Travels With George and Carville

Published: September 28, 2003

WITH all due respect to "National Lampoon's Animal House" and Brian De Palma's "Scarface," the American movie in most pressing need of an anniversary resuscitation on DVD is "The War Room." It was 10 years ago this fall that James Carville and George Stephanopoulos got their big-screen break in the D. A. Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus documentary about the '92 Clinton-Gore campaign. The film did for them what "The Graduate" once did for Dustin Hoffman. But instead of going on to perform in "All the President's Men" in Hollywood, they played some of the president's men for real, and that turned out to be their way station to TV stardom. To watch "The War Room" now is to realize just how radically our media culture has changed in the wake of their success.

George Stephanopoulos and James Carville in "The War Room."

Mr. Carville and Mr. Stephanopoulos were hardly the first to walk through the revolving door between politics and media, and they bear no responsibility for Susan Molinari, Dick Morris and every other political retread who has jealously tried to follow in their lucrative path. But their bright career arcs are the representative examples that illuminate a decade in which the already blurry lines between spin and news, fiction and nonfiction, and newsmakers and journalists have all but disappeared.

"The War Room" takes you back to a relatively innocent era when Fox News Channel and MSNBC were yet to be born, most talking heads were low wattage, the Internet was unknown to a mass audience and political strategists were obscure back-room operators, not national celebrities. Back then Mr. Carville was still playing the Ragin' Cajun for keeps — for his candidate. Mr. Stephanopoulos was still the Clinton campaign's earnest emissary of damage control to shows like "This Week With David Brinkley," where he could be found asserting to Sam Donaldson that "Bill Clinton has no character problem."

Cut to 2003. Mr. Carville has long since dumbed down his "ragin' " to homogenized comic shtick suitable for the peanut gallery on CNN's "Crossfire." His "War Room" co-star is no longer a guest on "This Week With David Brinkley" but has become the host of what a year ago was renamed "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

The evolution of the past 10 years is fully accounted for in both stars' opening shows of the new season, each of which was rolled out two Sundays ago. It was then that Mr. Stephanopoulos introduced a completely revamped version of "This Week" on ABC and Mr. Carville initiated a new prime-time series called "K Street" on HBO. "This Week" is supposed to be pure news. "K Street" is supposed to be a novel hybrid of reality and fiction, in which real Washington types like Mr. Carville and his wife, Mary Matalin, appear as "themselves" while bona fide actors push forward a ripped-from-the-headlines plot. But to paraphrase those old ads: which is real and which is Memorex? While the "K Street" director, Steven Soderbergh, has said his series should leave viewers "asking whether it's documentary or fiction," the truth is that "This Week" can leave you asking the same thing.

For the retooled "This Week" hour, Mr. Stephanopoulos began by celebrating all that is most phony about the enterprise — its show-biz bells and whistles. He announced that his show has a "new home," not to mention a "new face and some new tools." The agenda here, apparently, is to lift the show's feeble ratings back to the dominance of Brinkley's day. But the "new home" looked like a slambang "Queer Eye" makeover: a set with a lot of flat-screen TV monitors that the host repeatedly caresses or points to, much as Betty Furness (on her own way to becoming a TV news fixture) once showed off refrigerators in Westinghouse commercials. The "new tools" amount mainly to buttons that Mr. Stephanopoulos pushes with impressive dispatch, as if he were trying to sell us a home entertainment center on a layaway plan.

The "new face" is less apparent. Mr. Stephanopoulos, the rare TV anchor who seems yet to have been neither nipped nor tucked, always looks youthful. But while eternal boyishness may be a plus for a rubber-faced comedy career, it's casting against type for the role of a gravitas-laden Sunday morning news preacher. Perhaps to overcompensate, the wardrobe budget has been unleashed. In the first new "This Week," the host dressed down in Ralph Lauren-style rustic for an al fresco interview with Howard Dean. For last Sunday's second episode, he traded up to a tie and florid shirt ravishingly coordinated with the cut flowers and chintz décor of the softly lighted interior in which he had a tête-à-tête with Nancy Reagan.

The premier show's most creative artifice, though, came from Dr. Dean. When Mr. Stephanopoulos questioned the candidate about his propensity for stirring up trouble by speaking bluntly on the campaign trail, Dr. Dean, who prides himself on being the only straight shooter in a field of overly programmed political hacks, fired back: "I'm not going to be scripted, George. I'm not going to be scripted." The host soon retreated from the subject. But we would soon learn that Dr. Dean, just like the opponents he chides, is not at all averse to being scripted by consultants. Alas for Mr. Stephanopoulos, the depth of Dr. Dean's hypocrisy was revealed not on "This Week," but 12 hours later, on the first episode of "K Street."

On that show, Dr. Dean joined such other politicians as the Republican Senators Don Nickles and Rick Santorum in improvising before the camera. The Dean plot strand had him securing campaign expertise in "debate prep" from Mr. Carville and Paul Begala, another "War Room" veteran now playing "himself" on TV. At the meeting that ensues, the candidate asks if he can "get away" with using canned lines in that week's Democratic debate, and Mr. Carville responds by feeding him a wisecrack invoking that surefire butt of liberal jokes, Trent Lott. Soon we see the debate itself, where Dr. Dean uses the joke and scores a big laugh. But that scene was not fiction: "K Street" was showing video of the actual debate in Baltimore, as broadcast on Fox, in which the candidate really did use the Carville-scripted line and did get his laugh.

Why didn't Mr. Stephanopoulos update his prerecorded interview with Dr. Dean by mentioning this incident on "This Week"? The debate had taken place earlier in the week and Dr. Dean's use of a Carville line from "K Street" had already been reported in this newspaper, among others. Had Mr. Stephanopoulos mentioned it, it would have put his Dean interview in a whole new (and more accurate) light. Whatever the explanation, the quasi-fictional "K Street" ended up piercing the candidate's self-righteousness more effectively than "This Week" did.

Not that "K Street" is consistently hard-hitting either. Mr. Carville and Ms. Matalin's Tracy-Hepburn act has been on the road too long. Next to the initial glimpse of their counterintuitive romance during "The War Room," the relationship now served up for public consumption is less "Adam's Rib" than a rerun of "Married . . . With Children." Yet their routine still carries the cachet of news, however ersatz: Ms. Matalin was until recently a Dick Cheney operative and her good-natured appearance on "K Street," though devoid of content, is de facto p.r. burnishment for the administration. Ten years ago, on "The War Room," she defended the politician she was then working for, the first George Bush, by dismissing Bill Clinton as "a performer" and "a phony" and boasting, "We're not trying to create drama; we're not a made-for-TV candidate." Now it's all made-for-TV drama, and she is a star performer too.

You have to admire Mr. Soderbergh and his production partner, George Clooney, for their ambition to take us backstage in the capital to see how such performances are contrived. But Ms. Matalin and Mr. Carville have developed into such slick actors since "The War Room" that they make the actual actors in "K Street" look amateur. They are brilliant at revealing nothing about Washington's behind-closed-doors process or themselves; they just pile on more fictions.

What we mainly learn from "K Street" instead is just how many prominent Washingtonians are willing to playact badly on camera in their desperate desire to be stars as famous as Mr. Carville and Ms. Matalin. Dream on. On its first Sunday night, "K Street" drew less than half the viewers of its glamorous, Manhattan-based HBO companion, the season finale of "Sex and the City." In Episode 2, that inveterate ham Orrin Hatch, the songwriting senator from Utah, tardily made his inevitable appearance to peddle his latest CD, but he might have had better luck auditioning for "American Idol."

To its credit, "K Street" doesn't pretend to be journalism. And "This Week," which offers some smart exchanges between its host and the foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria, is by no means information-free. Besides, on the same day as its premiere in its new format, the Sunday morning competitor that crushes "This Week" in the ratings, "Meet the Press," may have offered more fiction per minute than any news show in memory. When interviewed by Tim Russert, Vice President Cheney asserted that Iraq was "the heart of the base" for the 9/11 terrorists and went on from there with a series of half-truths and outright deceptions about almost every topic broached, including his supposed lack of current "financial interest in Halliburton."

Mr. Cheney, a master of the above-reproach dead pan, just kept going, effortlessly mowing right through any objections by the host. The vice president was banking, as Dr. Dean did on "This Week," on a cultural environment in which fiction and nonfiction have become so scrambled — and can be so easily manipulated by politicians and show-biz impresarios alike — that credibility itself has become a devalued, if not archaic, news value. This is why the big national mystery of the moment — why do almost 70 percent of Americans believe in Mr. Cheney's fictional insinuation that Saddam Hussein had some hand in 9/11? — is not so hard to crack. As low as the administration's credibility may be, it is still trusted more than the media trying to correct the fictions the White House plants in the national consciousness.

"Tonight we congratulate television news on becoming us — mindless ratings whores," said the comic Jon Stewart, host of the faux-news "Daily Show," after unreeling a montage of particularly ludicrous excerpts from this year's actual news shows on last Sunday's Emmy broadcast. It would have been even funnier if the story being covered hadn't been an actual war.  

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