. Those of us from the coasts might wonder what difference that makes beyond the wonderful Hope metaphor. Theroux discovered that the city Clinton hails from was a known haven for mobsters, gambling, philandering and any other sort of debauchery that people could find while vacationing at the city's famed hot springs, implying that Clinton was exposed to a much more sordid life than the idyllic life we hear about in The Man from Hope.

Tuchman watched the Moore piece on YouTube and responded that he wasn't sure what the point of it was. The only obvious conclusion is that The Man from Hope wasn't an objective documentary, but it wasn't intended to be. As Erik Barnouw wrote in Documentary: The History of the Non-Fiction Film, "The assumptions and myths of a society are so constantly recycled in its formula fiction (as well as in other media including political speeches and advertising) that its audience ceases to notice the assumptions. Other people's fiction we can recognize as propaganda-and they, ours. One's own is entertainment." So it should be no surprise that "hope," which was once so successful for Clinton, was picked up by another Democrat.

Matt Bennett, co-founder of The Third Way, a progressive, non-partisan think tank, is cited on Politico.com in January 2008: "It was Bill Clinton himself, running in 1992, who proved conclusively that hope trumps anger-that it is not about who will fight the power or who has experience; it's about who can most skillfully project hopeful optimism about the future, and can persuade voters--beyond the Democratic base--that he will transcend what he called the ‘brain dead politics of Washington' (his own way of selling a post-partisan worldview). And thus, in a bizarre twist, it was Barack Obama who grasped the mantle of Clintonism and became the ‘Man from Hope.'"

A quick scan of Obama's YouTube channel shows over 1,000 uploaded clips and nearly 15 million channel views as of this writing. "His media is potent and affecting," says Tuchman, who worked with Obama's Democratic opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, this year. "But the media context is so very different. In 1992, the country saw only what the news media put before it--debates, sound bites--and in local media markets, the occasional commercial. The only opportunity to dig deeper into substance was to go to the newspapers, do research that took real effort. Now we have this incredible tsunami of media, coming at you and available; it's a very different landscape."

Besides three books written by Obama, there are several documentaries coming out about the candidate. Yet, as the dichotomy of The Man from Hope and Moore's Clinton: The Man from Hope? prove (if we didn't already know it), it's possible to derive all sorts of conclusions from these images. "You can make pieces that are factually correct that paint wildly different pictures. In an age when imagery and information is so ubiquitous, why did Obama and Hillary Clinton have to log all of those miles crossing the country in their campaigns?" posits Tuchman. "Because the only image you can manage is face to face. I need to stand in a room with you, shake your hand and look you in the eye."

At election time, when we go into the booth to vote, it is up to us to have informed ourselves and decide what makes sense to us. "Documentaries don't operate on the level of superficiality and in that sense they have tremendous value," Tuchman maintains. "But it's up to us to watch as much as we can so we have a context for judging. There is no Wikipedia that will give us the truth."

 

Agnes Varnum is a freelance writer and film programmer, and is the communications manager for the Austin Film Society.

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