The news that NBC is planning to film a miniseries on the life of Hillary Clinton may be interpreted in some quarters as just another lollipop being thrown by the network at its Democratic crush. The movie will star actress Diane Lane as the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state and will cover her life from the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal up until the present day. Though we are told the work would include “aspects that were both critical of Mrs. Clinton and supportive of her,” it’s not likely the network with a cable news outlet where nary a discouraging word is uttered about liberalism and the Democrats will exert itself to highlight the less savory parts of the Clinton story. But anyone under the assumption that this project, which must be completed and aired before Clinton announces for the presidency in 2016 to avoid NBC having to give her opponents equal time, will boost the drive to make Hillary President Obama’s successor is probably wrong. As the Clintons were reminded this past week as the Weiner scandal caused many Americans to think back on l’affaire Lewinsky, this kind of scrutiny, even if done by friends, doesn’t help them.
If, as Fred Dicker reports today in the New York Post, Bill and Hillary are “livid” about the comparisons being made between their conduct and that of the couple that married at their Chappaqua estate, it can’t be just because they think the former president’s dalliances with an intern in the Oval Office and escapades with various girlfriends and mistresses during his time as governor of Arkansas are not as icky as Weiner’s bizarre Internet activities (a point I thought Peter Beinart rightly disputed last week). It’s because Huma Abedin’s pathetic performance last week beside her disturbed husband is highly reminiscent of the decision by Hillary to stand by her man and to regard his critics as merely the effusion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Hillary’s potential candidacy is at its intimidating best—at least to serious Democratic contenders who will probably pass on the presidency rather than taker her on—when the discussion is about the need for America to elect its first female president. When the conversation turns to the history of Mrs. Clinton’s troubled marriage, her expected coronation in January 2017 seems a bit less inevitable.
There’s never been much evidence that movies, whether produced for the big screen or the small one, have much impact on presidential elections. Last year, many Republicans feared that various films that focused on the killing of Osama bin Laden would give President Obama a huge edge. But while they probably didn’t hurt the Democratic campaign, it’s not as if Americans—who were reminded about bin Laden’s shooting by Navy SEALs in virtually every speech the president gave for more than year—needed a movie to remind them of the fact. Obama’s historic status and slavish press coverage ensured his reelection and no film, whether positive or negative, was going to change that.
An even better example is the impact that The Right Stuff, the 1983 film version of Tom Wolfe’s book about the original Mercury astronauts, had on the 1984 presidential election. One of the Mercury seven, Ohio Senator John Glenn, was portrayed in the book as something of a prig. That caused some to worry that the film would harm his prospects for the Democratic nomination in 1984. But Ed Harris’s portrayal of Glenn made him appear to be not just moral, but a shining example of a true American hero and the film was thought to boost his chances. But not even a Hollywood lollipop that reminded the nation that the senator had been the first American to orbit the earth was enough to turn Glenn into a viable candidate, and he spent the next 20 years trying to pay off his $3 million campaign debt.
No matter how adoring the film will be, any movie about the Clintons in 1998, even one that also discusses her subsequent government service, distracts the public from the story her campaign will want to tell about her intended rendezvous with history in 2016. Even worse, any biopic will serve as an excuse for critics and defenders to rehash past scandals, whether it involves the Rose law firm, Whitewater, or Paula Jones, that the Clintons had hoped were permanently in their rear view mirror. As much as her career has its roots in her husband’s overwhelming electoral success and the continuing admiration he inspires among Democrats, Hillary’s presidential hopes are based not so much on a desire to go back to the 1990s as on a view of her career that is independent of that of her spouse.
Should Clinton run for president, as everyone assumes will happen, she will be the presumptive Democratic nominee no matter whether Lane makes her seem a goddess or not. But, like the Weiner blowback on Hillary because of her close ties to Abedin, a revival of interest in the most memorable incident of her time in the White House should not be considered a favor to her.