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After the brouhaha of Whitewater, Monica, and the impeachment had subsided with the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years as president, authors Joe Conason and Gene Lyons revisited the allegations in a dense, fascinating book, “The Hunting of the President”, that in four hundred or so pages dissected with stunning clarity just how vast and just how pernicious that vast right wing conspiracy was. Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, in the absorbing, eye-opening, and ultimately troubling documentary of the same name, introduce us to that conspiracy, its stooges, and its victims.


The core of the story is simple. Clinton came to office with a mandate from the people, a boundless optimism, and the implacable enmity of a shadowy cabal with the money and the drive to get rid of him. Thomason, a "friend of Bill" from Arkansas, and Lyons have cut through the voluminous, meticulously researched information packed into the Conason-Lyons book and condensed the facts, figures, and foibles into the very human stories of the innocent bystanders whose lives were thrown off track by a right wing that was out to get Clinton at any cost. We are also introduced to the motley crew of heroes, villains and buffoons who set in motion a national soap opera with implications that reverberate far beyond the Clinton’s eventual exoneration of any wrongdoing in the Whitewater land deal. This was after $40 million of taxpayer dollars and evidence drawn from a group of shady characters.


There is a large cast of these characters: moneyed ideologue Richard Mellon Scaife and his deep pockets that kept the story alive, self-appointed guardians of a morality that they don’t necessarily subscribe to in their dealings, the paranoid fringe, a press looking for the next Watergate, and people whose motives can best be described as petty.  Then there are the con men, the two Larrys, Case and Nichols, out to make a quick buck by playing any side that will listen to them. Case appears in interviews still gloating over how they put one over on not only the special prosecutors, but also big-time, big-city journalists. They’re a colorful bunch and the film uses a light-hearted touch to present them with a dash of silliness that is in keeping with the absurdity of the situation. But while it’s easy to make fun of Paula Jones’ outtakes from an anti-Clinton film financed by Jerry Falwell, or the peccadilloes of the right-wing “elves” who cynically exploit her, Thomason and Perry keep the larger implications of what took place, not to mention their sense of outrage, front and center without ever giving into heavy-handed sensationalism or cheap melodrama.


They accomplish this by choosing to concentrate on the struggle between gimlet-eyed and self-righteously Christian Independent Council Kenneth Starr and his most famously immovable quarry, Susan McDougal and in this the tone turns deadly serious. McDougal recounts being indicted on shaky evidence of loan fraud provided by a notoriously corrupt judge trying to save his own skin and then being offered a deal by prosecutors -- testify before a grand jury against the Clintons and there would be no prison time. When she told them that she didn’t know of any wrongdoing by the Presidential couple, she was smoothly assured that her story had already been concocted; all she had to do was learn her part. She refused. Convicted as the prosecutors had predicted would happen, she was handed a subpoena ordering her to testify against Clinton in the Whitewater matter or face contempt charges. McDougal didn’t budge, even while enduring prison conditions arranged by Starr’s office that skirted, if not violated, the Geneva Conventions. She was released only when the ACLU intervened and demanded a hearing on the conditions of her incarceration.


The film cuts between McDougal then, walking into a meeting with the prosecutors shortly after her indictment, smiling and looking innocent on several levels, and McDougal now, recalling the day she was told by those federal prosecutors to lie. The tone of McDougal’s voice, ripe with a deep, abiding and ferocious anger has a tinge of the same incredulity that she felt at that moment, that sense of unreality about her government in the person of Starr, who was not just suborning perjury, but actively coercing it.


THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT presents a chilling scenario of Big Brother run amok the likes of which haven’t been seen in this country since Joe McCarthy demagogued his way into history back in the 50s. That such abuse of power can resurface so blatantly again less that fifty years later, abetted by a press more interested in ratings and headlines than in fact-checking, is disturbing beyond the events depicted. The film charges, with lots of facts to back it up, that regime change may not be a phenomenon limited to places far away. And it brings up equally troubling thoughts about what measures are in place to insure that such events, again fed with big money using entrapment, innuendo, and outright lies can’t take place again. This film is required viewing for all fans of democracy.

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