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Our Horny Fake Leaders: Watching ‘Primary Colors’ and ‘The American President’ in 2019

The two ’90s movies, about politicians who balance running for president with complicated personal lives, have aged quite differently

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

In the 1990s, two American disaster movies with notably similar premises came out in quick succession. No, not Armageddon and Deep Impact, or Dante’s Peak and Volcano. I’m talking about The American President (1995) and Primary Colors (1998), a pair of films about how two men campaigning for president deal with scandal. Yes, yes—the corruptible souls of politicians are a different type of calamity than earthbound asteroids or imminent death by lava. Watched together, though, these Clinton-era films showcase something scary and even more relevant now: how myopic the White House can make people.

The American President and Primary Colors came out in a boom time for political comedies. In the ’90s, there was a story about the foibles of fictional politicians for every taste: Bulworth, Dave, Wag the Dog, The Distinguished Gentleman, My Fellow Americans, even Black Sheep. But this particular pairing is notable because of how divided their sensibilities are, despite similar subject matter. In both films, a politician’s personal choices put his professional life at risk. The narrative begins the same way in each movie: An outsider gains entry into a close-knit, ultra-high-level political circle, where the central figure is campaigning for presidency. This new addition to the crew has their faith in the integrity of the politician they admire shaken. Each movie asks the same question: How do we reconcile the presidency with the person who is president?

In The American President, perky lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) comes to the White House to drum up support for an environmental organization. She charms the widowed President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who is running for reelection. Wade begins dating the president and thus becomes a West Wing regular, keeping her job despite the glaring conflict of interest. She lets a work secret slip, and the president’s office uses it to its own political advantage. The president decides to go for a short-term political victory, breaking his word to his girlfriend about an original deal he’d made with her as a lobbyist. (The fundamental ethical grossness of a sitting president becoming intimate with a lobbyist is brushed off as, somehow, undignified.) The film, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, announces itself as a through-and-through fantasy when it resolves with Shepherd achieving a political and personal victory in a speech to America in which he capitulates to Sydney’s lobbying efforts. The American President doesn’t model its characters after real people, but it idealizes the executive branch in a way that plays off nostalgia for an imagined, Capra-themed past and anticipated the high regard many Americans held for president Barack Obama.

In Primary Colors, political operative Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) joins the campaign of presidential hopeful Jack Stanton (John Travolta) and soon becomes a trusted adviser to Stanton and his wonkish wife, Susan (Emma Thompson). Over the course of the film, Burton sees that the charismatic Stanton is a sexually predatory lout capable of compromising pretty much any principle to achieve success. The movie, directed by Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May, is an adaption of the best-selling Joe Klein book of the same name, which was notoriously based on the ’92 Bill Clinton campaign. It is sharp where The American President is gentle, skeptical where TAP is starry-eyed. The people in Stanton’s orbit are either corrupted or broken by their association with him, while the people in Shepherd’s are ennobled by proxy.

How these movies treat their female leads is telling: In The American President, Wade is professionally accomplished, but the narrative reveals her to be spectacularly bad at her job, sleeping with the man who she is meant to persuade and then indignant when the man reneges on a handshake agreement. (Get that shit in writing?!) President Shepherd is shown as the person in control of their relationship, setting and arranging their points of contact and constantly interrupting her in conversation. (Related tidbit: Robert Redford was originally meant to play Shepherd, and while the official line for his dropping out of the role was creative differences, an Entertainment Weekly story from 1994 offered an additional reason: “Redford had hoped Emma Thompson would play the environmental lobbyist who falls in love with the widowed U.S. President, but Thompson turned down the role, sources say, because the character was too passive.”) Shepherd, above all, is the gentleman in charge, a chivalrous, paternal figure.

Meanwhile, in Primary Colors, Stanton is certainly a gifted politician, but Susan is the brains of the operation and staffer Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) is its conscience; he is a capable but flawed man propped up by women behind the scenes. It’s also notable how the general citizenry is treated in each film. The American President is obsessed with polling numbers for much of its running time, and its climax implies that the electorate will embrace a president who spontaneously immolates his administration’s policy strategy to pursue policies that work for his lobbyist girlfriend. It is, in other words, a universe in which the electorate is very stupid. Primary Colors also doesn’t think highly of voters, but at least it doesn’t think highly of the politicians either.

Each movie ends in presidential triumph despite huge moral compromise. When the Stantons dance in the White House at the end of Primary Colors, the audience is meant to feel a little queasy, as it’s a clear picture of people gaining power not only in spite of their moral deficiencies but because of them. When President Shepherd goes rogue to appease his conscience and girlfriend at the end of The American President, it’s meant as a stand-up-and-clap moment. It’s important to note that The American President does not see itself as a story about political rot, and its end is meant to be a feel-good moment. It is a polished, snappy romance, and it was applauded for its geniality upon release, a screwball fairy tale that made up for plausibility with its rat-a-tat repartee. But the film’s blithe insistence that there’s nothing wrong with an elected civil servant sexually pursuing a woman hired by a third party to sway his approach to policy—in fact, it’s good!—is an inadvertent advertisement for draining the freakin’ swamp.

If you’d asked me which was a better movie in the 2000s, I would’ve said The American President. Like The West Wing, it was a love letter to the idea of classy men overseeing an exceptional global superpower. It could belong only to the mid-’90s, treating the idea of a presidential scandal with a pre-Lewinsky lightness, sneering at the scuzz who dare question the commander-in-chief’s objectively questionable personal conduct. It seemed grown-up and noble and comforting all at once. Primary Colors, by contrast, shows viewers an unprincipled but effective liberal sleaze as, basically, the most realistic available option for a leader. It takes place in a very specific time and place—and yet it seems far more modern than The American President, which strives for gauzy timelessness but is so emblematic of a specific strain of boomer liberalism that it could have been created only exactly when it was. This might make Primary Colors seem unbearably cynical, and perhaps it is why audiences never warmed to the movie, which disappointed at the box office. (Or maybe, as some hypothesized at the time, fatigued audiences just never wanted to think about Clinton and sex ever again.) But the film is not unkind to its characters. Stanton is weak and untrustworthy and empathetic and talented. The support staff get corrupted by backing him, but they’re also not wrong to back him. What looked prickly in 1998 looks measured and prescient more than 20 years later.