“Clinton,” a four-hour PBS “American Experience” documentary airing Monday and Tuesday, is an honest but sometimes tediously predictable exercise in the further Wikipedia-ing and storage-packing of those years.
Whether intentional or subliminal, the film conveys the obvious and completely mortal recognition of time’s inevitable passage, but not much else. There is no anniversary to note (besides this November’s being 20 years since his election) nor any round-number birthday ahead (65 came and went in August), so it’s puzzling why so much effort has been put into a film about this particular president, now.
Part of the problem is that the Clintons are still very much with us; legacies are still jelling. As Secretary of State, Hillary is engaged in the most important work of her career, while Bill prefers a superhero’s schedule, in constant transit to a crisis or a speaking engagement. We needn’t wonder where his thoughts are at — on any subject — because he keeps telling us. To the right’s everlasting horror, Clinton could show up anywhere, anytime.
And they are still baffled by his resilience, especially the fast rehab of his reputation after the House impeached him in 1998. They’ve watched in vain as he has ascended to elder statesman. They’ve watched people love him in spite of his sins. “That’s one of the things I’ve never figured out,” remarks former senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican and majority whip whose career was derailed by a single, ill-chosen toast at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party.
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With observations and reflections of that sort, it would be tempting to report that “Clinton” lacks fresh news, except that I consider the death of the ’90s to be fresh — even fascinating — news. For the first time, the ’90s appear to be as old as the hills, stripped of any remaining “I Love the ’90s” fizz.
“Clinton” makes the decade look bleak and practically sepia-toned. It asks us to imagine a world that was only on the verge of having a 24-hour news cycle, a more quaint society. Newsweek got nervous about publishing reporter Michael Isikoff’s explosive discovery of the Lewinsky affair, so Lucianne Goldberg sent the news to a fairly obscure Internet gossip named Matthew Drudge. You can almost hear the crackle and hiss of an AOL dial-up — and if I’d been directing this film, you would. The people who feasted on Clinton scandal, Clinton dirt, Clinton pitfalls, Clinton defeats — they were miners panning for a new gold. The hyperwired frenzy we now live with is surely as much a legacy of the Clinton era as welfare reform and “don’t ask, don’t tell.”