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Scott Larson

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The beaten Path?

Unlike Queen Victoria, I am apparently very easily amused. My latest source of amusement has been the brouhaha over the ABC 9/11 miniseries that aired in the US Sunday and Monday.

This was another one of those events that immediately sent opposing political partisans to their respective corners, ready to do battle over the merits of the production or whether it should even be shown at all. This has happened before with TV miniseries that came loaded with a potentially serious political cargo. Notably, a CBS miniseries called The Reagans was shuffled off from CBS’s flagship broadcast network to the less pervasive premium cable channel Showtime, after intense criticism for the way the series portrayed the late president. This time, the critics were not so much worried about character assassination as legacy-cide.

Both sides in the ensuing debate may have differed widely as to the truthfulness and fairness of the fictionalized dramatization of the years between the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the 2001 atrocity. But they both got one thing wrong. Everyone seemed to be under the impression that Bill Clinton had contacted Disney head Robert Iger to ask for a favor, either re-editing the miniseries or pulling it entirely. Clearly, it was Clinton who was doing the favor for Iger. You cannot buy publicity like that. Certainly, a lot more people became aware of and interested in The Path to 9/11 because of the coverage stirred up by complaints from former Clinton staffers, other Democrats and, in particular, Clinton himself. It was as if they were actually trying to juice the ratings for ABC. Without help like that, it surely would have done worse than coming in a distant second to NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Plus Clinton helped create a whole special additional possible niche for the series: a director’s cut to be direct-marketed to the subscriber base of The Weekly Standard and The National Review.

I have not had the advantage of seeing the miniseries myself yet but, as always, I won’t let a bothersome detail like that stop me from expressing my opinion about it. Or, more precisely, on the furor surrounding it. It was strange to watch Democrats, for a change, have conniption fits about a movie. So much for allegedly liberal Hollywood, eh? Republicans, on the other hand, delighted for once not to see themselves on the short end of a Hollywood production, were downright giddy. It didn’t even seem to matter to them that, by all reports I’ve seen anyway, the movie makes a hero of their nemesis, former security adviser Richard Clark. Or that, apparently, Condoleezza Rice comes off as absolutely clueless. What’s really strange is Clarke’s rubbishing of the miniseries, when it flattered him so well. Maybe Clarke, who ironically is a paid on-screen analyst for ABC’s news division, wanted someone better looking than Stephen Root to play him? Clarke’s attitude raises at least one tantalizing question. He first became well-known for delivering an abject, heartfelt, cathartic apology to the American people for the government’s failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. If he thinks The Path to 9/11 is all wrong, then what exactly was he apologizing for?

I suppose, in a way, this political argument, like all such seemingly endless political arguments between the two parties these days, should actually be seen as a mark of success of the war on terror. Politicians and pundits must be feeling pretty safe to carry on with politics as usual, as they have now for the past few years. Footage, freshly re-viewed upon the recent 9/11 anniversary, of the shell-shocked national unity exhibited by the two parties in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks reminded us how politicians act when they do not feel safe.

So, it was politics as usual with The Path to 9/11. The political class was less interested in the lessons learned from government actions and inactions leading up to September 2001 (or at least when it involved their own party’s administration) than they were in playing gotcha and scoring political points. Not that a fictionalized movie is necessarily the best way to learn those lessons, but the history (or at least a version of it) is much more accessible to the masses in that format than the heavy tome that is the 9/11 Commission report that served as its source material. While the Clinton people are certainly entitled to defend their record and correct any errors they find in such a movie, they have to realize that a film, that covers the period from 1993 to 2001, is mostly going to cover their watch. And, as the 9/11 Commission report detailed, there was plenty of blame to go around on all sides of the political divide, for those wanting to point fingers. And viewers and readers have to realize that actions that seemed perfectly reasonably in the pre-9/11 era can look like horrible miscalculations or negligence, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Finding past mistakes is only useful if it helps us make better decisions in the present and the future.

Something else that the Clinton people need to understand is that, once a decision was made to make this movie, the deck was already stacked against them. It is an inevitable convention of films about terrorists that politicians and bureaucrats are shown to be craven, self-serving and generally without a clue. Just check out every movie and TV show in the genre, whether it is old Bruce Willis movies or the series 24. The hero is always the man in the field, who clearly sees the situation but has his hands tied or is thwarted by government or military officials who have more of an eye on politics than what is right. It was inevitable that the hero of the piece would be someone like Harvey Keitel’s FBI counter-terrorism chief. And that someone like Sandy Berger would come off like minor villain for not just letting him do what he wanted.

Now, the people who were most out front speaking out against the movie, as far as I noticed anyway, didn’t seem to be ones up for re-election this fall. That is smart on their part. Just as President Bush has all along been smart enough not to criticize or enter into debates over any movie of which he has been the subject, from Fahrenheit 9/11 to the latest one that has him being assassinated. Savvy politicians know that they can’t win that sort of debate anyway, and speaking out just gives the critical piece more oxygen. Clinton, Berger and Madeleine Albright aren’t running for office, so they seem to have calculated that, for them, it was worth the fuss to set the record straight, at least as far as they saw it.

In doing so, however, they took a bit of a risk. If you leave apart the segments of the citizenry that unalterably love or hate Bill Clinton, the ones who are left and who have a more or less open mind about him are going to wonder why he and his former colleagues are so sensitive about a critical, perhaps even unfair, movie’s look at his administration’s record. And, as noted above, he has only drawn more attention to the movie. Moreover, it’s one thing to criticize a film like this and to insist on setting the record straight. It’s quite another for a former president to try to get changes made to a film, or even kill it, before it is released. That’s not exactly tantamount to censorship, but it comes uncomfortably close to the appearance of it.

But the exercise of protesting the ABC miniseries wasn’t really about winning the hearts and minds of the shrinking political middle. Increasingly, Democrats and Republicans are authoring their own diverging, parallel narratives of history. And the fuss over the miniseries was simply the easiest and quickest way for Democrats to get out the word to the masses on their side of the political divide that, to borrow a phrase frequently invoked by comics and sci-fi fans, The Path to 9/11 was not to be taken as canon.

-S.L., 14 September 2006

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