Clinton Documentary Opens Friday

Posted June 23, 2004 at 2:30pm

Bill Clinton is everywhere again.

With the release of his 957-page memoir, “My Life,” on Tuesday, the former president is becoming almost as ubiquitous in the media today as he was during his presidency.

In the past three weeks, he has already appeared at the White House for the unveiling of his presidential portrait, released his long-awaited book, attended numerous book signings and speaking engagements, and been interviewed by Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey.

Now, a new piece of the national Clinton media blitz is poised to hit Washington on Friday with the public premier of “The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton,” at Visions Theater in Northwest Washington.

A documentary based on The New York Times bestseller by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, “The Hunting” attempts to expose what then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” led by independent counsel Kenneth Starr against former President Clinton. The film was conceived and co-directed by Harry Thomason, a sitcom creator and close friend of Bill Clinton’s.

It premiered in Little Rock, Ark., and New York earlier this month and will be shown again in November at the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas.

Since its premiere in Arkansas, “The Hunting” has been met with much skepticism from critics who question Thomason’s motives for debuting the film so close to the release of “My Life.” The opening of a movie that portrays the former president as the victim of a conservative coup d’etat is certainly well-timed as Clinton mounts a public campaign this month to secure a more positive legacy after his scandal-ridden terms in office.

Still, Thomason insists the timing of his film’s release is “purely coincidental.”

“We put the movie out in June for no other reason than because we’re slow,” he said. “This is not some sort of political advocacy project for Clinton or his book. We just thought we would have our film done in six months, tops, but we had so much video footage that we ended up taking an extra 12 months to do it.”

He also objects to suggestions that he released his film now in order to influence the November presidential elections — a goal that filmmaker Michael Moore has openly admitted to having with his new anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9-11.”

Nonetheless, Thomason says he’s been the target of a litany of recent criticisms for his film — among them, that it is a veiled election-season attack against Republicans; that it is a publicity stunt to bolster Clinton’s book sales; and that Thomason is simply doing a favor for his presidential friend by trying to exonerate him from past scandals and improve his tarnished public image.

Thomason patently denies these charges.

“What’s frustrating for me is that I knew, right off the bat, people were going to accuse me of making this a propaganda job, because I’m friends with Clinton,” he said. “But the bottom line is it was never my goal to clear Clinton’s name or help him establish a legacy. I just thought his story would be an interesting one to tell.”

Thomason even said “The Hunting of the President” is not even about Bill Clinton — at least not specifically.

“Honestly, you could substitute any president and still have a movie about the same thing,” he said. “Small groups with personal interests, like the ones that opposed Clinton, wield a tremendous amount of power in this country. … That’s really what my film is about.”

Whether viewed as an advocacy piece for Clinton or simply an alarmist treatise on the threat of “special interests,” “The Hunting” has been a sparkplug for controversy since its inception two years ago.

At the outset of filming, distributors refused to accept the project, saying that it made too partisan a political statement and drudged up old scandals that today’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, audience would no longer find relevant.

Nonetheless, Thomason and co-writer Nicholas Perry eventually convinced a small independent film company, Regent Entertainment, to pick up the documentary. With Regent signed, Thomason and his production team raised $2 million from private investors, then quickly got to work compiling old newscasts from the 1990s and re-creating interviews with key sources from Conason and Lyons’ book.

Eighteen months later, editors had cut hundreds of hours of footage into a 90-minute piece, which Thomason says does “a good job of presenting the fair and unbiased facts.”

“Fair and unbiased” may be a hard sell to many viewers, though.

“The Hunting” features a wealth of interviews with former Clinton aides, friends and supporters, like Susan McDougal — who went to jail for two years for refusing to cooperate with the Starr investigation — and Democratic political consultants Paul Begala and James Carville.

But the only prominent conservative interviewed in the entire film is the Rev. Jerry Falwell. He appears onscreen for roughly 20 seconds to admit that earlier allegations that Clinton was guilty of murder and drug-running in Arkansas were grossly unsubstantiated.

Thomason says he wanted to include interview footage from a few “candid and open” Republican lawmakers but couldn’t “because of time constraints.”

Thomason knows he’ll have difficulty making this point to most conservatives and other Clinton opponents. But to those who actually go out of their way to see the film, Thomason is already preaching to the choir. At last Tuesday’s premiere at New York University, the screen drew hisses at Ken Starr and applause for Susan McDougal from a 1,000-plus audience that included retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, liberal commentator Al Franken and the Clinton family.

Now, for the D.C. premiere, “I actually have low expectations,” Thomason said. “Most people have already made up their mind about what happened, and that’s especially true for the inside-the-Beltway crowd. They’ve been in the middle of everything as it unfolded.”

“At the same time,” he adds, “I’m betting the ones who actually do come and see my movie will say, ‘Wow. You know, I never pieced it all together quite like that.”