What Harry Knows

Aug. 13 1998 3:30 AM

What Harry Knows

How to stage-manage Clinton.

So Harry Thomason is back in town. The First Friend testified to Ken Starr's grand jury today, but that's probably not the most important reason he has returned. If news reports are correct, the sitcom producer is also here to advise Clinton on his Monday grand jury appearance. That is, to stage-manage him.

(Bit of advice for the president: Harry hasn't had a hit for five years. How 'bout calling one of the ER producers?)

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Starr and the White House no doubt negotiated endlessly about the nuts and bolts of Monday's testimony, but you can be sure Thomason, Clinton, and Co. are doing everything they can to tilt the arrangements in the president's favor: What should Clinton wear? How should he sit? Where should the camera be? What should be in the background? How should he be lighted? These may not be questions on which a presidency hangs, but they're undoubtedly ones that the White House is obsessing about. It's political theater, and they'll treat it like theater.

Thomason and the White House aren't talking, so I consulted my own image expert, Jackson Bain. He runs Bain and Assoc., a PR firm in Northern Virginia, and he specializes in prepping corporate honchos for scary media appearances. What would Bain do if Clinton were his client?

First of all, "Clinton must look as presidential as possible," says Bain. Clinton should wear his soberest Leader-of-the-Free-World outfit: dark blue suit, white shirt, dark tie. The Oval Office would be the ideal setting, but it appears Clinton will testify in the Map Room, a private meeting chamber, where he has testified twice before. It's filled with Chippendale furniture and--surprise--maps, but they should be out of the picture. The Clinton operatives should place an American flag and a photo of Hillary and Chelsea behind the president.

Clinton must sit behind a desk, and the camera should see only his head and shoulders. "Not to be crude, but I don't want anything below Bill's third button showing, and I want the desk between Bill's private parts and the grand jury," says Bain. "I don't want anything on his desk, and I don't want to see his hands.

"I want a nice tight shot, as tight as possible. Get those baby blues right down the throats of the people watching in the grand jury. I want to give the grand jurors a sense that they really are in the room with him."

That also means great sound--the "best stereo microphone money can buy. And great speakers in the grand jury room. If I could sneak a sub-woofer in there, I would."

No one but Clinton should appear in the camera shot. This is of paramount importance. "If I am running a show to get Clinton off, I want the grand jury totally focused on this man's face, his honesty, his sadness of having to do this. I want the audience's total concentration on his guiltless, guileless face. I want them to see his eyebrows go up and down. He is the only person the grand jury wants or needs to see."

Clinton should look at Starr, not at the camera, but Starr himself should not be visible. "If I were on Clinton's side, I would not let them show Ken Starr," says Bain. "They should have him be just a disembodied voice. Having another head in the picture is a distraction. And if you do have to show Starr, just show the back of his ear, not his face. There is nothing less attractive than the back of someone's head."

(Should Clinton be able to watch the grand jury's reaction on a monitor? "No, Clinton's total concentration should be on the eyeballs of Ken Starr.")

David Kendall should be invisible, too: You don't want Clinton to look like a puppet of his lawyers. And as for Hillary, forget it. "Hillary cannot be there! No, no, no! It is too awkward. Just one quick nanosecond glance at her, just one moment of discomfort, and the grand jury will see it. You don't want that! Keep her out of the West Wing. Keep her out of the White House. Some time later they can go on some benign morning talk show together and talk about this."

And what if Bain were advising Starr?

"I would make Clinton look as small as possible. I would show the desk. I would show Clinton fidgeting with his hands. And I would show Starr. Starr has been well trained to smile benignly. He has learned to smile sweetly to the media, because he realizes that America does not like him that much. He has developed this beatific smile, and I would want to show that.

"Behind Starr I would put a neutral or chocolate-brown background--but not black--so his flesh tones look good. He is a pale-looking fellow. You really have to warm him up."

Movies and The Dress, Part 2

Last week I suggested that Clinton watch three movies for inspiration about how to escape the dress: Primary Colors, Presumed Innocent, and There's Something About Mary. Reader Jason Furman reminds me of a fourth film: Gattaca, a sci-fi thriller in which the hero hides small packets of blood in his fingertip and urine in his bladder (don't ask how) in order to fool DNA tests. Does the CIA have such technology, Mr. President?