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Clinton Strategists Dish on ’92 Campaign

Nick Clooney leads a discussion with George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala, and Dee Dee Myers at showing of The War Room.

Nick Clooney, distinguished journalist in residence at SOC and the Newseum, talks with Dee Dee Myers, Paul Begala, and George Stephanopoulos before a screening of The War Room. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Three former Clinton staffers swapped anecdotes and shared inside stories when they gathered last week for a screening of the campaign documentary The War Room as part of the AU-Newseum series, Reel Journalism with Nick Clooney.

George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala, and Dee Dee Myers reminisced about the 1992 campaign chronicled in the film. It covers the campaign from the perspective of the young strategists in the “war room,” following them from the come-from-behind days in the primaries through the landslide victory over an incumbent president.

What enabled them, all barely 30 at the time, to take such a leading role in the campaign? “We were lucky,” Stephanopoulos said in the panel discussion led by Clooney, distinguished journalist in residence at AU’s School of Communication and the Newseum. “We’d been relatively junior in previous campaigns, but our bosses weren’t going to move to Little Rock.”

As family and finances kept the more senior campaigners from taking the leap onto the Clinton bandwagon in “flyover country,” the junior campaign activists got their chance to run much of the show.

Carville, of course, was older — in his 40s, like Clinton — but it was still a youthful campaign, much like Obama’s would be later. The film gave insight into the molding of messages to main talking points, which in this campaign were always written in marker on a white board in the “war room”: It’s the Economy Stupid; Change versus More of the Same; and Don’t Forget Health Care.

That aspect of campaigning hasn’t changed. What has changed, though, was just as much on view in the film, where the campaign team poured over daily newspapers and sweated about making the news cycle, a thing of the past in the Internet era.

One audience member expressed amazement at the shots of campaign organizers anxiously scanning a table full of newspapers, because, she said, “I get my news online.”

Asked by Clooney how the filmmakers got such unprecedented access to the staff, the film’s subjects recalled that it hadn’t been a big issue. “We thought it would be something to show on PBS,” Stephanopoulos said.

As for Clinton, Myers recalled his reaction to the film’s unusual focus on campaign strategists: “I remember him saying, ‘If they want to be out in the war room rather than here with me, OK.’”

School of Communication professor Leonard Steinhorn described the film in his introduction as a chance to “peek behind the curtain and see exactly what the Wizard of Oz is up to.”

Many things have changed since ’92, when the state-of-the-art team wielded clunky mobile phones, wore awkward headsets, and lacked today’s instant communication. “We thought we were sophisticated,” Myers recalled. “We thought things were moving really fast without the Internet—Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet.”

One thing, though, has remained the same, said Stephanopoulos: “The exuberance. The enthusiasm that people take to an enterprise like this. That, I think, is replicated in spades in every campaign.”

The War Room was screened as part of the Reel Journalism with Nick Clooney film series, coproduced by the Newseum and the School of Communication. The series provides a forum for discussing the role of the press in a democratic society.