Did Bill Clinton's winning presidential campaign in 1992 herald the start of modern campaigning?
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair credit - PA
Bill Clinton’s election as US president nearly a quarter of a century ago feels like it was in a different lifetime, with the cataclysmic changes that have followed his leaving power, including the last Iraq war, the 9/11 terror attacks and the rise of ISIS.
But with the Clinton name now in line again for a return to the White House, with Hillary’s Presidential election bid, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse took the opportunity to screen ‘The War Room’ – a behind the scenes documentary that tells the story of Bill’s win back in 1992.
The War Room takes its name from the term used to describe the nerve centre where the critical Clinton campaign decisions were hatched by political aides, media spin doctors and advertising professionals.
What can the United States teach Scotland about campaigning?
Interview with Scottish Parliament presiding officer Ken Macintosh
The story opens with the then governor of Arkansas facing the prospect of having his presidential bid derailed before it’s barely begun following revelations in the American media about his extra marital relationship with actress and model Gennifer Flowers.
What follows on camera is a mesmeric rallying call by Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville, an attack dog style campaigner in the same mould as Tony Blair’s former spin chief Alastair Campbell, who tells down at heel campaign staff they are facing an establishment attempt to destroy the most credible Presidential candidate the US Democrats had had in a generation.
Carville, who emerges as the star of the War Room, tells the gathered Democrat political operatives that by overcoming the attempt to force Clinton out of the race, they will have “beaten back forever” that kind of campaign tactic that aims to focus on a politician’s personal life.
Of course, Clinton would go onto face more such allegations about extramarital relationships, including his well-documented and publicly exposed affair with Monica Lewninsky, which for a time appeared to threaten his presidency.
But the makers of the War Room, who had limited access to Clinton and his campaign leads, show how he would earn the title of the “comeback kid” during commanding performances in tense televised stand-offs with Democrat rivals for the party’s presidential nomination.
Pulsating footage of Clinton on the campaign trail seeking to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even those of his own making, give us a brief reminder of what an effective communicator and street campaigner Clinton was at this time and what a master of the media soundbite he was.
It’s worth putting into context Clinton’s campaign to win the presidency of 1992, which was a time when the Democrats had been kept out of power since the early 1980s, with the dominance of Conservative Republicans in Ronald Regan and George Bush snr.
The War Room portrays the Clinton campaign as the start of a ‘new age’ in political campaigning with slogans that still have huge resonance in elections today such as “It’s the economy stupid” – a reference to the claim that elections are won and lost on the issue of perceived economic competence.
Other slogans such as the man from “Hope” – a reference to Hope in Arkansas where Clinton hailed from all projected an image of a Presidential candidate who represented a desire for change in a way perhaps not seen in the US since the election of John F Kennedy in the early 1960s.
There’s a striking point in the film in the closing stages, Clinton having almost lost his voice, manages after a huge struggle to address a rally of supporters telling them “be my voice tonight and I’ll be yours for the next four years”.
It’s such slick sloganising and a media-driven campaign that feature heavily in the documentary, the key players of which are Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who would later go on to be Clinton’s head of communications during his early years in the White House.
There are of course highs and lows captured, with Clinton having to overcome setbacks such as primary contest losses, before eventually clinching the Democrat nomination at his party’s 1992 convention.
We also get the on-camera reaction of the Clinton team to the news that Texan billionaire Ross Perot was pulling out as the third candidate, only to re-enter the race at a later stage, raising the fear that Bush may have been in with a chance of scrapping home due to a splitting-off of votes.
A particularly amusing snapshot of the War Room captures Carville on the eve of the election mimicking how a news broadcast might sound if George Bush was re-elected as President, handing the Democrats a fourth successive Presidential defeat.
This is followed up by Carville reduced to tears of emotion telling his campaign staff how The Clinton-Gore (Vice presidential candidate Al Gore) campaign of 92 had “changed the way we do campaigning forever”, as he talks about past election defeats.
These are bittersweet moments at the end of a hard fought campaign of a metaphorically battered and bruised campaign boss who now knows there is little else he can do.
Of course Clinton would go on to win decisively, making Bush snr a oneterm President, and these scenes of triumph in the War Room are vividly captured in the documentary.
But back in 1992, after the previous Reegan and Bush victories there was a real fear that Clinton could have victory snatched from him amid a hostile media and dirty tricks campaign – something that is a clearly evident in the minds of the War Room staff.
The film provides an insight into the kind of winning strategy that inspired figures such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to make common common with Clinton’s Democrats in what was then a fledgling attempt to remake Labour after the party had slumped to an unexpected fourth General Election defeat earlier in 1992.
Edinburgh Filmhouse’s screening of the War Room was followed by a question and answer session about the film chaired by Holyrood’s Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh, with panel members including Democrat strategist Jason Boxt and Republican Robert Moran.
Comments from Moran stood out in terms of relevance given what’s happening in the Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton election campaign.
Moran suggested his party had been “stupid” to pick Trump as its Presidential candidate as he said that he and other campaign professionals did not want to be tainted by being part of Trump’s operation.
He went onto claim that Trump was largely a media creation, a metamorphosis of a fictional politician of the sort seen in the US Nexflix drama House of Cards and political reality TV, which he suggested the War Room and Clinton in the early 1990s had been the start of.