It's no real surprise that the moment NBC announced that it had ordered a fictionalized mini-series about Hillary Clinton written by Courtney Hunt and starring Diane Lane, and CNN followed suit with plans for a documentary look at the former Secretary of State, Senator, and First Lady, directed by Charles Ferguson that critics came out of the woodwork. It's not shocking either that Republicans would be anxious about the prospect of Clinton getting love from the media when they're a long way from establishing a front-runner, or that Democrats would be anxious about the possible resurrection of old smears against Clinton. But there's an odd undercurrent to the idea that NBC should stay in its proper place and avoid offering up an artistic, or even entertaining take on her career.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter to NBC president Bob Greenblatt that Greenblatt's announcement that the network's planned mini-series would air before the 2016 campaign really kicked off "suggests a deliberate attempt at influencing American political opinion in favor of a preferred candidate, not to mention a guilty conscience." David Brock, the president and founder of Media Matters for America, suggested that there was something untoward about NBC's approach in his own letter to Greenblatt. "NBC has a reputation for objectivity and fairness," he argued. "Yet NBC Entertainment acknowledged that it will be evaluating the content not by journalistic standards, but rather purely by entertainment value. A fictionalized caricature of Clinton may make for more dramatic appeal, but diversions from reality are likely to blow back on NBC News."
Both these takes from the left and right operate from a common point of disapproval: that NBC is daring to let the frivolity of pop culture intrude on the serious business of covering a presidential election. Greenblatt, it seems, ought to be ashamed of himself for taking an entertainment-based approach to a political campaign.
It's easy to point out that political reporting doesn't have much of a high ground to stand on in comparison to cultural takes on politics--and that campaigns frequently use cultural signaling to attract voters. Our election rituals, after all, currently require that candidates stop at the Iowa State Fair to eat junk food, reveal their favorite books--who can forget Mitt Romney's fondness for Battlefield Earth--and pretend that their affection for hip-hop means they have some sort of edge. Campaign coverage, no matter the direction it comes from, is often so driven by an addiction to traffic spikes and attempts to win the news cycle that it chases small gaffes, ticks, or even Marco Rubio's hydration habits shamelessly. The behavior of news outlets in an election year makes a network president's attempts to get a tenth of a point or two up in a perennially tight ratings race look as sober as the deliberations of an Oxbridge scholarly committee.
But that's a defensive argument. The real reason NBC should go ahead with its fictionalized Clinton mini-series, and that I'm excited for Young Il Kim and James Ponsoldt's Rodham, is that art has an important role in helping us think through what we value in candidates, and in helping us cultivate empathy for politicians and the decisions that they make.
Hillary Rodham Clinton isn't a new subject for this kind of thought experiment. Primary Colors, Joe Klein's novel, which was published anonymously in 1996 and adapted into an excellent movie starring Emma Thompson as a fictionalized version of the First Lady in 1998, is a deep meditation on Clinton's charms and compromises. While the focus is ostensibly on Jack Stanton, a marginal Southern candidate for governor, Primary Colors is more concerned with why a woman as smart as his wife Susan has hitched her star to a man who repeatedly cheats on her, and the political lengths she's willing to go to in order to make that bet pay off. Rodham examines similar questions, but on a different timetable. The script flashes back to the period when young Hillary Rodham was both finding herself professionally as a lawyer in Washington and making a difficult decision about whether she was willing to pursue a different career path to continue her relationship with Bill Clinton, a man who clearly inspired her intellectually but could be careless with her feelings. That's certainly a dilemma that resonates with a lot of women, and not just as voters, if this weekend's blockbuster New York Times Magazine article reexamining the lives of professional women who opted out of the workforce and are trying to get back in is any indication.