Primary Colors

The following post is a revised and updated version of a Christian Century column magazine which was initially published January 29, 2008.  

by James M. Wall

. . .Movies can be revealing of the character of  presidential candidates.  Some can hit close to home. Take for example, the film Primary Colors (1998), a thinly disguised portrait of Hillary and Bill Clinton. The movie, directed by Mike Nichols, was based on a novel by Joe Klein, a Time magazine columnist who originally wrote the novel as Anonymous.  The film examines the early political career of fictional candidate for Governor Jack Stanton (played by John Travolta) and his wife, Susan ( played by Emma Thompson). 

Late in the film Stanton’s campaign strategist Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) confronts the Stantons with her oppositional research about Stanton’s opponent in his race for governor.  The research exposes the opponent’s sexual activities, which if leaked, will ruin the opponent’s chances of winning and also bring grief to his family.  She says she does not want them to use this research, even though the Stantons are eager to do so. Holden is shocked at their willingness to destroy Stanton’s opponent. She reminds them that they were once idealists. She tells them that in their quest for power they have abandoned the idealism they espoused when together they worked in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign (which is how the Clinton’s began their political careers.)

The governor’s wife, speaking in a matter of fact voice, defends the shift, saying they must do whatever is needed to win the election.  Then, she says, once they have won and achieved power, they will once again act on their ideals and do good things for the public. 

Politicians adapt to meet circumstances. Their constituents should not be complacent over these shifting adaptations. The Democratic party’s liberal base should not forget the weak effort the Democrats in the Senate made to block the nomination of federal judge Michael Mukasey as U.S. attorney general. Two liberal Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York, cast decisive votes in favor of approving Mukasey as attorney general in spite of the fact that he refused to declare whether or not he considered waterboarding to bean act of torture.

Another recent film Rendition (2007) depicts—in graphic detail—the torture of an American-Egyptian citizen by  using water boarding. (The story is based on an actual case.) In the film, an aide tells the CIA director (Meryl Streep) that there is insufficient evidence against Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) to keep him in US custody in an American prison. El-Ibrahimi is an Egyptian-born American citizen married to an American woman. Knowing this, the CIA director pauses for only a second before responding, “Put him on the plane.”  El-Ibrahimi is immediately “rendered” to a country where torture is practiced, an unnamed country, but is no doubt meant to be Egypt, one of the countries which in the Bush administration, was routinely a destination for individuals the U.S. did not want to torture, except on foreign soil.

The CIA agent assigned to monitor the torture is horrified at what he sees. In a break in the water boarding torture sessions, he whipers to El-Ibrahim, “Just give them some names.” The tortured man accepts the advice and writes a list of names that is later revealed to be names from a championship soccer team from El-Ibrahim’s youth. The torturer accepts the names, not knowing much about Egyptian soccer. Before slipping El-Ibrahim out of the country the CIA agent shouts at the torturer:

“In all the years you’ve been doing this, how often can you say that we’ve produced truly legitimate intelligence? Once? Twice? Ten times? Give me a statistic; give me a number. Give me a pie chart, I love pie charts. Anything, anything that outweighs the fact that if you torture one person you create ten, a hundred, a thousand new enemies.”

A viewing of the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg should warn us all that there are consequences for violating human rights. One of the defendants at Nuremberg, German judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) says, in response to a question from the American prosecutor, “Why did we [Germans] sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase.”

When politicians adapt to circumstances in order to do good at a later date, they lose their sense of moral purpose. 


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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