Facts make for good movies

May 18, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Dear Barry Levinson: As the director of "Wag the Dog," your hilarious movie about a president who produces a fake war to bail himself out of trouble, I thought you might be interested in a similar idea I've just dreamed up.

My inspiration is the nomination of Ted Olson to be solicitor general of the United States, the president's lawyer before the Supreme Court, and the challenge to him by Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont and other liberal Democrats. It goes like this:

A former president has two sons. One is governor of Texas and the other is governor of Florida. The one from Texas runs for president and the election comes down to the outcome of the Florida vote.

The brother from Florida nobly recuses himself from the whole business. But one of his underlings, who happens to be co-chairman of the Texas brother's campaign in Florida, is also the state's chief elections official. She does what she can to help him in the controversial vote count.

The case goes to the Supreme Court, where the Texas governor's lawyer -- let's call him "Ted" -- pleads his case and the court rules in his favor by a 5-4 margin, with an appointee of his father casting one of the deciding votes. The Texas governor becomes president and appoints as his lawyer before the same court the guy who argued the case that put him in the White House!

What, Barry? You say it's too implausible? Nobody would buy it? But so what? Movies don't have to be real life. Folks go to see them to be diverted from the harsh realities of what actually happens.

Maybe the plot just needs a little thickening. Suppose this "Ted" has had a long record of working for and defending conservative causes, and a liberal senator -- let's call him "Pat" -- tries to block the nomination.

He alleges that "Ted" was less than truthful in testifying earlier that he had nothing to do with a conservative magazine's crusade to discredit a previous Democratic president for behavior when he was governor of an obscure Southern state.

The supporters of "Ted" charge that his accusers are politically motivated, seeking revenge for his effective argument before the Supreme Court that made the Texas governor president.

The accusers deny it, but stories appear in a prominent newspaper pointing out that "Ted" has a long history of attacking high Democratic officials, including a former female attorney general we could call "Janet."

As a side plot we could have the wife of "Ted" also being a lawyer who served on a Republican committee investigating this former president and his wife, and who has become a familiar talking head on political television shows. Does it grab you now, Barry?

The plot could be further complicated by having prominent lawyers on both sides getting into a cat fight over whether "Ted" is a man of sterling character and a credit to their profession or a political hack with a license to practice law.

As for the casting, any number of the bright new stars in Hollywood could play "Ted." But Matt Dillon would be too young.

If you want him to come off as a hero, you could get Robert Redford, who was such a convincing Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men," one of the better political movies to come along.

If you want to make him a villain, who better than Jack Nicholson as the devil in "The Witches of Eastwick"?

The beauty part of this idea is that you can make it a liberal or a conservative polemic or play it down the middle.

There's enough ammunition on each side to make a case on who are the good guys and who are the bad, and if you really wanted it to be true to life, you could have a pious committee chairman concluding it was all much ado about nothing. Maybe you could talk Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah into playing himself.

It seems to be a trend in movie-making these days anyway to have real people who aren't really actors, especially politicians and reporters, taking parts in movies. And there's always Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, of Tennessee, probably known to more movie-goers as a professional actor than as a professional politician. What about it, Barry?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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