Views of Bill Clinton, from the left and the right
‘I still believe in a place called Hope.’’
“The era of big government is over.’’
“Let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century.’’
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.’’
“Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.’’
Nothing if not quotable, Bill Clinton was and is good with words - and too good with meaning. Who else could have said - let alone under oath - “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is’’? James Carville, the political consultant who helped get Clinton elected in 1992, puts it this way in tonight’s “American Experience’’ broadcast: “He could see six sides to the Pentagon.’’
The eight years of Clinton’s presidency managed to be tumultuous yet somehow negligible. Did the Republicans really impeach him? Did he actually manage to balance not one but three budgets? Could he have botched health care that badly? Looked at two presidencies, two wars, and nearly 20 years later, it all seems a little unreal. There was a lot of sound, a lot of fury (Bill and Hillary Clinton did get compared to the Macbeths a fair amount back then). It signified something - but what?
“Clinton,’’ a documentary that efficiently packs a lot into its four-hour length, helps bring back the reality without dwelling overmuch on significance. Written and directed by Barak Goodman, it airs in two parts, tonight and tomorrow night on PBS (Channel 2). Campbell Scott narrates.
Analysis and interpretation are left to the more than 40 talking heads. They range from journalists such as Joe Klein and David Maraniss, to such Clinton associates as Dee Dee Myers and Robert Reich, to such Clinton detractors (too weak a word) as Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. A far less prominent Clinton detractor, US Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, says one thing that probably everyone in the documentary can agree on: “In Bill Clinton’s life, nothing stays quiet for long.’’
Tonight’s broadcast, “The Comeback Kid,’’ offers a quick overview of Clinton’s Arkansas years (getting to see a television ad from the 28-year-old candidate’s unsuccessful 1974 run for Congress is a nice bonus), an excellent and exciting account of his 1992 presidential campaign, and a slightly boggy rundown of his first two years in the White House. One could argue that the bogginess is justified, since that’s how Clinton experienced his introduction to the presidency. Part one ends with the Republican landslide in the 1994 midterm elections.
The title of tomorrow night’s broadcast, “The Survivor,’’ might work even better without the definite article. It’s like reality TV invades the Oval Office. Having faced down Newt Gingrich during the Republican Congress’ shutdown of the federal government, Clinton easily defeated Bob Dole for reelection. Then came the deluge. Whitewater (which had been building throughout his first term), Monica Lewinskycq, Linda Tripp, the Drudge Report, “this vast right-wing conspiracy,’’ the blue dress, impeachment: The experience of watching these events unfold is fascinating and awful - and maybe even harder to believe now than it was then.
There was more to Clinton’s second term than just scandal. The documentary takes note of the cruise-missile attack that nearly killed Osama bin Laden, the president’s efforts to bring off a conclusive peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, the budget surpluses.
The documentary takes an essentially positive view of Clinton without scanting his failures and shortcomings. No Clinton documentary that includes interviews with not just Starr but also Lucianne Goldberg, who leaked the Lewinsky story to Matt Drudge, could ever be called a puff job.
Regardless of whether a viewer loves or loathes Clinton, or is simply baffled by him, the overwhelming impression the documentary leaves is one of waste: wasted time; wasted opportunities; above all, wasted gifts. Clinton operatives took to calling him “Secretariat’’ during the ’92 campaign. It’s easy to see why. He was as talented a political thoroughbred as this country has seen. Yet he kept pulling up short - not always, of course, but so much more often than anyone ever would have expected.
Just before ending, the documentary takes note of Hillary Clinton’s successful Senate campaign in 2000. In some ways, “Clinton’’ is as much her story as his. The difference is that public life isn’t finished. It’s a safe bet (speaking of thoroughbreds) that there will be an “American Experience’’ about her some day, too. At least there ought to be. It won’t be as lively as this one - but there’s a good chance the story it tells will be less disappointing and maybe even more meaningful.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.