A Dukakis staffer turned Clinton humorist reviews the new documentary The Return of the War Room.
I never set foot in the vaunted Clinton Campaign War Room of 1992 but I take quiet pride in my small role in helping to create it. In 1988, I was a 24-year-old staffer in what might retroactively be dubbed the Dukakis Campaign’s Unilateral Disarmament Room. Located in an office that would have made a decent-sized broom closet and armed with a late-model fax machine, the Dukakis Campaign "Rapid Response Team" was a four-man squad (intern included) that got its ass kicked every day by the two-man gang of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. It's hard to remember this moment now, but in the early summer of 1988 that election was widely seen as ours to lose—a sentiment we went on to take literally. Which is to say that our earnest team was mercilessly overmatched. By August, we dropped the word "rapid" from our squad’s name. By September, we dropped the word "response." By October we were pretty much just a team of despondent guys.
History has justly forgotten this sad chapter in political history except for this footnote: a captain on this squad was a short Greek guy who would go on to make headway in Democratic presidential campaigns. Four years later, George Stephanopoulos not only was instrumental in electing a Democratic president, but also was the co-star (along with James Carville) of the 1993 Oscar-nominated documentary that captured the boiling bloodlust of a million avenging Dukaki.
In 1988, I was a 24-year-old staffer in what might retroactively be dubbed the Dukakis Campaign’s Unilateral Disarmament Room.
The Return of the War Room, which aired last night on The Sundance Channel, invites us—now sixteen Novembers later—back into this belligerent den for quiet retrospection. The result is a hybrid of the original cinéma vérité mixed together with new ex post facto interviews featuring the same, if older, faces. The original footage will feel quite familiar to those who high-fived the victory captured in the 1993 film—the kind of plot summary usually preceded by the words: "Previously on The West Wing."
Interspersed between the plot points of the ‘92 campaign are reminiscences by these War Room vets making sense of what they pulled off and wondering if it was even possible to do again. Many of their comments focus on the game-changing nature of communication technology in the years since. The disparity between today’s broadband age and the ‘90’s era life-at-the-speed-of-FedEx is most jarring in an outdoor scene where the young George is all alone but engaged in a conversation with his candidate while speaking into a cellphone the size of a blender.
The first War Room gave us the working metaphor for modern campaigns and a roster of politicos who themselves became legends. The focus and tactics dispensed from that room made real the idea that Democrats could beat Republicans at their own game—a concept once as preposterous as the sight of a bookish guy riding around in a tank.
Of course, The Return of the War Room might have been a much different film if some of its featured stars had accomplished once more what they pulled off back then: nominating a Clinton. Except that in 2008 the gods of irony put them on the wrong side of a divide that somebody once perfectly crystallized on a whiteboard: "change versus more of the same." This election cycle saw the ascendance of the second “once-in-a-generation” political talent in our generation. By definition, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has broken the cycle of the War Room culture associated with various Clintons and Bushes. As a result, The Return of the War Room arrives at a moment that feels very much like the fall of 1992 when the Democratic candidate found himself on the cusp of an historic victory and a turn-the-page presidency.
In that way, this return to The War Room feels like the bookend to the political dynamic it helped set in motion. The Obama campaign seems to have embraced and updated the war room’s ethos without submitting to the close-ups of a camera crew.Is it possible that the culture of hyper-partisan campaigns gave rise to Obama’s post-partisan appeal? All I know is that I have watched hundreds of hours of cable news in recent months and would not know David Plouffe if he knocked on my front door to personally deliver the change I need. As for the McCain campaign, the remnants of the War Room can be seen in its daily episodes of Extreme Message Makeover. Believe me when I tell you that I shuddered to learn that McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt studied at the knee of the late Lee Atwater. Which explains the recent appearance of a bogeyman in the culture wars designed to distract from pressing economic realities. Bill Ayers is this year’s would-be Willie Horton.
Oh yeah—Willie Horton. My comrades and I from the Dukakis campaign’s Rapid Response Team will be getting back to you shortly on that one.