Why Hollywood Can't Help Obama (Like They Did With Clinton)
Co-creator of the 1992 Bill Clinton film "The Man From Hope," Harry Thomason weighs in on the unbelievable freedom he had to market his friend and why today's climate makes the same concept impossible.
It probably will never happen again, that a presidential candidate totally turns a project like this over to somebody he trusts and says, "Go make me a film, and make it how you think it ought to be." But that's what Gov. Clinton did.
You know how Washington is. We were in this Burbank office, and Linda [the producer of the film] was editing it in a little room, and people from the campaign would want to look. Gov. Clinton would say, "No, let her do her vision of it." I just don't think that's ever happened or will happen again. The Clintons and the campaign staff only got to see The Man From Hope [which transformed Clinton from a non-inhaling draft dodger to an Everyman from Hope, Ark., in contrast to President Bush's privileged upbringing] the night before it played at the convention. Today, it's different. Davis Guggenheim, who made a 17-minute film for Obama's re-election campaign, is a great filmmaker -- I'm sure he had a lot more interference than Linda did. There was extraordinary trust with Hope, and that would never happen now.
The idea for it came late, a month or two before the convention. The governor almost had the nomination sewn up, but he was behind President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in the polls. We went to Arkansas, put him in a backyard and shot. Linda asked the questions and put the film together. It was hectic. There were people working into the wee hours every night, and they'd start before the sun came up the next morning. Linda ran across a picture of a then-teenage Bill Clinton shaking hands with John Kennedy. She said, in the middle of the night, "Call somebody who works on the campaign and tell them that there must be film of this, too." Someone went to the archives and found the piece of film of Kennedy shaking hands with him, which went in.
We felt that keeping the film secret would be the best thing for its impact, but it also wasn't finished until 10 or 12 hours before it was shown -- there was no way anybody could've done anything with it anyway. You have to remember, even though it wasn't that long ago, in 1992 there were only six websites in the universe. There were a couple of medical sites and a couple of military sites.
We knew we wanted Gov. Clinton to show up at the convention in New York -- no one had done that on the night when the delegates were being tallied since 1960, when John Kennedy showed up at the Cow Palace, so we decided to have a party in a restaurant at Macy's. Everybody thought we could have picked a better venue. We said that it was the only place that was available that night to watch him go over the top at the convention. It was on 7th Avenue -- you could walk straight down to Madison Square Garden. That was what we wanted Gov. Clinton to do.
Our hardest task was convincing the Secret Service that this would be OK. The deal we made was, "If it gets out that it's going to happen, we'll call it off." So they acquiesced. On Tuesday night after midnight, we got a VHS camera and rehearsed the whole thing. We started at the door of Macy's and walked all the way into the convention hall. Then we looked at the tape and said, "OK, this will work."
The governor didn't know anything about this. Only the Secret Service knew. So the next day, we got cameras and put them along the route. We laid a hard cable. And then we explained to the reporters in the press pool what we were going to do. We said, "You can't tell your bosses at the networks," and they had a fit and said, "We've got to tell them!" And we said, "No, if you do, it will get out, and then we're going to call it off." The reporters hemmed and hawed. Then they called a meeting with us for 6:30 on Wednesday morning, and we went, and there were 17 or 18 people in the basement of Madison Square Garden. They jumped all over us and said, "We can't do this -- we've got to tell our superiors what's going on." We carefully explained: "Look, here's the deal. You can tell them, but you're gonna miss a great story because the minute you do, the walk is off -- he's not going to do it. You just have to make up your minds whether you want a good story or not." And the reporters were mad. I mean, they fumed. Finally, they said, "We'll go along with you."
So we went back to campaign headquarters and told Gov. Clinton, "Look, you may be taking a walk tonight." And he said, "What are you talking about?" And I said, "You've just got to trust us; the Secret Service knows." So he came to the party. We had 300 or 400 people there, and actually, quite a few of them knew about it, but we knew we could trust them. And then the nomination started, and we eased over to him, and I said: "OK, you're going to walk from here, and you're going to the basement of Madison Square Garden. You're going to come out up on the floor and say you'll be back tomorrow night or whatever you want to say." And he said, "You're crazy."
I remember he almost put us behind schedule because we brought him out through the store, and he saw a nice tie that he liked and stopped. But we got him out, and that's when the cameras picked it up. We were a few blocks from the convention center, and he started walking and people started joining him, and it became a big crowd. When we got within two blocks of Madison Square Garden, we could hear people inside because it was being shown on the giant screen. Two blocks away, we could hear the place going crazy.
It was a good event. All the network producers were very happy, but the next morning, they got chewed out so badly by the heads of the networks for not alerting them. And so we could never do that again. That's a shame. It gets rid of good political theater.
The night before the election, after adding some footage, we ran the film on all three major networks at the same time. You can imagine that today you would have zero ratings on the networks because there are so many hundreds of channels to watch. Back then, there was no Fox News; there was only CNN, trying to catch on. There was C-SPAN and a couple of other startups, but once you blocked out the three networks, you reached most of America. If they were going to turn on the TV that night, you reached them. I'm sure the number of people who saw it approached 50 million. That's just not possible anymore. Gov. Clinton was leading Bush in the polls, but the numbers went up dramatically.
I think The Man From Hope played to the person who was out there working, having a hard time. It touched a chord and probably did as much to win the election for him as anything else because it made him a human being, like everybody else out there watching TV. Mitt Romney could not have done that film. Obama could sort of do that film, but it's harder now. Then, there was no Facebook or any online forum where they were hammering away at you to try to destroy whatever the film said. Today it would be so much harder to make it work.
Harry Thomason is a producer whose credits include the CBS series Designing Women. He has known Bill Clinton since the 1960s and served as co-chair of the 1992 Presidential Inauguration Committee.