Why you should care
Before Dubya donned a flight suit or Obama went between two ferns, Bill Clinton was left home alone in the White House to film one of the most memorable pieces of presidential theater ever.
If politics is Hollywood for ugly people, then the White House Correspondents’ Dinner must be the Academy Awards of the homely political classes (even if it is not the “Nerd Prom” it used to be). And as comedian and host Joel McHale, the president and, of course, their writers, get ready to sling some of their best zingers tonight at the gathering of journalists, celebrities and Beltway elite, it’s a good time to reflect on some of our favorite after-dinner fare from years past.
Bill Clinton’s comedic farewell in 2000 was an expertly crafted six-minute video segment entitled “The Final Days,” a gem of political satire that left everyone, on both sides of the aisle, in stitches at that year’s dinner. In the film, Clinton played a moping, idle version of himself, roaming the halls of an empty White House like a lost 220-pound puppy in search of a purpose in the final months of his presidency.
If it walks and quacks like a lame duck, then it’s probably a lame duck.
But if it walks and quacks like a lame duck, then it’s probably a lame duck. Which is why Clinton’s team, led by longtime presidential joke writer Mark Katz, knew that the best way to co-opt that unflattering narrative early on was to embrace it — with a film about the ultimate lame duck. All good political self-satire starts, says Katz, with the question, “How do you find a way to say this yourself before someone else can say it about you?”
As Katz writes in his book Clinton & Me, in early 2000, the 42nd president was “increasingly being depicted as the lonely guy minding the store,” with the first lady out campaigning for the Senate and Vice President Al Gore embarking on his ill-fated bid for the White House. For Clinton’s Correspondents’ Dinner farewell, Katz, presidential speechwriter Jeff Shesol, and Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, thus alighted on the conceit of a “Home Alone White House.” (The other obvious film parallel — to a pants-free Tom Cruise in Risky Business — was ignored, says Katz, “for all of the obvious reasons.”)
Despite the video’s conceit, Clinton was still eight months from the end of his presidency and hardly idle. As such the filming of the busy leader was done in two whirlwind one-hour shoots, the second one taking place the morning of the Correspondents’ Dinner itself. Rosenthal gave rapid-fire direction to the president right before shots, “escorting Clinton from the Oval Office to the Briefing Room to the Rose Garden to the laundry room to the vending machine,” writes Katz, with rarely the time, or need, for a second take.
The resulting montage is just as much fun to watch today as it must have been nearly 15 years ago. But it is the video’s turn-of-the-century context that makes it even more compelling now.
Hit “Play” and travel to April 29, 2000. As Clinton wanders the halls and offices of the West Wing, the hit television show of the same name has just finished its first of seven seasons. More remarkably, though, he encounters Kevin Spacey, the star of the next big political hit show, more than a decade before he would play Congressman Frank Underwood, who has designs on the White House in House of Cards.
But that’s just the start. As Clinton learns to use eBay on his laptop in the Oval Office, the dot-com bubble is beginning to implode — the NASDAQ having hit its irrationally exuberant peak the previous month — and a 17-year-old bull market is coming to an end. And as the president plays Battleship with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Phoenix office of the FBI is investigating a flight-school student suspected of having ties to al-Qaida, and, in a week, Vladimir Putin will be inaugurated as Russia’s new president.
Still hoping to be America’s next president, a thinner, happier Al Gore also makes a cameo appearance in the video, fresh from securing the Democratic nomination in March — the same month that a state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama seeking election to Congress got smoked in his own primary.
But the video’s most memorable scene involves another first-time candidate for Congress. And for many viewers, both in 2000 and today, the sight of the president chasing after the first lady’s limo while holding her brown-bag lunch unmistakably augurs one thing: Clinton’s potential return to the White House as first man.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past, especially when it comes to comedy.