Moviegoers are taking in the Hollywood gospel of Primary Colors this week: that a thinly fictionalized President with his heart in the right place should feel free to live it up and then lie and violate any oath he takes as long as he cares about the right things. How strange: a movie that clings to the very point its author made in the book.
On August 8, 1997, the author of Primary Colors, former Newsweek and CBS News contributor Joe Klein, elaborated on his philosophy on Tim Russert's CNBC show.
Russert asked: "You told The New York Times something I found very interesting and let me just read it for our viewers. "We define the character issue so narrowly. My idea of a great President is a guy who cheated on his wife in such a damaging way it pretty much ended their marriage, drank a pitcher of martinis every night, cheated at poker with his friends, lied to his staff, sicked the IRS on his enemies, and my father voted for him four times - FDR." Klein replied: "That was inaccurate, my father pointed out to me. It wasn't him. My grandfather voted for him. But it's true, absolutely true." Klein isn't alone:
In an October 17, 1994 appearance on Russert's CNBC show, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl celebrated a new documentary on Franklin Roosevelt, and mourned the media's focus on a President's personal life. When Russert asked if the media should return to that protective code, Stahl replied: "In my personal opinion, yes. I think it has almost nothing to do with leadership....I was watching FDR. Here was a man who was cheating on his wife, someone in the show said he lied constantly, he was a great liar. He was a great poker player. He had all these flaws. He was a brilliant leader of this country. He took us, he saved us from the Depression, he brought us into that war. And even I wanted to follow him after watching him just a couple of hours."
In one of his few NBC Nightly News commentaries on April 11, 1995, PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers remembered FDR: "The man was flawed, crafty, conniving, dissembling, didn't seem to matter. We didn't even know about the wheelchair and braces, or hear whispers about other women. What we heard on the radio was the cheerful aristocrat speaking up for common people. The message is what mattered. Class and power were not fixed by nature, inequality was wrong and unemployment humiliating, runaway capitalism could be tamed, privilege checked, monopolies broken up, an end put to government by organized money."
When the Presidents were Republican, Moyers hardly took the position "dissembling didn't matter" [see box]. He grumbled that America under Reagan and Bush "preferred the comfortable lie to the uncomfortable truth." Joe "Anonymous" Klein agreed when he scorned the 1992 GOP convention: "The Republican Party reached an unimaginably slouchy, and brazen, and constant level of mendacity last week.... [Bush] is in campaign mode now, which means mendacity doesn't matter, aggression is all, and wall-to-wall ugly is the order of battle for the duration." Mendacity matters - unless a really great presidency or a good book and movie deal comes along. - Tim Graham