The southern governor disembarks in New Hampshire expecting an embrace from his wife, but as he leans in to kiss her, she stiffens slightly, and then turns to the matter at hand. The man from Mammoth Falls, she says to fledgling campaign manager Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), is poised for greatness, if only “he weren’t such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined shit.” Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson), the unofficial chief strategist of her husband’s rise to prominence, is no Machiavelli in a Macy’s pantsuit, yet she understands the importance of introductions, the moments in which reputations—or what we now call “brands”—are forged. In the opening minutes of Primary Colors (1998), Mike Nichols’ thinly veiled portrait of America’s most (in)famous political partnership, she curses a cancelled appearance and chuckles through a charm offensive, imparting what turns out to be the singular lesson of the Clintons’ careers: “First impressions count, asshole.”
Adapted by Nichols’ longtime collaborator, Elaine May, from columnist Joe Klein’s roman à clef, the film is a testament to the tenacious hold of the Clinton brand as it emerged from the 1992 election, an alloy of truths, mistruths, perceptions, and insinuations hardened into steel. Despite fluctuations in both Bill and Hillary’s approval ratings, our idea of “the Clintons,” abetted by opponents’ attacks and their own conspicuous flaws, has been largely unchanged by eight years in the White House and eight in the Senate, as well as two subsequent Democratic primaries (with a four-year tenure as Secretary of State sandwiched between them), to the point that a cinematic satire released nearly twenty years ago might nonetheless function as a useful primer for an alien beamed down from outer space.
Of the belief that the intransigence of the Clinton brand is proof enough of its essential correctness, however, I remain skeptical: Primary Colors, I see now, is also a glimpse into the mechanisms by which the first impression becomes the last word.
At the behest of underdog candidate Jack Stanton (a graying, drawling, pot-bellied John Travolta), the reluctant Henry joins the shoestring operation in the months preceding the nation’s first primary, and through his eyes the couple’s defining characteristics come into focus. The governor, launching into folk tunes and tearful reminiscences at the drop of a ballot, is a born salesman, a politician in the persuasive mode; his wife is, at heart, a wonk, attracted to policies (adult literacy curricula) more than people (Alison Janney’s adult literacy instructor, bedded by Gov. Stanton shortly after a campaign event in the film’s first scene). As Susan strategizes over backcountry barbecue and grants top staffers permission to hire “dust-buster” Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), Jack, the good ol’ boy with the checkered past, stays more or less above the fray—slipping into a late-night “momma-thon” or chowing down on Krispy Kremes, as if to turn a blind eye to how the sausage of his success is made.
That this comports with the contemporaneous perception of the Clintons is unsurprising: It was from the raw materials of Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and “”cookies and teas that Klein, May, and Nichols spun their political fictions, and as its title suggests, the film paints these subjects in bold, sensational strokes.
That this is still the dominant framework for understanding their marriage—as one of unbridled ambition if not of convenience, of calculation if not of deceit—is altogether more striking. As Jay Livingston writes in Pacific Standard, “brand implies permanence and substance,” an air of the authentic, though of course this notion is itself a form of branding: The fact that “brand” is the term of art among corporate consultants might militate against accepting the implication as gospel. To see the permanence of the Clinton brand as an argument against its substance is not to deny that it contains an element of truth, but to suggest that it belongs in a category with other hermeneutics—”conventional wisdom,” “stereotype,” “image”—we often substitute for actual thought. Applying to people the same seductive shorthand by which we choose breakfast cereals and laundry detergents, “branding” of this sort cannot escape its business-world origins. It’s an industrial-strength form of bullshit.
The genius of Primary Colors is to understand the power of this process without losing sight of the complications and contradictions roiling beneath its surface, like the laughter that bubbles up through Susan’s frustration after Jack misses the event in New Hampshire. On the one hand, the film deploys the true-life details of the Clintons’ troubles in order to draw, and exaggerate, the comparison: Cashmere McCloud’s press conference, at which she plays tapes of telephone conversations recorded during an affair with Jack, is a near-replica of Flowers’, down to the cut and color of her blazer. On the other, it acknowledges the unstable relationship between the political brand and the person behind it, between signifier and signified: Stanton is a philanderer, no question, but it turns out that Cashmere and her attorney doctored the tapes.
Does it matter? Should we care? Are the particulars immaterial if the narrative we construct from them bears some resemblance to the truth?
The slipperiness of Nichols’ direction suggests, at minimum, that branding does not reflect reality so much as repurpose it, culling and coloring the facts, piecing the fragments together into a story that scans. Susan, the film’s shadow protagonist, is neither the conniving bitch of the GOP’s Hillary-fueled nightmares nor the idealistic, progressive “”fighter of Clinton’s own campaign spots, but both, and much more besides. When the McCloud scandal breaks, she pours coffee with preternatural calm, pulls off her earrings, and corrals Stanton staffers into an impromptu crisis-management session; later, after learning of Jack’s dalliance with the teenage daughter of a family friend, she crumples to the floor of Henry’s hotel room, clutching her stomach as if to hold in her sobs. She is, in short, a woman at once soured by circumstance and strengthened by it, a constellation of particulars—devotion, dissembling, conviction, cynicism—resistant, on the face of it, to the simplification of the headline, the sound bite, the 60-second advertisement.
The tragicomic twist, as Libby remarks, is that “shit begets shit.” With Jack sagging in the polls, the Stantons cajole her and Henry into digging up dirt on Democratic challenger Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), and ultimately succumb to the mudslinging impulse: “The Times?” Susan asks after reading the file on Picker’s illicit past. “No, The Wall Street Journal, maybe. More authoritative, in a way.”
The couple’s failure to live up to Libby’s “true-believerism,” as political aide Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) describes it, is where the dramatic embellishment of Primary Colors most closely approximates modern politics. In The War Room (1993), Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary account of the 1992 campaign, no detail is too miniscule to stage-manage, no news item too insignificant to spin; even Clinton advisors James “Ragin’ Cajun” Carville and George Stephanopoulos become brands of a sort, on the cusp of lucrative, prominent careers. Peppered with references to “Saint Paul” Tsongas, “read my lips,” Clinton’s “character problem,” Rose Law Firm, and Roger Ailes, the film suggests a disconnect between signifier and signified far wider than even the broadest moments in Primary Colors: Politics as speculative fiction, a set of slogans so thoroughly purged of meaning that even Nichols and May felt the need to add a modicum of realism back in.
In other words, first impressions count, asshole—the question is whether they count for too much. Donald Trump’s determination to bring back “the ghosts of the 1990s,” a stratagem that’s shifted, in recent days, from the generic “Crooked Hillary” to opposition research on Whitewater, Vince Foster conspiracy theories, and the former president’s marital indiscretions, is haunting not for what it reveals about the Clintons, but for what it suggests about the broom of the system, its central construct: that “messaging” is the same as “meaning,” that the “brand,” once established, cannot change. To hear Trump describe the Clintons is to catch an echo that’s bounced between mountaintops for more than two decades, begun before the singsong litany of scandals—from Filegate and Foster to Lewinsky and Benghazi—in the anti-Clinton catechism came into its current form. “Vintage Clinton” is “a pathological pattern of deception,” Mary Matalin, deputy campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, says to reporters in The War Room, sometime in the summer of 1992. “If we cannot believe anything he has said about his past, how can we believe anything he’s saying about the future?”
One need not trust the Clintons, or even disagree with Matalin’s assessment, to wonder if this urge to treat candidates as types of toothpaste, objects of consumer choice, is deleterious to the democratic process. For an election that’s been defined, at least in the press, by voters’ apparent desire for radical change, the conspicuous fact remains that the rules of the game are not, as yet, subject to revision. Branding, with its simulation of sincere interest in citizens’ concerns—its assumption that our political loyalties are shaped exclusively by labels, logos, small changes to the secret recipe—has long since become the ruling logic of governance, but the notion that this might help explain the semi-permanent state of distrust in said government since at least the end of the Reagan Administration is not the chattering classes’ preferred interpretation.
”[I]t’s a treatment of matters that the electorate has already made up its mind about,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1998 review of Primary Colors, and his reading still strikes me as the correct one: The film marks the moment at which the Clintons’ personal and political histories passed into myth. Indeed, as if to acknowledge that the salacious details of the Stanton campaign are familiar, if not quite fallow, terrain, Nichols and May, following Klein, turn their attention elsewhere, and the arc of the narrative, its propulsive force, turns out to be (Henry’s, Libby’s) disillusionment. “If it’s clean, we win because our ideas are better,” the latter implores, as the Stantons prepare to shred Picker’s reputation. “We were young,” Susan replies, resigned to the status quo. “We didn’t know how the world worked. Now we know.”
By the time Jack delivers the eulogy at Libby’s funeral, after the Stantons’ longtime ally takes her own life in despair, Primary Colors registers not as the portrait of a craven political couple—the characterization is too complex for that—but of the consequences of a process in which the candidate’s image, his first impression, is more important than his ideas. Libby’s suicide note, in this vein, is a lesson for the Stantons, the Clintons, and also, perhaps, the country. “I am so fucking disappointed in you,” Jack reads from the pulpit. “Shape up.”