Long ago and far away, a scary band of right-wing ideologues and muck-manufacturing opportunists undertook to putsch an American president—and nearly succeeded. Adapted from the bestseller by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President opens with Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings and flashes back to explicate the smears and allegations used to snare him: Troopergate, Whitewater, Paula Jones, the death of Vince Foster, and finally . . . Monica.
As co-directed and co-written by sitcom impresario and longtime F.O.B. Harry Thomason, Hunting plays like a sinister infomercial. Thomason did as much as anyone to craft Clinton’s image, most famously with the 1992 campaign film The Man From Hope. But if that was high-concept Capra, Hunting is low-rent Oliver Stone. Overwrought and often hysterical, filled with distracting montages and portentous drumbeats, the documentary feels as cheesy as its subject—or its smiling villain, Witchfinder-General Kenneth Starr. Still, the film makes one essential point. By recalling the nature of the media pile-on (with everyone hoping for another career-making Watergate), it demonstrates the way tabloid story trumps truth. (It also suggests the guilt behind the passivity in reporting the actual putsch that brought George W. Bush to power in 2000.)
The Hunting of the President successfully evokes the Clinton era as a period of collective delusion. Does anyone care? Clinton may yet reintroduce himself as an issue in the current campaign. But the post–9-11 zeitgeist has effectively defined the Clinton crucifixion as the climax of the ridiculous scandals and tawdry excitements that characterized America’s now forgotten fin de siècle.