'Designing Women' Creator on Bill Clinton and Her New Documentary: I Believe in 'Honest Propaganda'
Linda Bloodworth Thomason, who directed the Bill Clinton campaign film "The Man From Hope," on how her relationship with the former first couple has changed over the years, spending 101 nights in the White House and the role Bill played in her same-sex documentary "Bridegroom."
Linda Bloodworth Thomason, the creator of Designing Women, Evening Shade and other television series, has been friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton for more than 30 years. The Hollywood Reporter asked the director of Bridegroom, a documentary portraying the tragedy that befell a young gay couple when one of the men died before same-sex marriage was permanently legal in California, to write about her relationship with the Clintons. Bloodworth Thomason, who grants few interviews, reveals how her role as the producer of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign film, The Man From Hope, now considered a seminal piece of political filmmaking, led her to become a documentary filmmaker; how her relationship with the Clintons has informed her work over the years; and the role Bill Clinton played in the making of Bridegroom. The documentary is available today on DVD.
I remember the first day I began filming Bill Clinton. It was October 1991 and he was announcing his candidacy for president of the United States. I remember how proud I felt as we stood on the banks of the Arkansas River — the river that runs through all of us who share the DNA of that special place. Directly behind him was the Old State House where my grandfather, a newspaper editor and civil rights activist, once served. He was an improbable man with a sixth grade education who would go on to raise four lawyer sons, including my father, a Japanese war crimes prosecutor, and my uncle, a judge-advocate at Nuremberg after World War II.
But even more improbable was another Arkansas man, with the same sixth grade education, whose grandson was now on his way to becoming America's 42nd president — the same grandfather who believed in integration and whose daily interactions in his little country store would teach Bill Clinton all that he would ever need to know about race relations.
In my own small town, I was learning many of the same lessons. I was 6 years old when my father drove me to the municipal pool, pointed to the dozens of black children swimming there and said, "You see that over there, Nawson (my nickname)? That's something called Colored Day. And just so you know, that's wrong." That may not seem like much, but for a little girl or a boy growing up in the rural South, this was a lot to know. Eventually, my grandfather would be shot by the Ku Klux Klan (he survived and continued to practice law for many years), but not before he had already fashioned the social conscience of our family, just as solidly as Bill Clinton's grandfather had fashioned his.
As soon as he won his party's nomination, then-Gov. Clinton asked me to make his presidential convention film, which would be shown at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. It was a bold move, as my filmmaking résumé was virtually nonexistent. I'd written more than 130 episodes of Designing Women and my new series, Evening Shade, had been called "the best new show of the season" by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Naively, I had no idea that being a television writer was actually looked down upon in some circles. I had been teaching high school English in Watts when my mentor, M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart, gave me a chance to be the first woman to write for that series. The first thing he taught me was that you could have your own show on television and that more people would see a single M*A*S*H episode than would ever view Gone With the Wind. I was not only impressed by this range but actually proud to be writing for television.
But all the political consultants and Washington muckety-mucks rose up to protest my appointment as Bill Clinton's filmmaker, calling my selection that word they all love — "inappropriate." But the candidate himself was having none of it. Bill said, "Linda's gonna make my film. She knows me. She knows what to do. Everybody just needs to leave her alone."
After that, there were no phone calls, no focus groups — just eight weeks of blissful artistic freedom. I soon found an old, faded photograph given to me by Virginia Kelley (Bill's mother). It was of her teenage son meeting President John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden in July 1963. I knew that this could become the centerpiece of my film if only I could find moving footage of this same event. Someone was immediately dispatched to the Kennedy Library and on July 16, 1992, a standing-room-only crowd in Madison Square Garden was the first to see Arkansas' 16-year-old Boys Nation representative Bill Clinton waiting in awed anticipation as JFK moves toward him. A slow building rumble begins from somewhere in the arena and increases in volume as it travels through the electrified crowd of Democratic delegates. Suddenly, Kennedy takes the hand of the future president, as their eyes meet and a torch seems to be passed. This film is called The Man From Hope.
A few months later, with the election too close to call, Bill Clinton made another bold move. A Gallup poll during the week of Oct. 26, 1992, showed President George H.W. Bush closing in on candidate Clinton, behind him by as little as a single percentage point. The Arkansas governor decided to buy time to air the film on all four networks the night before the election. This had never been done in the history of politics or television. It was before the days of cable, so if you were an American citizen looking at TV that night, you were probably looking at The Man From Hope. (A Newsweek reporter chronicling the campaign recorded Bill's reaction upon first seeing the completed film in his New York hotel suite: "That's stout," he pronounced, as his eyes misted up.) I will leave it to others to decide what role, if any, this film played in the results. But I can tell you the role it played in my own life. It was thrilling. And encouraging. And I was hooked on becoming a filmmaker.
On Jan. 20, 1993, I began filming again in the White House on the night of Bill Clinton's inauguration. My husband and I had been invited to spend the first night in the Lincoln bedroom. A PBS researcher recently told me that we went on to spend a total of 101 nights in the White House, but nothing would ever top our first visit. I filmed our tour of the entire building (with the new president and first lady leading the way) including a trip around the Oval Office and eventually even to the note Rush Limbaugh left for me on Abraham Lincoln's desk. Over the years, my liberal father and Rush's conservative daddy had opposed each other in court and we had always cast a jaundiced eye toward each other. And now his note was gleeful. It read, "Dear Linda, Ha! Ha! I was here first." But I didn't care. I knew his presidential adventure was over and mine was just beginning.
In the ensuing years, I kept a camera in the ushers' office and recorded as much personal footage as I could — not as a documentarian, but really as a concerned friend. In today's world of rampant photographic exhibitionism, it would be hard to imagine a more impoverished home movie collection than those taken by the Clintons themselves. I recorded birthdays, raucous Thanksgivings with both sides of the Clinton and Rodham families, and even a final Christmas where the president tried to unload on the rest of us some of the more puzzling gifts he had received during his tenure. These home movies are, of course, very precious to me. But I know they are not really mine. Just as I know they will someday find a home in the Clinton Library.
I would go on to make three other convention films. A Place Called America, for the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, remains my favorite, with President Clinton narrating, as only he can, a montage of what it actually means to be an American. Our 2000 Los Angeles Convention film was entitled Legacy. It provided him with his final farewell to the nation, although as we all know, he has become an even more luminous figure since leaving office. I also wrote and directed Hillary, which accompanied her withdrawal from the 2008 presidential race. It featured the future secretary of state as a little girl, dreaming of becoming an astronaut. More than anything, I wanted this film to simply be worthy of her colossal grace in defeat.
I have learned so much from both Clintons during our years together. I have learned how important it is to embrace controversy and to be not just motivated, but deeply honored by one's enemies. I have never accepted a salary for any of the films I made because it seemed as though I had already been paid. I certainly would not have become a documentary filmmaker were it not for President Clinton's belief in me. I do not know to this day why he felt so sure about giving me a role in his legacy. Maybe it has something to do with that "river that runs through us" thing.
In 2012, I finished my first feature-length documentary — a film about same-sex marriage entitled Bridegroom. Bill Clinton was the first person I sent it to. I knew he would embrace this compelling love story. But he actually championed it, giving me notes and even suggesting a better way to showcase the names of the 6,508 people who supported the film on Kickstarter. And no one was prouder than he was when we won the audience prize at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.
Through our years of making political documentaries together, he knows that I am not opposed to mixing art with honest propaganda. Each of us can see a role for Bridegroom on America's newest frontier of social injustice. I would like to believe that our Arkansas grandfathers, if they were here, could also envision a world in which everyone has the right to be who they are and love who they love. Or, as Bill Clinton said long ago in The Man From Hope, "My grandparents didn't just go around and see the world and become broad-minded. They did it out of the depths of their own experience … and their good hearts."