by John Powers
Americans want many serious things from their president—security, economic stewardship, an ability to speak for the country—but because he’s on their TV screens every single day, they also want him to be interesting. Nobody, not even his worst enemy, would deny that Bill Clinton is that. Prodigious in his gifts and flaws—and married to an equally prodigious woman—he has always been a lightning rod, the man in the room everybody wants to know about. Which makes him the dream subject for the American Experience’s ongoing series on presidents. I think I’ve seen them all, and none is more enjoyable than Barak Goodman’s Clinton, a nearly four-hour blast from the recent past that plays like the greatest reality show of the twenty-first century.
In its contours, Clinton’s life appears to have been crafted by a novelist. He was the small-town Arkansas boy—although he made hay of being from Hope, he was raised in loose-living Hot Springs—who appeared to emerge from the womb running for president. And the cosmos appeared to encourage him: It’s still amazing to see that footage of young Bill shaking hands with his hero, John F. Kennedy, a moment that’s like a modern version of God’s finger touching Adam’s in the Sistine Chapel. Of course, reaching the Oval Office requires years of effort, and Clinton charts Clinton’s progress in its many aspects, from entering his tricky romantic partnership with tough, brainy Hillary Rodham, to his years as governor of Arkansas, where he learned the savor of power and the crushingness of defeat (“What did I do wrong?” he kept asking when, after his first term, he was voted out of office.)
While Clinton’s years in the White House remain fresh in our minds, it’s still startling to be reminded just how regularly Bill and Hillary were smacked with media tsunamis even before Monica—Hairgate, Whitewater, the health-care debacle, the “bimbo eruptions,” and the ascent of feisty, over-reaching Newt Gingrich. It’s the nature of presidencies that most begin in excitement and then, as reality kicks in, start to feel disappointing. The real question is how a president copes with that. Astonishingly resilient, the self-styled Comeback Kid took blow after blow during his first three years—he was the first presidential victim of our crazy 24/7 news cycle— and then turned it around in a way that even Republicans like Trent Lott say they still can’t understand. Helped by an explosion of economic growth, Clinton became so popular that he not only survived the Lewinsky scandal (which Clinton explores in voluminous detail) but, if it were legal, would probably have been reelected to a third term.
Now, PBS presidential portraits tend not to take risks—it’s their job to be centrist—and Clinton sometimes falls into banality. I don’t envy narrator Campbell Scott for having to read lines like, “But beyond America’s shores, a troubled world would wait no longer for America’s attention.” Zzz. That said, writer-director Goodman gives his story more sharp edges than most American Experience portraits. He weaves together nicely chosen images, from revelatory photographs to talismanic footage, and wins pointed words from scads of interviewees: defenders like antiterrorism guru Richard Clarke; wary admirers like journalist Joe Klein; disillusioned liberals like cabinet member Robert Reich; and enemies like Clinton’s personal Javert, Kenneth Starr, whose hounding of the president will go down in history as a shocking abuse of power.
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