An Old Battle and a New War

Posted October 8, 2008 at 2:17pm

A film about a young and exciting candidate running on a campaign of hope, change and a focus on the economy has just been released, and no, it does not feature Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

It’s a sequel to “The War Room,” the 1993 documentary that offered a behind-the-scenes look at then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s (D) uphill campaign for the White House, a film that is now considered a cult classic among political junkies.

“Everybody has a war room now,” campaign director James Carville says in the new film, “The Return of the War Room.” “You don’t have one, you’re not real.”

Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker rounded up much of the original cast for their new film, including Carville, Communications Director George Stephanopoulos, pollster Stan Greenberg, strategist Paul Begala, then-finance director and now-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers. Like a band on a reunion tour, the group offers amusing memories from the campaign trail in 1992 and insight on the modern campaign era.

“We’re in a world where everybody has access to just about every piece of information, about everyone in the campaign, in real time. It’s mind-boggling,” Stephanopoulos says, adding with a laugh, “Frankly, I wouldn’t know how to run a campaign in this environment.”

Sixteen years and four presidential campaigns after 1992, the game has also changed for the directors, who were nominated for an Academy Award for “The War Room.”

“People have cell phones and can be reached at any moment to talk to someone confidentially,” Hegedus said. “It’s difficult for documentarians. There’s no private moments for candidates anymore.”

But so much came out of 1992 that still plays in modern campaigns, from repeated tag lines — “It’s the economy, stupid” — to town-hall debates, which Clinton offered as an alternative to a formal debate when he ran against incumbent President George H.W. Bush.

“Bill Clinton said, ‘See if they won’t do a debate with real people asking the questions like the town halls we’ve been doing.’ And I said to him, ‘Oh, you’re crazy. They’ll never do something that nuts,’” campaign chairman Mickey Kantor recalls in the new film. “They immediately said yes. I almost fell out of the chair.”

The gang shares war stories from the campaign trail and moments with Clinton, who in the middle of the campaign sent a protesting Begala back to Washington for the birth of his son.

“[Clinton] said ‘You are gonna be there when that baby is born.’ So I went home and we waited and the baby was three weeks late,” Begala said. “What was remarkable is, after being gone three weeks, as soon as I came back, my seat on the plane was there.”

And of course, there’s the infamous and seemingly impossible love story between Carville, the scrappy Democratic warrior, and Mary Matalin, the sassy deputy campaign manager for Bush.

“I was compelled to him. I hated him, and I loved him,” Matalin says, tossing her head from side to side.

While the original film focuses on campaign strategy and entices viewers with an air of suspense felt most by Clinton’s colorful team of aides, the sequel offers reflection from the cast of characters who grew close through late-night meetings and a long campaign season.

Some of the crew’s phone calls and jokes have lasted since 1992. Pennebaker, clearly fond of the cast, said filming the sequel was “like going back to summer camp.”

And perhaps for some, they never really left.

“I talk to Paul Begala three times a day, James twice a day, I live in Stan’s basement,” Emanuel admits.

“The Return of the War Room” will air 9 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel.