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'CASTING' OF CLINTON WAS BAD TASTE

Jodie Foster does a whiz-bang job playing a purposeful, passionate radio astronomer who talks to stars in the space flick "Contact." For all I know, she'll win an Academy Award.

But Foster should share billing with the Big Guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Say one thing for Bill Clinton: He knows how to play a cool, inspiring president in a space crisis.

But in a world when fakery often blurs reality, I found Clinton's scenes in "Contact" embarrassing, queasy and demeaning.

Nobody handles a celluloid presidential role better than Clinton, who simply plays Clinton spouting Clintonesque rhetoric.

Ah, there's the trouble. Producer Robert Zemeckis swiped Clinton's image and words from old TV news footage, morphed in his cast and twisted the real Clinton to fit the "Contact" plot.

I'd heard the White House was unhappy with this rip-off.

Movie buff Clinton hasn't seen the film, but lawyer Charles Ruff called the abuse of presidential videotapes -- no permission asked -- "fundamentally unfair."

So I ducked into a Washington cineplex to see what the fuss was about. There were riveting, high-tech swooshes through the cosmos. And an overlong, soft-soap tale meshing science and religion based on Carl Sagan's 1985 novel.

Foster, who supplies the emotional juice, plays astronomer Ellie Arroway, obsessed with extraterrestrial signals -- "listening for E.T.," as her boss grouses. Bingo, she picks up code from Vega (no, not Las Vegas).

The super-smart Vegans send blueprints for a space pod that will bounce 26 light years through a "worm hole."

Enter Clinton, obviously thrilled by Jodie's success.

"If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights that science has uncovered," says Clinton.

"Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined."

Huh? The audience where I watched tittered at Clinton's bubbly, trite blather. His words seemed familiar. Later with a Lexis search I found them: Aug. 7, 1996, he'd been congratulating NASA scientists on finding potentially ancient life in a Mars meteorite.

Later he shows Clinton at a Cabinet table, actor Jim Woods morphed beside him. When the Vegan space gizmo first explodes -- blow your own six bucks to unravel the plot -- Clinton performs again.

"I would warn everybody not to be influenced by suggestion rather than the known facts," Clinton says grimly. "We are monitoring what has actually happened."

The real Clinton hadn't been talking about some goofy space trampoline. The moment was April 19, 1995: Clinton, in his presidency's gravest act as national therapist, was encountering the Oklahoma City explosion.

That's stealing authenticity from the dead, using 168 Oklahoma City victims to peddle movie tickets.

"It's fantasy, entertainment," Zemeckis has alibied. "It adds verisimilitude. I supposed you have to be cautious. No, we didn't ask the White House. He (Clinton) works for us."

What next? Will another Hollywood hotshot switch a real president's videotaped scenes to fake him bombing Russia, dealing heroin, seducing a prime minister, or knocking off his vice president?

It's not Clinton alone who's shamelessly used in "Contact." The movie's a 150-minute promo for CNN. I lost count of CNN anchors, reporters and pundits in bit parts, but noted Larry King, Bernard Shaw, Natalie Allen, Bob Novak, Wolf Blitzer and John Holliman.

A cynic might suspect a connection between Time Warner's ownership of Warner Brothers, which made "Contact," and CNN's talent lineup.

Talk about make-believe diluting the real world: While Holliman's doing "Contact" standups, he's reporting the Mars Pathfinder mission live on CNN. What's plastic, what's true?

Maybe Clinton deserves Best Supporting Actor for "Contact." Don't expect producer Zemeckis to thank him. You don't have to fake shame.

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