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Commentary: Forget "American President," Bill. Go See "Ace Ventura"

News: Analysis & Commentary: COMMENTARY


Hollywood loves happy endings, right? Maybe that's why The American President ends so abruptly. In the hit movie, the credits roll just as President Andy Shepherd (Michael Douglas) wins back his leftist-lobbyist girlfriend (Annette Bening).

All Shepherd has to do to get her back is introduce a bill to outlaw all assault weapons and to support legislation that would stop global warming by crippling the American automobile industry. The music swells as the President heads out the door to begin his reelection campaign. The message: Politics is pretty simple, actually. Just hold dear to your principles, do what's right, and the American people will reward you. You'll even get the girl.

This is one charming love story. But don't go trying to make a political primer out of it. If the movie had run 10 minutes longer, vengeful voters in Texas and Detroit would have set fire to the President's campaign headquarters, Congress would have buried both bills, and the lobbyist girlfriend would have gone to work for the Poisonous Sludge Manufacturers Assn. for a seven-figure contract.

Nor should President Clinton pay too much attention. Hollywood evidently fears that Clinton has been playing against type lately, abandoning his liberalism, negotiating spending cuts with conservatives, and forgetting that big inaugural gala that the movie industry threw for him on the Mall. No leading-man material there. Bring back the man from Hope!

FLASHES OF REALISM. President Shepherd is obviously meant to be Bill Clinton--except that he is a lonely widower. Democrat Shepherd has a daughter Chelsea's age, never served in the military, and is surrounded by young, workaholic aides who forget that it's Christmas unless they get a memo reminding them. Then there's the White House press corps, always more concerned with "the character issue" (sex) than with foreign policy details. Oh, and President Shepherd is being challenged for his job by the cranky old Republican Senate Minority Leader, Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss).

At first, the scenario seems plausible. The President runs into lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade at the White House, woos her, and wins her. Along the way, he promises to support her environmental bill if she can persuade 24 representatives to go along. But when the President sees the opportunity to gather more votes from Detroit representatives for his anticrime bill, he dumps the environmental legislation cold. He's moving to the center, you see. Being political. Bad President! "Government is choosing, government is prioritizing," Shepherd explains in a rush of realism.

The scenes inside the White House look plausible, too. But how do you explain the following: When the lobbyist's boss finds out she's dating the President, he warns her that it's a conflict of interest that could cost her a job and a career. Too much access to the President and his staff? Yeah, sure.

Then there's the leadership sermon. "People want leadership," an aide explains. "And in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone." The problem is, director Rob Reiner defines leadership as taking unpopular positions and ignoring polls. So, ultimately, does President Shepherd. He gives his daughter a history book on the Constitution, explaining: "It's exciting stuff." But even he ultimately misses the message that the Constitution contains so many checks and balances on politicians that it's impossible to operate without public support and compromise.

BAD ADVICE. Actually, it falls to the conniving Rumson to get closest to the truth. "Voters aren't interested in our plan to achieve economic growth," he tells his aides. In fact, voters do like to be reassured that politicians have plans. But it's the partisan squabbling and the venomous personal attacks that precede the eventual dealmaking that the public doesn't appreciate. Like it or not, politics is messy and ugly. From Hollywood's perspective, politics can even seem un-American. But losing on principle doesn't hold much appeal for politicians, either.

If director Reiner was intent on preserving the happy Hollywood ending, he was right to end his movie just when he did. But if he was trying to send a message to Clinton to stop his relentless poll-taking and wind-testing, he's missing the point. Clinton's popularity is rising precisely because he has been following public opinion--particularly during the budget impasse. If President Clinton tries to heed Hollywood's advice, he'll soon be headed out of town.By Paul Magnusson

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