Still 'Stupid' After All These Years


New York
The War Room, the 1993 documentary about the rapid-response communications team behind presidential candidate Bill Clinton, spawned the campaign message that's become a cliche because it's so true in every presidential race: “The Economy, Stupid.”

James Carville wrote those words on a white board in Little Rock, Ark., to help Clinton's team stay focused on what's important. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus filmed the white board as they chronicled Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers and other Clintonistas' huge mood swings leading up to the Election Day win over incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Carville (once Clinton's top strategist) and Begala are now CNN commentators, Myers contributes to MSNBC and Stephanopoulos is ABC's chief Washington correspondent. What else has changed since The War Room and what besides “The Economy, Stupid” remains essentially true?

Pennebaker and Hegedus revisited their war-room comrades for a sequel, The Return of the War Room, airing on Sundance Channel tonight (Oct. 13) at 9 p.m. They discussed it at a panel session after a screening last Monday at the Paley Center for Media, along with Carville and Myers.

Cable networks' proliferation of opinion-spouting anchors is one obvious change, but one Carville said really was just American media catching up to the norm in other countries.

“Anywhere else you go in the world, there are newspapers that represent a point of view,” Carville said. “Cable TV has sort of come out now like the foreign press.”

Myers said politics-focused networks and blogs and Web sites have spread around the poll data that War Room participants owned exclusively. Now, she said, it's not unusual for someone to stop her in the market and remark about how Barack Obama is doing among white males or non-degreed working women. While that's a good trend, she said, “the downside is — how do you know what's true and how do you know what's important?”

For so-called experts eager to provide context, there's no shortage of outlets. “This is the full employment season for pundits,” Myers said. “There's no pundit I know who doesn't get 25 calls a week to go on television.”

Where politicians in 1992 might get away with just making whatever pet point they want, voters are less tolerant now, Carville said. Take the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. “She came out with her talking points and just said what she wanted to say. A lot of the commentators said she really did well. The public thought no such thing,” Carville said to general agreement (from a Manhattan audience). “I don't say this because I'm a Democrat — that was a good debate performance in 1992, but it was not lost on people that she didn't answer the questions.”

One lamentable change: Instead of seeing people talk — “like watching a Shaw play,” Pennebaker said — an updated look at campaign war rooms would show “people just e-mailing themselves across the room,” Myers said.

About the economy, no doubt.