NPR's 1992 DVD Memories: 'Altar Boy' Stephanopoulos, 'Flat-out Movie Star' Carville?

Younger political junkies may not remember it, but watchers of the 1992 Clinton campaign can recall "The War Room," a documentary filmed inside the Clinton campaign. There's a new DVD of the film, out so National Public Radio just had to praise it.

On the program "Fresh Air" Wednesday,  film critic John Powers described George Stephanopoulos as "a sweet but overbearing altar boy" while James Carville is "a flat out movie-star" like...a wisecracking snake in a Pixar movie."

At one point we see Stephanopoulos being interviewed on ABC's Sunday show "This Week" and realize that two decades on he's now the show's host. Although Hegedus and Pennebaker observe this neutrally, the film endows the War Room with an honorable glamour. If Stephanopoulos often seems like a sweet but overbearing altar boy, the campaign's senior strategist, Carville, is a flat-out movie star; he has the colorful charm of a wisecracking snake in a Pixar movie.

Whether he's joking or rousing the troops, this ragin' Cajun is so much fun to listen to, you see why Bill Hader can still bring down the house doing an impression of him on "Saturday Night Live."

What's a bit odd about the Powers review is he never seems to evaluate the president these two elected. He can note the irony of ABC going from interviewing the Democratic spin artist to hiring him as a "news" man. But he can't discuss how Stephanopoulos the "altar boy" tries to intimidate reporters out of investigating or even mentioning Clinton's "bimbo" allegations -- even when they were true, and Clinton's sexual incontinence ended in impeachment.

I suppose we especially can't count on NPR to use the I-word when Clinton is discussed. No, Powers wants to remember Carville and all this lying about Clinton's sex life as somehow an idealistic exercise, not a cynical sales job:

Carville's entire speech, which is fired by idealism and passion, may well be the high-water mark for our image of political consultants. In the years since "The War Room," our opinion of them has curdled. Advisors like Dick Morris and Karl Rove are largely seen as dark wizards, whose brilliance is devoted only to winning.

The same thought came up in HBO's recent "Game Change," where campaign manager Steve Schmidt urges John McCain to choose Sarah Palin as his running mate to jump-start his candidacy - whether or not she's prepared to be president.

Carville wasn't a "dark wizard"? Not if you love Clinton. But Powers isn't just having an odd day when he discussed "altar boy" Stephanopoulos. In another political DVD review last July 4, Powers discussed a three-DVD set of Theodore White's "Making of the President" series, in which he described the announcer as having an Olympian tone, and then dropped this whopper:

These days, our news outlets don't dare aspire to the Olympian. The mainstream media is terrified of appearing even remotely partisan, so it fixates on safely non-ideological things like polls, gaffes and behind- the-scenes gossip. That's why you heard as much about Michele Bachmann's blunder in saying that John Wayne came from Waterloo, Iowa as you did about the policies she's actually voted for. Teddy White would cringe at such a lack of perspective.

Then again, many of today's political reporters would cringe at him. In fact, one reason they talk about politicians so cynically is in reaction to mythmaking reporters like White, who covered up unpleasant truths - like JFK's health problems and irresponsible womanizing - and overlooked things that didn't fit his grand heroic narratives about the run for the White House.

Isn't that funny when Powers just covered up Clinton's irresponsible womanizing? Clinton in today's media is now just a lovable statesman. He's no longer the irresponsible womanizer. No one asks whether he's now cheating on the Secretary of State. That would just be impolite and irrelevant....even as he's presented as a laudable humanitarian.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis