A scathing satire of American politics, Bob Roberts was filmed near the start of this year’s presidential campaign, yet it seems so dead-on prescient that maybe director-writer-star Tim Robbins could double as the White House astrologer. Consider: An entertainer-turned-senatorial candidate (like Sonny Bono before his recent California primary defeat), Bob Roberts is a highly conservative (shades of Bush and Quayle) self-made success (Perot) who plays guitar on a highly rated late-night TV show (see Clinton’s sax tooting on Arsenio), travels on a campaign bus (Clinton again), and loudly claims to represent the Common Man (á la Perot).
But just how accurate is Robbins’ portrayal of the electoral process gone awry? Entertainment Weekly invited Ed Rollins, 49, veteran Republican strategist and comanager of Perot’s short-lived presidential campaign, to make an assessment and do a reality check on the just-released film.
Pouring himself a cup of tea in Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel after seeing the movie, Rollins admits he finds Bob Roberts disturbing. ”The critical thing is to see this as entertainment, not as a statement on American political life,” he says. Rollins thinks the film, which depicts its hero as a master manipulator who will do anything to get elected, may be far more dangerous in the current political climate than the fictional Bob Roberts or his sleazy advisers could ever be.
”There’s more disillusionment among voters with the process than I’ve seen in 30 years,” says Rollins. ”A movie like this plays to the worst stereotypes of where the American political system is, reinforcing and exaggerating them. The film ends up not contributing to the process, but potentially damaging it.”
At the same time, Rollins considers Bob Roberts to be more astute than most campaign films. Rollins dismisses as ”hokey” 1972’s much-praised The Candidate (starring Robert Redford in a role some claim was based on former California governor Jerry Brown) even though it reportedly inspired Dan Quayle to enter politics. Power (1986), starring Richard Gere as a cutthroat political consultant, was ”just absurd,” says Rollins, though ”both (Republican consultant) Roger Ailes and (Democratic consultant) David Sawyer claim that (Gere’s) character is based on them. But whoever wrote Bob Roberts knew something about politics.”
Balding, bearded, and bespectacled, Rollins looks more like a benevolent poli-sci professor than a tough political insider. He certainly seems worlds away from Bob Roberts’ slick and sinister campaign manager (Alan Rickman), who hides behind tinted glasses and, with Roberts, is linked to drug smuggling in Central America.
He’s another mistake. ”There’s far too much emphasis on the role of a handler,” Rollins says. ”Roberts’ campaign chair is defending himself, as opposed to the candidate. You’re actually more like a director. You don’t write the script.”
Rollins sees at least one important similarity between Roberts and Perot. ”A total naïveté. And maybe conducting business while doing politics. But Roberts was a very structured candidate. Perot simply refused to campaign in the way a normal candidate would. He thought he could just go on the Today show and tell his side of the story — and because it had great ratings everybody out there would be paying attention.”
Nevertheless, Rollins predicts Perot will try to reenter the race two to three weeks before the election. ”What he doesn’t realize is when he was leading the polls by 40 percent in some states, people weren’t voting for Ross Perot but against Bush or Clinton,” says Rollins. ”And Americans don’t like quitters, especially the way he did it, so cavalierly and with such a bulls— excuse. He’ll be a protest vote, not a serious candidate.”
And what of candidate Roberts? Rollins concedes that the characterization is fairly realistic. ”Roberts reminded me of a lot of first-time candidates. He was pretty stiff. But there was a consistency to the image he was attempting to create. If I were his campaign manager, I’d tell him to be a little more relaxed, to be himself. Could I get him elected? Probably to Congress somewhere in this country.”