The President is caught having an affair with his aide. What should he do? Tell the truth? Deny having sex with the woman? Get people to change their definition of “having sex?” Hire a media consultant? Start a war to distract the public?
Wag the Dog is a film about a sex scandal that embroils a fictional President. To cover up his sexual misconduct, the fictional President’s advisors hire a Hollywood movie producer. The advisors and the producer create a fake crisis in a small, poor, remote country to divert attention from the President’s woes. The producer films a newsreel, complete with computer-generated special effects, of a young girl fleeing a military skirmish. Television news programs air it. Seeing a young girl in distress, the public registers strong support for United States intervention in the war.
Rather than reality informing political decisions, political convenience creates reality in the world of Wag the Dog. Although some people may feel that the movie is too cynical and even paranoid in its caricature of American politics, others would argue that it convincingly captures a key element of American political life.
In fact, the movie seemed to predict a real-life event. Several months after its release, President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became a major scandal. For about a year, few people could fail to bring up the Lewinsky affair when talk turned to politics. Politics seemed to focus on what “having sex” means. Moreover, in an eerie replication of the movie’s plot, President Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq in Operation Desert Fox soon after news of the affair broke. Regardless of the legitimacy of the military action, many concerned observers criticized Clinton’s military tactic as a way of diverting the media’s attention from his personal problems. Many viewers of the movie found it unsettling to see reality follow a movie script.
What does Wag the Dog tell us about American politics? Does it merely caricature our media-obsessed, cynical view of politics? Or does it capture a slice of reality? Is it even useful to insist on the distinction between media and politics?