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An unprecedented documentary takes a look behind the scenes at the White House and shows us who the real cynics are.

Politics and the Press


Two quotations seem appropriate to a critical look at the PBS documentary "The Press Secretary," which everybody will compare to NBC-TV's popular drama "The West Wing." (Making the comparison trivializes "The Press Secretary," and maybe even "The West Wing," but audiences tend to flock to the familiar.)

The first quotation is from British author Aldous Huxley: "No country can be really well prepared for modern war unless it is governed by a tyrant, at the head of a highly trained and perfectly obedient bureaucracy." Huxley wrote that in 1937, just as war loomed in Europe.

The second is from Theodore Bogosian, who wrote, produced and directed "The Press Secretary," which was taped during the waning days of the Clinton presidency and embargoed for airing only after Clinton had left office: "This is an intimate eyewitness account produced entirely inside the White House gates ... revealing secrets of how an American president must be armed to meet the press and why his press secretary must regard each White House news cycle as combat." Bogosian wrote that last year as part of his prologue to "The Press Secretary."

The naive may be aghast at the juxtaposition, but the cynical have seen the connection all along. "The Press Secretary" merely offers more confirmation.

"We have an agenda and the press has an agenda, and it's a battle every day to see who wins." That's from former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart in an interview early on in "The Press Secretary."

So what does that make us voters? Refugees? Civilian casualties? Collateral damage? Given all the agendas in play, can we ever be a genuinely informed electorate? On one hand, we're an audience at a prizefight. On the other, you've gotta wonder why we aren't appalled by the carnage.

If you want to take a look at how manipulative and conniving the whole game of political power — and the quest to keep it — has become, you could do worse than watch "The Press Secretary." What will surprise you most of all is that ... it won't surprise you.

Wait. I take that back. What will really surprise you is that Lockhart didn't actually see what was coming when he granted unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to Bogosian, whose credits include Emmy nominated "Anatomy of a Homicide: Life on the Street" and the documentary "Running Mate," both for PBS.

Lockhart even explained his own naiveté without realizing it as he talked about why the Clinton White House decided to let Bogosian into the inner sanctum: "What struck me about Ted is the way he tells stories, ... how absent cynicism is from his storytelling."

Funny Lockhart should think that, isn't it? It's hilarious, actually, because Lockhart's own cynicism led him to the conclusion that Bogosian was naive enough to be allowed to take a peek behind the curtains, to see where the wizard hides and works his mischief.

But "The Press Secretary" is proof positive that the opposite is true.

Bogosian is far from naive. The White House cynics were effectively one-upped, because "The Press Secretary" reveals exactly how cynical politics is and how naive its practitioners can be. Perhaps it's hard to tell which way the wind is blowing when you're hunkered down in a bunker mentality.

So the White House blithely went along with Bogosian as he pulled back the veil and revealed that, when all is said and done, a talented television documentarian can trump any politician in cynicism.

That alone makes "The Press Secretary" well worth watching.

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