Designing Presidential Politics : Television: Behind the scenes with producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and husband Harry as they help their old friend from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, with their prime-time entertainment skills.
It wasn’t the first time Linda Bloodworth-Thomason had been called upon to write a line of dialogue on the spot. But the stakes were higher than usual: This line would not be spoken by one of the characters on her situation comedies, “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade.”
It would be spoken by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.
It was Wednesday night during last week’s convention in New York. The Clintons had gathered with friends from Arkansas, including Bloodworth’s husband and co-executive producer, Harry Thomason, in a restaurant near Madison Square Garden. From there, they planned to walk to the convention hall to say a few words to the delegates.
Bloodworth-Thomason, watching the event on CNN back in Los Angeles, heard the phone ring. “It was Harry calling from the restaurant, saying: ‘Honey, honey, Bill needs a line for the convention--when we get there, what should he say?’ ” Bloodworth-Thomason said. “I said, you must be kidding!”
Harry wasn’t kidding. So Bloodworth-Thomason thought for a minute, then blurted out a line. When Clinton reached the convention floor, she watched Thomason hand Clinton a piece of paper. Clinton read it, nodded, and put it in his pocket. Moments later, Clinton told a cheering crowd that, when he accepted the nomination the following night, he would be the “comeback kid.”
Although Hollywood stars and studio chiefs have historically endorsed--and financed--their favorite candidates, the Thomasons represent a different type of entertainment industry activist. The pair are using not their money, but their producing savvy, to advance the Clinton effort.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the political world make use of the skills of the entertainment community in a way that is really beneficial to the campaign,” said Marge Tabankin, executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee. “They usually stick to their political advertising consultants. Clinton had the sense to take from them what they do best.”
And, in the year of “family values,” the Thomasons have an edge, Tabankin adds. “I certainly think they know what middle America wants, because that’s who watches their shows.”
While the Thomasons will be juggling two existing series and a new fall series called “Hearts Afire” during the weeks leading up to the presidential election, Bloodworth-Thomason says the team will keep up their campaign efforts until election day.
“We’re just going to cut out sleeping,” she said. “It’s too important, and we’ve gone too far already in it to quit. We’ll find a way--I guess that’s a very Southern thing.”
But Bloodworth-Thomason said the couple would remain dedicated to forwarding Clinton’s political career-- not their own. “Someone at a press conference asked me--seriously--'Are you going to be serving in the cabinet?’ ” Bloodworth-Thomason said, amused. “I wish I had said: ‘Yes. Secretary of State.’ ”
While Bloodworth-Thomason has provided some quips and lines that Clinton has used, she said the candidate usually writes his own speeches--except, ironically, the overly long nomination speech he gave for nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, which drew so much criticism it threatened to undermine Clinton’s political career. “You know the line (in the 1992 speech) ‘There is no them, there’s only us?’ That was Bill’s,” Bloodworth-Thomason said.
The Thomasons became part of the Clinton campaign long before 1992. After the 1988 Democratic convention, Harry Thomason persuaded Johnny Carson to bring Clinton on as a guest to bolster his sagging image. Carson’s people turned Thomason down, saying that the show didn’t want political candidates as guests; Thomason won them over by promising that Clinton would play the saxophone. Clinton played the sax again this year on the Arsenio Hall Show.
Clinton also appeared on the radio in New York with shock jock Don Imus. Bloodworth-Thomason scripted some of his quips, including, “Bubba is just another word for mensch.”
Such appearances drew mixed reviews--not for Clinton’s playing ability, but from print journalists decrying campaign appearances on radio programs and talk shows during this year’s campaign, worried that the line between entertainment and “serious” politics was fading fast.
And might that same group be unsettled by a candidate’s intimate connection with situation comedy--particularly when another CBS sitcom, “Murphy Brown,” became a campaign issue when it was attacked by Vice President Dan Quayle for flouting “family values”? Bloodworth-Thomason (a) doesn’t think so and (b) doesn’t care.
“We are not snobs about popular culture,” said Bloodworth-Thomason. “There was somebody on the Clinton campaign that thought Arsenio Hall was a building,” she continued. “We feel that television is the strongest medium in the world, and how you use it will either ennoble you or diminish you. But the medium itself doesn’t diminish you.
“I think a number of these journalists are whining about it because perhaps they are afraid of losing their franchise,” she continued. “Perhaps they don’t understand that politics and entertainment have always been, at their core, the same business--or perhaps they haven’t seen Dan Rather’s sweater collection. Clinton was asked better questions when he went on MTV than when he went on a number of ‘serious’ news shows. This is a totally bogus issue.”
The Thomason influence pervaded the convention. The Clinton family’s televised walk from the restaurant to Madison Square Garden was well-rehearsed and orchestrated by Harry Thomason (despite strong reservations on the part of Clinton’s security team and the NYPD). The suggestion that Clinton break tradition and return to the hall the night before accepting the nomination was Linda’s; she remembered being moved by John Kennedy’s decision to do the same thing in 1960.
Bloodworth-Thomason failed to attend the convention due to exhaustion: She had just spent six sleepless nights editing Clinton’s highly personal 14-minute campaign film, highlighted by footage of a 16-year-old Clinton in the White House Rose Garden, shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy, which Bloodworth-Thomason unearthed in the Kennedy archives.
Bloodworth-Thomason said the Clintons gave her free rein to work with no input from campaign advisers. “They just said: ‘Show the American people who we are,’ ” she said. “There was nothing slick about it. When you put a camera two inches from a man’s face, and you ask him about the most painful and happiest moments of his life, he has nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide. He just has to be exactly who he is.
“The hardest thing for us has been to see the Clintons so radically misrepresented to America. It was a joy for me to get to do this.”
Clinton campaign chairman Mickey Kantor called the film “probably the best ever in the history of either party.”
“The best part about the Thomasons is that they are, in a sense, unpolitical,” he added. “They do this out of love for Bill Clinton.
“This is a special relationship, and we haven’t see anybody criticize it. What you want to do is have a conversation with the American people. The problem is, we keep engaging in the same brain-dead politics that we’ve had for years . . . TV is an intimate medium, one that I think serves Bill Clinton well in a longer format.”
The Clintons have sought the counsel of various Hollywood activists. But none have become as intertwined in the Clinton campaign as their fellow Arkansans, the Thomasons, who have followed his career since Clinton entered politics. Those involved in Hollywood’s political landscape say the pair are not known for Democratic activism; their involvement grew out of friendship.
The Thomasons production company, Mozark, has become known as the “second campaign headquarters” for Clinton--and has become Hollywood’s own little slice of Arkansas. Clinton’s brother, Roger, 35, who works as a $500-a-week production assistant on “Designing Women” and “Hearts Afire,” said that each day the “Clinton Clipper,” a collection of the day’s articles and headlines on the campaign, appears on the office fax machine.
“The newspapers, ironically, did (Bill) a big favor by refusing to report on the issues,” Roger Clinton said. “By refusing to report on the positive side of Bill Clinton, they drove him to TV. He just said, the heck with it. And naturally, if he’s going to go to TV, he’s got the best in Harry and Linda.”
Roger Clinton also praised the Thomasons for coaching the Clintons through the adultery controversy sparked by Gennifer Flowers. “I’ve got a temper, and I’ve got a point where my temper wears very thin, especially if there are attacks against my mother, or my brother--I can take attacks on me all day long. Linda and Harry helped me watch out for this. Harry is the real cool head around here, until you push him too far. Then--watch out!”
Bloodworth-Thomason attributes her interest in politics to her first exposure to television. “My dad came home one day when I was 6 years old in Poplar Bluff (Ark.) and brought a TV--we had the first TV in Poplar Bluff. That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. He had a lot of rip-roaring alcoholic lawyer friends, and I remember all of these people standing on the furniture, and yelling and arguing at the Democratic and Republican conventions (on TV). I can remember names like Adlai and Ike like they were our best friends.
“It was like they brought the world and the issues of the world into my living room. And it was CBS--that was the only network we could get. It was sort of prophetic for me. I couldn’t help thinking about that during the convention, how proud my uncles and my father would be that I was privileged to do the film.”
Hillary Clinton suggested the name for the series “Evening Shade.” The governor’s mansion in Arkansas has appeared on “Designing Women” as the home of the rich, spoiled Suzanne Sugarbaker. And Bloodworth-Thomason laughingly said that she promised Hillary’s father that he could have a walk-on role on “Evening Shade” because she edited him out of the campaign film. “And he hasn’t turned me down,” she joked.
But Bloodworth-Thomason says her series will not become part of the campaign. Bill and Hillary are not slated for any guest appearances. “I may discuss some of the issues of the campaign, but I won’t discuss the candidates,” she said.
“On the other hand, I don’t want to give up my calling card, which is talking about issues, particularly on ‘Designing Women’ (for which Bloodworth-Thomason wrote a biting episode on the Clarence Thomas hearings). I can’t give that up just because Bill becomes President of the United States. I’ve already told him that I’ll lose a lot of humor once the Republicans leave the White House.”