From Hermitage to Magnet For the Multitudes

Life sometimes imitates art, or in this case, Hollywood. The recently released Wag the Dog depicts a president faced with a sex scandal who manufactures a military crisis abroad to save himself. Sound familiar?

Few people believe, however, that President Clinton has provoked a confrontation with Iraq to divert attention from his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and Saddam Hussein has been a bad actor ever since the Gulf War. Moreover, as of press time, the American public seems willing to ignore the moral implications of Clinton's carnal adventures as long as the country remains prosperous. Nevertheless, the parallels between the movie and real life are chilling, particularly the way in which Wag the Dog presents scandal-fueled, media feeding frenzies and their unscrupulous manipulation by spin doctors.

In the movie, a popular president, whom we never see, is 11 days away from a re-election landslide. But rumors surface about his affair with a teenage girl. The Washington Post is planning to run the story, and the opposition is preparing TV ads that feature shots of the White House accompanied by the music of Thank Heaven for Little Girls.

To avert disaster, the president calls in expert dirty trickster, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). With his shaggy beard and floppy hat, he is a dead ringer for long-time Reagan operative Lyn Nofziger, but director Barry Levinson (Diner and Bugsy Siegel) and screenwriters Hilary Henkin and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) are careful not to peg him as either Republican or Democrat. He is modeled on a certain kind of political consultant found in both parties, for which Clinton adviser Dick Morris and Bush organizer Lee Atwater are equally good models.

Brean's marching orders are to focus the American voters on something other than the mushrooming scandal for the next 11 days. His inventions don't have to have any truth to them, they merely have to seem plausible—until election day. All his work is to be conducted deeply undercover, and any connection to the campaign must be denied. His only link with the White House and the president's other political operatives is high-level media relations staffer, Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), who helps him orchestrate his deceptions.

Brean realizes that the only thing that will keep a presidential sex scandal from being the lead story on every media outlet in the country is the prospect of war. So he concocts a threat to the United States in Albania, branding that tiny nation as “a staging ground for terrorism.” He's counting on the fact that most people don't know anything about the Balkan nation and those who do find its citizens “shifty and stand-offish.” Realizing that most of what Americans remember about wars are dramatic images and slogans, he hires a successful Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to manufacture a phony crisis that will play on television without any actual shots being fired.

Motss assembles a crack team to produce what he calls the “teaser.” It includes songwriter Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), costume designer Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin), and the Fad King (Dennis Leary), who specializes in creating popular trends. None of them has ever voted in a presidential election—although Motss volunteers that he always cuts his ballot in the Oscar races, and the Fad King once was involved with the selection of Major League Baseball's all-star team. Butsky explains she doesn't participate because she gets claustrophobic inside voting booths.

Using computer animators from the last Arnold Schwarzenegger epic, Motss creates hair-raising war footage on a bare Hollywood sound stage. When the president calls with suggestions, the producer treats him like a studio chief, complaining to Brean: “I hate it when they interfere.”

The media, of course, buys into this make-believe crisis without too many questions, and the sex scandal is forgotten. But the CIA discovers Brean and Motss'c on game and makes the president pull the plug. The election is still a week away, and the public could get wise.

This setback brings out the best in Motss.

“This is a walk in the park,” he reassures Brean.

He compares Hollywood producers to samurai warriors in their ability to overcome difficulties, reminding the political operative that he once completed a remake of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse even though three of the horsemen died before shooting was complete.

Motss goes on to manufacture a phony war hero (Woody Harrelson) and, when that turns sour, comes up with other imaginative diversions to fool voters and the media. The problem is that the producer doesn't want his successes to remain anonymous, and Brean must prevent him from taking credit publicly.

With his veggie shakes and perpetual tan, Motss is only a slightly over-thetop version of a certain kind of Hollywood producer. Yet despite his narcissism and continual self-promotion, he's a likable personality with a can-do spirit found in many big-time entrepreneurs in other fields.

The continuous use of profanity by the political operatives and tinsel town types in this comedy may be accurate, but it's unpleasant to listen to. Nevertheless, the message of this film is too important to ignore. The Hollywood-Washington connection, which began during the Kennedy era, has become such a prominent feature of our cultural landscape that at times politics seems to be just another branch of show business.

This trend has become particularly pronounced in the Clinton White House. TVsitcom producers are among the president's half-dozen best friends, and many of his top fund-raisers are Hollywood moguls. The entertainment business and the media have become crucial constituencies to him, almost as important as labor or blacks.

This sorry spectacle is not what the founding fathers had in mind. Many might argue that Wag the Dog is a satire and therefore, by definition, larger than life. But as our political leaders behave more like celebrities and less like statesmen, the movie begins to look as if it has the ring of documentary truth.

The USCC classification of Wag the Dog is A-III (adults). The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles, Calif.