The Clinton Experience

How can you make the story of Bill Clinton and his presidency read like anything other than a rollicking escapade? Easy: Turn it into a PBS documentary. Clinton, which debuts tonight, is a two-part, nearly four-hour installment of the American Experience series that at first seems doomed to flatten the story of the 42nd president—a man of endless appetites and unquenchable ambition who rose from a troubled home in small-town Arkansas to become one of the most talented and disappointing political figures we’ve known. The polite, muted quality of the PBS documentary form makes a strange fit for its penis-brained, mercurial, and brilliant subject—the string music, the hushed narration of Campbell Scott, the all-too-steady chronological march.  

In the end, though, the form redeems itself, at least partly. Clinton is well worth watching. Its stately predictability gives us a chance to look back at the mad Clinton years, take a breath, and make some small sense of its craziness. There is, after all, some virtue to the balance the documentary aims for.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the people you most want to hear from—Hillary, Chelsea, Monica, Bob Dole, Tipper, Newt, Gennifer, Paula, Bill himself—are absent from the proceedings. Still, the range of voices we do get—the likes of Ken Starr, Dick Morris, Dee Dee Myers, Leon Panetta, Trent Lott, Gail Sheeny, Harold Ickes, Mark Penn, Sidney Blumenthal, Lucianne Goldberg, and a fair number of old Arkansas cronies—is adequate, and sometimes revealing. “How many second chances does a person deserve?” Myers, who served as his press secretary, asks. “Clinton’s view is, as many second chances as a person is willing to try to take.”

We relive the “joy and buoyancy,” as David Gergen puts it, that accompanied his election in 1992—the heady sense of a new generation grasping the reins of power from the old-guard Republicans. Then we relive the low comedy that ensued when a small-state governor with no foreign-policy vision installed campaign pals in key positions and proceeded to blunder and compromise and Hillarycare his way through a largely wasted first two years. Robert Reich, the Prospect’s co-founder and Clinton’s labor secretary, puts it best: “It became very apparent very soon that Bill Clinton as president was not going to be an LBJ. … LBJ knew how to use power. Bill Clinton knew much of that, but he also wanted to be liked.”

Clinton’s time in office is now mostly remembered as the last time the country had it good—peace and prosperity, with nothing more dire than an Oval Office sex scandal. But this documentary reminds us, in case we’d forgotten, of how tragically the promise of Clinton’s presidency was dashed—first because of the unpreparedness of the president and his staff (and his wife), then because of his desperate need to win re-election in 1996, and finally because of the Lewinsky affair. “What a squandering of talent and promise and possibility,” says Ickes, his deputy chief of staff. Nothing could sum it up better.

But it wasn’t just callowness or Lewinsky or both Clintons’ bungling of the Whitewater flap that fatally undercut him. The phrase “career politician” has never fit a human being so well. Clinton returned to Arkansas from Yale Law for one reason: to run for Congress and begin his rise to the White House. Hillary, at least in this telling, followed him there both because she loved him and because she shared that lofty goal. Winning political office was—aside from sexual gratification—the driving force of Clinton’s life, and it tended to take precedence over what he could accomplish after he’d won.

The seeds of Clinton’s doubleness were sewn early. The deep biography in Clinton, while unsatisfyingly brief, will be most intriguing for those too young to have been steeped in the story. Saddled with squabbling parents, his step-father a wife-beating alcoholic, Bill created a separate life for himself, coming across to the world as a confident, buoyant kid with limitless potential. As his friend Joe Purvis says, “The only way you can really deal with it is blocking it off.” There are other ways, of course. But that was the course that Clinton took. And he never lost his ability to block out unsavory realities.  

In this documentary’s no doubt oversimplified formulation, Clinton learned to live two lives. It was his salvation and his doom. It’s what made him the “comeback kid,” more times than anybody could count. It’s what gave him the sense of invincibility that allowed him to continue living one life in public and one in private—and led him into the arms of Monica Lewinsky, then back out of the resulting scandal into the embrace of the American public.

While it politely leaves the details to our sordid imaginations, the documentary doesn’t stint on Clinton’s character flaws, either political or personal. The extent of his womanizing is made clear by Paul Fray, who managed his failed first campaign for Congress, who recalls: “I mean, you got to understand that at one time, there was at least 25 women per day coming around trying to find him. Lord, it was bad—bad, bad, bad, bad.” The threat of exposure kept him from running for president in 1988. But four years later, he couldn’t help himself.


L’Affaire Lewinsky frames the documentary—it opens with Clinton’s Rose Garden apology—and takes up much of Part II. Here, the balance tips in Clinton’s favor, as Ken Starr (who is interviewed) and the congressional Republicans are presented as the truly lurid characters, and Clinton as a flawed man who just couldn’t help himself. The Clintonian excuses—he was lonely in the White House during the government shutdown, with only interns around, when the affair began; he’d been unnaturally squelching his sexual urges for three years as president—are offered up as basically fact. The utter waste of nearly his entire second term, while duly noted, takes a back seat to the “get the president” overreach of Starr and the hypocritical Republicans. They were wrong, of course, but so was he—and you don’t have to be a moralist to still burn with anger over the way he pissed away his presidency.

What if Clinton had come out and admitted the affair before it consumed his second term? Morris, to whom Clinton confessed that he had indeed “had sex with that woman,” says he advised him—as always, on the basis of polling—that he would be forgiven for confessing it, but probably not for lying about it. Clinton, with his lifelong pattern of hiding dirty laundry from the world, couldn’t come clean until he was cornered into doing so. In this telling, there’s a horrible sense of inevitability to the whole affair: He’d gotten away with selling himself as a perfectly happy kid in a troubled family; he’d gotten away with his dalliances in Arkansas; he’d wriggled out of Gennifer Flowers’s accusations in 1992 and become president. Why couldn’t he overcome this, too?

He did, in a sense. But, as Meyers says, “It undercut his ability to do anything besides surviving for two years.”

The most riveting and revealing moments of this documentary come from footage of Clinton’s grand-jury testimony, as he artfully dodges and dissembles and filibusters—“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” he says with the self-satisfied grin of a clever law student—followed by that evening’s address to the nation, when he finally coughed up the truth that he’d had an affair with an intern. Before his address begins, he looks down morosely, fixes his hair, gazes forlornly toward the ceiling and looks, more than anything, like a squirming child trapped in a lie—it is, in many ways, the story of his life. So is what happens next: As the producer says it’s 45 seconds before they go live, Clinton straightens up, nods, takes a deep breath and begins to gaze steadily and sincerely into the camera’s eye, ready to charmingly extricate himself from another mess he’s made.

It's inevitable that viewers will find many story lines missing. The Clinton years are still too fresh for the broad sweep of this kind of documentary to fully satisfy. Among other things, the unfortunate—and lasting—influence of Clinton’s “New Democrat” philosophy, which helped the party recapture the White House but left it shorn of its identity as the “people’s party,” gets lost in the shuffle. Progressives are mostly glimpsed here in passing, as sign-carrying protesters against welfare reform and the 1995 federal government shutdown. There is precious little evidence of the opposition to Clinton’s “Lite Republican” steering of the Democratic machine closer to the embrace of Wall Street and away from the interests of working people. (We do, however, see him shooing away the criticism during the 1992 campaign: “People say I’m not a real Democrat, but I’m against brain-dead politics in both parties.”)

The Lewinsky scandal will always be part of the story of this president, but its impact on the country was far less consequential than the legacy his politics left.  

Still, even in broad strokes, it’s a powerful story. What enabled a poor boy from Arkansas to become president of the United States—and what made him such a compelling and powerful political force—is also what prevented him from being a consequential president. A man who has always been able to overcome anything and everything and emerge unscathed is also a man who is likely to repeatedly tempt fate—a man who, as the narrator says, will almost surely leave behind “a curious sense of unfulfilled promise.”

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