White House Insider Cleans Up Bush's Image On Film
By Doug Saunders
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday 28 May 2003
Trapped on the other side of the country aboard Air Force One, the President has lost his cool: "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home! Waiting for the bastard!"
His Secret Service chief seems taken aback. "But Mr. President . . ."
The President brusquely interrupts him. "Try Commander-in-Chief. Whose present command is: Take the President home!"
Was this George W. Bush's moment of resolve on Sept. 11, 2001? Well, not exactly. Actually, the scene took place this month, on a Toronto sound stage.
The histrionics, filmed for a two-hour television movie to be broadcast this September, are as close as you can get to an official White House account of its activities at the outset of the war on terrorism.
Written and produced by a White House insider with the close co-operation of Mr. Bush and his top officials, the movie The Big Dance represents an unusually close merger of Washington's ambitions with the Hollywood entertainment machinery.
A copy of the script obtained by The Globe and Mail reveals a prime-time drama starring a nearly infallible, heroic president with little or no dissension in his ranks and a penchant for delivering articulate, stirring, off-the-cuff addresses to colleagues.
That the whole thing was filmed in Canada and is eligible for financial aid from Canadian taxpayers, and that its loyal Republican writer-producer is a Canadian citizen best known for his adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz , are ironies that will be lost on most of its American viewers when it airs on the Showtime network this fall.
While the film is intended for U.S. viewers, it is produced in collaboration with Toronto-based Dufferin Gate Productions in order to take advantage of Canadian government incentives. It is eligible for the federal Film or Video Production Services Tax Credit, the Ontario Film and Television Production Services Tax Credit and a federal tax-shelter program, which together could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canadian government cheques being sent to the producers.
Lionel Chetwynd, the film's creator, sees nothing untoward about his role as the semi-official White House apologist in Hollywood. For him, having a well-connected Republican create the movie was a way to get the official message around what he sees as an entertainment industry packed with liberals and Democratic Party supporters.
"A feeding frenzy had started to develop around this story, and a lot of people who wanted to do this story had a very clear political agenda, very clear," Mr. Chetwynd said in an interview from his Los Angeles home Tuesday. "My own view of the administration is somewhat more sympathetic than, say, Alec Baldwin's. . . . In fact, I'm technically a member of the administration [Mr. Chetwynd sits on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities], so I let it be known that I was also interested in doing it. I threw myself on the mercies of my friend Karl Rove."
Mr. Rove is the President's chief political adviser, so this was not a typical Hollywood pitch. But then, Mr. Chetwynd is not a typical Hollywood writer-producer: He is founder of the Wednesday Morning Club, an organization for the movie colony's relatively small band of Republicans, and he led the White House's efforts to enlist Hollywood's support after Sept. 11.
Mr. Chetwynd's script is based on lengthy interviews with Mr. Bush, Mr. Rove, top aide Andy Card, retiring White House press aide Ari Fleischer, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Republican officials in the White House and the Pentagon. He says that every scene and line of dialogue was described to him by an insider or taken from credible reports.
Yet compared with other journalistic accounts of the period, the movie is clearly an effort to reconstruct Mr. Bush as a determined and principled military leader. The public image of Mr. Bush who avoided military service in Vietnam and who has often been derided as a doe-eyed naif on satirical TV shows is a key concern to White House communications officials, many of them friends of Mr. Chetwynd.
While Mr. Chetwynd says he principally wanted to tell a good story, the movie's mission gives it a distinctly different tint from other such accounts.
The scene aboard Air Force One, for example, is offered in several other accounts but most of them present Mr. Bush as cautious, uncertain and worried as he asks to go home. An account published by the British Daily Telegraph has him: "I'm not going to do it [appear on TV] from an Air Force base. Not while folks are under the rubble. I'm coming home."
Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter, recounts a line similar to Mr. Chetwynd's in his book Bush At War: "We need to get back to Washington. We don't need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The American people want to know where their President is." But it is a complaint, not an order.
In accounts such as Mr. Woodward's, the President falters, seems uncertain, and spends a lot of time listening at meetings, giving his approval to the proposals of other aides. In this movie, Mr. Bush delivers long, stirring speeches that immediately become policy.
While such accounts portray a Washington administration bitterly divided over whether to begin the war on terrorism in Iraq, Mr. Chetwynd has Mr. Bush neatly summarizing the next 18 months of history in a cabinet speech:
"We start with [al-Qaeda terror chief Osama] bin Laden. That's what the American people will expect. Getting him will be a huge blow for our side. So let's build a coalition for that job. Later, we can shape different coalitions for different tasks."
At another point, arguing with Democratic Party officials about the war, he delivers a line that even more articulate presidents would find difficult: "I won't be seeking a declaration of war. With a shadowy enemy, specificity makes that problematic."
Mr. Chetwynd said that he did not write such scenes principally to bolster the image of Mr. Bush, but that the image was a concern.
"The belittling of the President really irritated me, but I didn't start out on a crusade," he said. "I wanted to show . . . how he was able in that moment to grab hold of things as a leader in those critical days."