by r.j. cutler
photography by joshua corgan | December 27, 2011 | People
The War Room “cast” today: Dee Dee Myers, Paul Begala, Michael Donilon, Mandy Grunwald, and Stanley Greenberg, at The Jefferson Hotel
|The Ragin’ Cajun, James Carville, at his home in New Orleans|
In the spring of 1992, it was evident that the upcoming presidential campaign was going to be fascinating. The first President Bush was generating little enthusiasm for his campaign; wacky Ross Perot was showing up on Larry King Live with an 800 number; and the punditocracy wasn’t taking presumptive Democrat nominee Bill Clinton very seriously. I have this vivid memory of Cokie Roberts on This Week with David Brinkley laughing at Clinton, suggesting that he might as well throw in the towel. I remember thinking that no matter what happened, one thing was clear: The upcoming election was going to be one to remember. Someone, I thought, has got to make a film about it.
So I called my old friend and colleague Wendy Ettinger to see if she wanted to produce it with me. Neither of us had ever made a film before, but she embraced the idea immediately and said it would be great if we could get filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus to direct it. As quickly as the thought occurred, we found ourselves in the basement of the New York Public Library screening an old 16mm print of Primary, a film that Pennebaker had worked on in 1960 about Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. Next we watched Crisis, another Kennedy-driven documentary that Penne had worked on in 1963. They are both such beautiful films—Crisis in particular is a really moving film about the moral maturation of JFK in the final months of his life. When it was over, we were both crying.
We had to figure out how to track down Pennebaker—so we looked him up in the phone book. “Come on over,” he said, and off we went to a meeting with him, Chris (Penne’s filmmaking partner and his wife), and Frazer Pennebaker (their producing partner). We didn’t know what the film would be, but we knew the Democratic convention was coming to New York in a few weeks, and we figured if we could gain access to Clinton at the convention, then good things would happen. Chris said to us, “As long as you can get the money and the access, we’re on board.” She thought she would never see us again. But we could not have been more excited—we were on a mission.
It soon became evident that the one person who could grant us access to Governor Clinton was communications director George Stephanopoulos, but time was running out. We did everything we could to get George’s attention, but let’s face it—he was managing the message for a presidential campaign on its way to the convention. Returning our calls could not have been high on his priority list. We called multiple times a day; we sent telegrams; we had mutual friends reach out. But we heard nothing.
Finally, the day before the convention began, we decided to call it quits. I was so tired that I fell asleep on the floor in our little office, disheartened and spent. I must have been out for about 45 minutes when the phone rang, and I groggily picked it up. On the other end of the line was George Stephanopoulos.
He told me that he had gotten my materials, he understood the pitch, and he was a huge fan of Pennebaker and Hegedus—but that his job, in all honesty, was to keep projects like this from happening. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “But there’s no way that the governor is going to go along with this.” Somewhere along the way, I had learned not to take no for an answer. “If you think it’s such a good idea,” I asked, “what if we film with you?” That seemed to turn the tide. “What do you have in mind?” George asked. At that moment, almost by accident, our film came into being; it was the desperate act of a filmmaker, but I somehow turned a no into a yes, and that was all we needed to get going.
Our access to Team Clinton at the convention was amazing. Penne was shooting with his Aaton 16mm camera and Chris had her Stellavox tape recorder, and my lord we were so unobtrusive. The drama that week was incredible. Clinton’s numbers started to soar, Perot dropped out of the race, and the whole landscape changed before our very eyes. When the convention ended, the Clintons and the Gores set off on this huge bus trip with their team in tow; we filmed them driving off, and we knew that we were onto something special.
Carville: A New Focus
A few days later, we got our dailies back. When we watched the footage, one thing became clear—James Carville was a star. Penne and Chris said, “Oh yeah, we can make a film about this guy.” And the vision was formed: a buddy movie about James and George, behind the scenes of a presidential campaign.
Our final hurdle was going down to Little Rock to get James on board. We sat with him and told him what we wanted to do, and he said, “I get it, I totally understand. But you have to understand that the only thing that matters in my life is getting Bill Clinton elected president. Anything else is a distraction. Why would I possibly want to do it?”
I thought I knew the answer to James’s question: You’ve got to do it for history; you’ve got to do it so that people can see how amazing you are; you’ve got to do it because you’re about the change the world. But I didn’t say anything. I was, after all, in the presence of D.A. Pennebaker, the master documentarian, and I deferred to him. After a moment, Penne said,“You know what, James? I make films about people who care a tremendous amount about what they do and who are doing it as well as they possibly can under high-stakes circumstances. I love telling these stories, and it’s become my life’s work. But I can’t possibly answer your question because it’s really none of my business. I can’t tell you why you should or shouldn’t make a film with us. That’s entirely up to you.” James paused. Then he said he wanted to think about it and that he would get back to us.
We went back to the hotel room and paced around for hours and hours. We were at a crossroads: This campaign and these amazing people were going to go on with or without us. At one point, I asked Penne why he didn’t do a harder sell to James. “The story belongs to him,” he said. “Only he can decide if he wants to share it with us or not. That’s the most important thing about making these films.”
A little while later the phone rang. It was James. “Come on down to the War Room tonight,” he said. “We can start filming then.” The rest, as they say, is history.
We shot about 20 days between the GOP convention and Election Day. The campaign team became a part of our lives and we became a part of theirs. They got used to us being there, and trust was built. The campaign itself went really well, but it wasn’t until that final week that everyone thought, “This is going happen—Clinton is really going to win this.”
I was very blessed to have been a part of it, not only because I am a filmmaker and this was my first film, but even more importantly because I got to know a remarkable group of people. I learned about filmmaking and I got to study at the feet of the masters, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not applying a lesson that Chris and Penne taught me during the making of The War Room. And that was an incredible gift.
In the War Room: George Stephanopoulos and James Carville
Young, hopeful, and fanatically committed to the Clinton campaign, the key players from The War Room have since become true Washington insiders, going on to remarkable and influential careers. T hey exist as proof positive that Clinton wasn’t the only winner of that fabled election.
Then: Lead Campaign Strategist
Since: You name it, Carville’s pretty much done it—at least in the world of consulting. He has been a pundit, a trusted advisor, an educator, an author, and, on occasion, an actor and pitchman.
Arguably the most visible War Room alum, Carville, 67, made his mark with frequent television appearances and more frequent headline-grabbing quips.
Now: “Once you become a famous person, the only way to earn a living is by being a famous person,” muses Carville. He has been a member of the Tulane University political science department, a corporate and international political consultant, and a commentator for CNN.
Dee Dee Myers
Then: National Press Secretary
Since: Myers, 50, went to the White House as Clinton’s press secretary—the first woman in history to hold the position—and remained in that post for two years. Myers followed by advising several major political campaigns as well as the acclaimed television series The West Wing. In 2008 she published her best-selling book, Why Women Should Rule the World.
Now: Myers is managing director at The Glover Park Group, where she is involved with strategic communications and marketing objectives. She is also a popular political commentator and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.
Then: Senior Strategist
Since: Following Clinton’s presidential win, Begala, 50, worked as a counselor at the White House, helping to define the administration’s agenda. His campaign consulting continued afterward, with stints advising candidates in races from Europe to Africa. But Begala is likely best known for his political analysis on CNN, where he cohosted Crossfire. He also authored several best-selling books, including Buck Up, Suck Up, and Come Back When You Foul Up.
Now: Begala remains one of CNN’s most respected political analysts. He is also an affiliated professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
Then: Campaign Advisor
Since: One of the most trusted Democratic strategists in the business, Donilon, 52, has secured elections for governors, Congressmen, and Senators, including Jon Corzine, John Kerry, Jack Reed, and Mark Udall. A lawyer with enviable connections, he is known for understanding how to ensure victory via comprehensive knowledge of the voter base and strategic media messaging.
Now: Donilon has worked with Joe Biden since the early ’80s, fostering a strong relationship and becoming a trusted advisor. He is now counselor to the vice president and will surely be instrumental in the run-up to the presidential election.
Then: Media Consultant
Since: As one of the savviest political consultants in the business, Grunwald has been part of several big-time Democratic campaigns, garnering wins for Senators Dick Blumenthal, Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, and Hillary Clinton, with whom she has remained close since the 1992 presidential race.
Now: As head of Grunwald Communications, she continues to dole out seasoned media advice to an assortment of clients. She is currently working on Senate campaigns for Amy Klobuchar, Tammy Baldwin, and Elizabeth Warren.
Stanley Greenberg, PhD
Then: Chief Pollster
Since: Touted as one of the best, Greenberg, 66, is a mastermind of polling. He has worked with Al Gore, Tony Blair, and Ehud Barak, as well as corporate clients such as Boeing and Microsoft. Colleagues say Greenberg is “the father of modern polling techniques,” and his accuracy is dead-on.
Now: Greenberg is CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, where he continues to chart paths for polling progress. With Carville, he also cofounded Democracy Corps. In 2010, Greenberg was inducted into the American Association of Political Consultants Hall of Fame.