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Closely watched, barely known

THE BALTIMORE SUN

David Kusnet was President Clinton's chief speech writer during the general election campaign in 1992 and the first two years of the administration. In February 1996, he wrote an article for The ,, Sun contending that "Anonymous," the author of "Primary Colors," was Joe Klein. Currently, Kusnet is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

The first time I met Bill Clinton was in a crowded hotel room in Los Angeles, a few hours before he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

Clinton put me at ease, rising from the couch, calling me by my first name and grasping my right hand with one hand and my elbow with the other. He told me he'd read a book I'd written. I was flattered, but I figured politicians always tell authors they've read their books.

Hours later, at my first staff meeting as a speech writer, a tired Clinton came to life when a consultant suggested he should distance himself from "big labor." Labor unions, Clinton said, had become more popular during the 1980s, as Americans reacted against corporate cutthroats.

"David," he asked, "isn't that what you say in your book?"

It was. And he had won me over.

That was my Bill Clinton Moment, when he appeals to your vanity and your values. That first encounter shapes your measure of the man -- his animal magnetism, his formidable intellect and any doubts about his character. After our first meeting I signed on with him, joining his campaign as chief speech writer.

In 1992, Americans also met Clinton for the first time. And he persuaded a plurality of voters just as he won over staffers and a great many journalists.

Perhaps that's why "Primary Colors" -- the film based on Joe Klein's thinly disguised novel about Clinton's 1992 campaign -- begins, as does the book, with handshakes. As with the novel, the movie explores the questions people ask long after they've met Clinton: What kind of man is he really? Is his concern for people genuine? Are his principles as deeply held as his ambitions?

Introduced to most Americans as a man who had been careless in his early life but cared deeply about everyday people, Clinton remains an enigma to former associates and ordinary citizens alike.

That accounts for the appeal of both the film and the novel: We all know Clinton won in 1992, but we still don't know Clinton. And -- even before the latest allegations -- we suspected there may be truths that fiction can best reveal.

When I read the novel two years ago I felt almost disoriented. I could hardly recognize Clinton in the portrayal of a gifted politician whose appetites exceed his abilities. But although the jacket cover said the book was written by "Anonymous" -- the media buzz was that the author was an estranged insider -- I sure could recognize the author's voice.

Watching the movie more than two years later, I have to conclude it captures Clinton much better than the book -- but it still ignores facets of a complex man.

Yes, it shows the instinctive empathy for people in trouble that appealed to a recession-racked nation in 1992. In an early-morning talk with a night-shift worker at a doughnut store, the Clinton character (played by John Travolta) shows how he can focus his intellect and emotion on a person in pain. That is why he was able to deflect attacks by declaring, "The hits I've taken are nothing compared to the hits most people take every day."

And, yes the film portrays the candidate as a person who once had unshakable principles and who still speaks compellingly in moral terms. Thus, he retains the loyalty of the main character (Adrian Lester), a youthful idealist modeled on former aide George Stephanopoulos but transformed into the grandson of an African-American civil rights hero.

But, while "Primary Colors" emphasizes Clinton's emotions, it almost ignores his intellect.

Moviegoers will miss the president who confidently addresses Congress and the country, explaining issues from the economy to education to health care in terms people understand. Clinton's rare ability to explain public policies -- as well as his success in reviving the economy -- contribute to his popularity as much as his charming personal manner. After all, he not only feels people's pain, he has eased it as well.

The film offers only flashes of the candidate as an eloquent policy wonk. Near the beginning of the movie, after a visit to a literacy program, the candidate gets into an all-too-brief argument with his wife (skillfully acted, not mimicked, by Emma Thompson) about whether charismatic teachers or exacting curricula are more important in education.

Later in the movie, at a shipyard workers' union hall in New Hampshire, the candidate offers a down-to-earth explanation of economic policies that echo the views of Clinton's former labor secretary Robert Reich:

"No politician can bring these shipyard jobs back. Or make your union strong again. Because we're living in a new world, a world without borders -- economically, that is. Guy can push a button in New York and move a billion dollars to Tokyo before you can

blink an eye. Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap -- and that's not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you're gonna have to exercise a different set of muscles, the ones behind your ears. This whole country is gonna have to go back to school."

Clinton's policy preoccupations open a window on his character, but that's all there is in "Primary Colors." It is his expertise, as well as his empathy, that convinces so many that -- as his staffers tell each other in the film -- "He really cares."

While showcasing the Clinton character's warm heart and downplaying his impressive mind, "Primary Colors" mostly emphasizes the candidate's disorganized, self-indulgent side. Most often, Travolta plays a sloppy but lovable buffoon -- the "boy," as several characters call him.

Clinton haters will be disappointed because the film presents him as a man-child, not a monster. But other viewers will wonder if this funny and fast-paced film could have presented Clinton in all his aspects -- the policy expert as well as the preacher, the politician and the perpetual adolescent.

Perhaps Clinton's serious side couldn't make the casting call in a movie that's clearly a comedy -- even one that wants to make people think as well as laugh. But there may also have been unrealized comic potential in a character who could stumble from his less dignified moments to an erudite discourse on the federal budget or education reform. And any portrait of Clinton that ignores his intelligence and accomplishments is ultimately unfair.

By the film's conclusion, I sensed that the moviemakers themselves understood they'd presented only a partial portrait of this man of many parts. That's why the show ends almost as it began: with a newly inaugurated president shaking hands with some of the same people who helped elect him.

It's as if we're meeting Bill Clinton for the first time all over again FTC -- and we still don't know him at all.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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