The Tanner Wars

I had only the vaguest recollection of Tanner ’88 before getting reacquainted with it this week on The Sundance Channel. (The series reruns Tuesdays at 9PM EST through April 13.) I’ve always been a great admirer of Robert Altman‘s films (I loved Popeye as a kid) and while I’ve never really gotten into Doonesbury (despite entreaties from several friends who’ve loved the strip for a decade), I had high hopes for the show. Even at its worst, I like the blurring of reality and fiction in film and TV (as readers of low culture‘s more boring content know, I even sorta liked K Street) and Tanner ’88 is often cited as a forerunner of the genre.
I’ve read a bunch of reviews of Tanner ’88 from Emily Nussbaum in The New York Times to Joy Press in The Village Voice, and “Dana Stevens” in Slate, but none of them pointed out the most interesting thing I saw in the first episode: the name Sidney Blumenthal in the credits as “political consultant.”
Sid is the journalist-turned-Clinton Warrior-turned-pundit loved and hated in equal degree among Washington journalists and power brokers. Actually, who am I kidding? Sid is mostly hated.
He’s clashed with Matt Drudge (admittedly not a hard thing to do: I’m sure even Matt’s dry cleaner hates him, probably for all the egg yolk stains), he’s fallen out big time with old pal Christopher Hitchens over whether or not he floated out the “Monica Lewinsky as stalker” story over lunch, and has in many ways lived up to the nasty nickname given to him by the Right: “Sid Vicious.”
What Sid is, more than anything, is a Democratic berserker, especially in his current writing for Salon and The Guardian. (Should Sid succeed in helming a U.S. edition of The Guardian, we can expect some very muscular prose in defense of the Dems: Expect asses kicked and names taken weekly.)
That’s why it’s not entirely surprising to see Sid pop up as part of Jack Tanner’s dream team in ’88. Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) is the ultimate baby boomer wish-fulfillment candidate: handsome, modest, able to speak with equal passion about public service and his favorite Beatle (John, of course). He was a Democrat who would feel perfectly at home discussing policy in The New Republic and the impact of Woodstock in Rolling Stone. In other words: He’s Bill Clinton.
I can’t imagine how excited Sid must’ve been when Clinton emerged just a few years after Jack Tanner’s “Presidential run” ended, but he must have felt that exhilarating, confusing mix of emotions we sometimes—too rarely!—feel when our dreams come true. All of Jack Tanner’s speechifying, very human foibles, and striving for integrity were suddenly, thrillingly manifest in that smart, sincere, ever so slightly louche sax-playing Southern good ol’ boy from a town called “Hope” (well, Hot Springs, actually).
It reminds me of the famous conversation between anchorman Tom Gurnick (William Hurt) and writer Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) in Broadcast News:

Tom Grunnick: What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?
Aaron Altman: Keep it to yourself!

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