Just What He Didn't Need Right Now

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there is anyone who has thus far avoided imagining the allegations of adultery swirling around President Clinton, well, the plot line is in Technicolor--and about to open at a theater near the White House.

"Primary Colors," the thinly veiled novel about a Gov. Jack Stanton (who happens to talk and act very much like our current chief executive and gets dogged by a sex scandal on the presidential campaign trail) is now a $64-million Mike Nichols film starring box-office draw John Travolta.

And with Monica Lewinsky showing staying power as a household name, the timing of its imminent release is the sort of coincidence not even a Hollywood press agent would dare invent.

All of which would seem to portend some monumentally awkward moments for the most movie-loving president in history and the show business hotshots who helped get him elected.

"There will be more spinning regarding this movie going on at the White House than there was during ladies' ice skating at Nagano," predicted Bob Hattoy, a former aide to Clinton's 1992 campaign and now a Department of Interior official. "They'll be spinning this to death."

This is a president who pretty much traded black-tie state dinners for movie nights in the executive mansion's first-floor theater. When "Amistad" premiered, Clinton was at the top of the guest list for a special screening with Steven Spielberg and assorted glitterati at Washington's grand old Warner Theatre. When "Air Force One" came out, he watched it on Air Force One.

But when it comes to "Primary Colors," the First Fan will not be among those lining up to see it. And his staff members insist it's not even on the West Wing radar screen. Indeed, for all the interest they profess not to have in the film, you'd think Universal was about to release a two-hour reading of the white pages, rather than a motion picture whose lead character seems like the guy they work for.

"We are up to our ears in reality; We don't have time to worry about fiction," said Clinton senior advisor Paul Begala. "Honestly, there have been very few conversations about it."

Another senior White House official asked: "Given what else we have to worry about, you think we have any anxiety left in us?"

Either a rash of levelheadedness has broken out on Pennsylvania Avenue, or everyone's too politic to admit they can't wait to see it.

The temptation to head to the ticket window must be powerful. Aside from Travolta's star turn as Stanton/Clinton, there's Emma Thompson as his Hillary Rodham Clinton-like mate. Billy Bob Thornton plays a James Carville-type political consultant. And Kathy Bates is featured in a role sure to remind political insiders of Betsey Wright, the Clinton loyalist who, during the '92 campaign, coined a phrase recycled of late--"bimbo eruptions."

"The real question is: Will people in the White House acknowledge they want to see it or just wait till it comes out on video and sneak [a look]," said Carville, who is not formally part of the White House staff but continues as a Clinton advisor.

Even Universal seems strangely reluctant to discuss the movie around the nation's capital. Studio executives are said to have ordered the film's actors to give interviews to entertainment reporters only--no political writers.

Nor will there be any VIP previews of "Primary Colors" in the federal city before its March 20 release nationwide--a break with the usual procedure for a film with a strong political buzz.

Some believe the film's makers are lying low out of loyalty to the president.

"As if 'Wag the Dog' wasn't bad enough," one Washington entertainment source said, referring to the recent film about a president who gets caught in a sex scandal and stages a mock war to divert attention (complete with the fictional leader hugging a woman in a beret).

The release of "Primary Colors," said this source, "means more jokes, more talk. Mike Nichols didn't want to offend the president or cause him a lot of embarrassment."

Nichols didn't hesitate to clamor for the rights to the book when it was the talk of Washington two years ago. But some say the script for his film version is much kinder to the Clinton character--a charming Southern governor whose quest for the presidency is beset by his libido--than the novel ever was.

"You'd have to be dead not to see that the film favors Clinton," Travolta recently told George magazine. "I've always said that I think he'll be pleased with it because, more than anything, it promotes what a decent fellow he is."

Clinton has said he didn't read "Primary Colors," and it is assumed that as long as he sits in the Oval Office the film will never flicker across the White House movie screen.

Still, there is a bit of doubt even about this.

"I would be more surprised if he screened it than if he didn't," said Dee Dee Meyers, former White House press secretary turned political commentator. "Then again, he's friends with Billy Bob Thornton [a fellow Arkansan]."

And many found it odd that less than a week after the Lewinsky matter broke, Clinton invited friends over to watch "The Apostle," the Robert Duvall film about a preacher whose life is shattered by personal vice.

Former campaign staff members who have seen "Primary Colors," or even the previews, are staggered by the striking accuracy of the visual images. The characters look a lot like the people they clearly are based on. One scene showing three aides flopped on a bed is drawn from an actual moment on the '92 campaign trail.

"I have a picture of when that actually happened hanging in my house," said Begala, who says he does not intend to see the film.

Begala said he was so disgusted with the book that he threw it across the room at Page 20 and never picked it up again. But he recently saw the film's trailer and had to admit it was arresting. "It looked so much like the real thing, my heart stopped."

The novel by Joe Klein, then a Newsweek columnist, who had it published under the name "Anonymous" and watched this entire town tie itself in knots trying to figure out the author, got the little things right and the big things wrong, say many campaign aides who lived it. They suspect the movie will do the same.

"It was a stupid book, and it will be a cartoonish movie," Hattoy sputtered in a sentiment repeated by several Clinton aides, past and present.

But Meyers, one of the few among them who has seen the film, said it captures something essential about politics--the tug of war between a candidate's professional virtues and personal failings.

"Jack Stanton is an incredibly talented and committed person running for president. But he is flawed--he falls short in his personal life even as he continues to hit the mark in his professional life," Meyers said. "I think the movie will help people sort through their feelings in a way that could end up being beneficial to the president."

That may be the big mystery as the film nears release--will it hurt or help Clinton in the darkest hour of his presidency?

Will Travolta's charisma convince audiences that a politician can have character flaws and still be a worthy public servant? Will viewers be disgusted by the story of a statesman's reckless indulgence? Will the movie be so much like the news that nobody will even bother to see it?

American moviegoers will provide these answers. And if the White House isn't watching the film, it will almost certainly be watching the film's audience.

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