PBS’s ‘Clinton’: That was then ...

February 18, 2012

As we get more into the nitty-gritty of the 21st century, the 1990s die of neglect.

The goodbye process takes about 15 years, but once you notice that a decade is gone, you really, really notice it: Whitney Houston departs the earthly realm from a Beverly Hills hotel room bathtub. Your new hire lets it casually slip that he was born in 1991. The IT guys finally haul off the last of the humpbacked Dell monitors from the Cubicles of the Doomed. Whoomp, there it is. (Or, whoomp, there it was.)

“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.

* * *

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.”

All of which means “Clinton” is not for anyone still operating under a pleated-pants delusion that not much time has passed. In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, the writer Kurt Andersen argued that not enough visceral and visual change has occurred in the past 20 years that would noticeably delineate then from now. In shopping malls and conversations and the sounds of music, Andersen suggested that everyday Americans still look and act about the same as they looked and acted in 1992, defying the cultural evolutionary process that separates past from present — the period details that make the Roosevelt era look and act different from the Nixon years, and so on.

One look at some of the hairstyles in “Clinton” (not all of them Hillary Clinton’s) both refutes and confirms Andersen’s thesis. When President Obama gave his State of the Union speech last month, the secretary of state wore a headband that held back her still-blond, once again long hair. It’s such a trivial thing to note, that Hillary Clinton has almost the same hairdo she had when America first took real notice of her, on “60 Minutes” early in the ’92 primaries, defending her husband with that anti-Tammy Wynette lambaste to critics.

* * *

Written and directed by Barak Goodman, “Clinton” boasts “unprecedented access” to certain Clintonites and others who had front-row seats to the administration’s twists and turns; its highs and lows. There are interviews with David Gergen, Gen. Wesley Clark, Joe Klein, Kenneth Starr, Dee Dee Myers, Robert Reich, Sidney Blumenthal, Gail Sheehy, Dick Morris, James Carville and Goldberg — please stop me if I get to the name of a person to whom access has not been amply precedented.

Everyone’s here but Bill and Hillary — and Newt Gingrich, who isn’t interviewed in “Clinton,” even though he gets lots of screen time as the administration’s primary antagonist.

They’re all still around, but their time isn’t. The interviewees look noticeably older and softer, which means you look older and softer, too. Watching “Clinton” is a little like a walk through a mash-up of Washington’s Newseum and the beautiful presidential library in Little Rock. While lingering in one exhibit room, where there are sounds and news footage of Sarajevo snipers and choppers flying over Mogadishu, one hears whispers from an adjacent room, beckoning you into the unseemly realm of Whitewater and Vince Foster’s suicide. Then comes Starr’s appointment as special prosecutor; Linda Tripp’s surreptitious microcassettes; Monica Lewinsky’s Gap dress.

You’ve forgotten nothing. From a town called Hope to a place called heartbreak, it’s all still right there, but somehow it is also gone. “Did Bill Clinton help the country? And was the country better for having him as president? I think, unquestionably, yes,” says Reich, the former labor secretary. “But are there elements of tragedy here as well? Huge elements of tragedy, in terms of failures and opportunities lost and risks made that didn’t have to be made? Undoubtedly.”

People who wrote giant books about Bill and Hillary Clinton (The Washington Post’s David Maraniss; Politico’s John Harris; the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin) are summoned to sketch out the same themes they sketched before about Clinton’s truest self — a superego so desperate to please others that he self-sabotages, damaging his reputation and those he loves.

The troubled childhood, brought on by the carousing of the adults in his life, leads to the rarest and most productive form of acting-out, in which young Bill Clinton overcompensates for the hurt inside by becoming the most popular kid in school. “The only way you can live with it,” one of Clinton’s childhood friends, Joe Purvis, tells us, “is to block it off.”

* * *

You could write the rest of the script yourself, but “Clinton” at least does it bluntly, reflecting the benefits of time and distance. If this documentary had been been made in 2002, it might have been about eight hours long, because we were all still sorting it out, and still so fascinated. Watching “Clinton” move at a nice jog, I wonder if future documentarians will be able to further sprint through Clinton’s life story in less than an hour?

The film bisects itself cleanly into two parts: “The Comeback Kid” covers childhood, college, meeting Hillary, entering politics (I’d forgotten about that cheesy country jingle that accompanied his fruitless run for Congress — “Bill Clinton’s ready . . . he’s fed up too/ A lot like me, and a lot like you . . .”); his lost and regained governorship of Arkansas, his ascent to the national stage, his first term as president. This part has the most striking footage and reminisces.

Part 2, “The Survivor,” feels much more like an American history class assignment that has been hurried along, covering the second term with an emphasis on its dark clouds.

This structure makes perfect sense, but it also lacks the thematic and artistic flair that a viewer is entitled to on a four-hour documentary investment. Last February, during the Ronald Reagan centennial and its attendant TV docs and specials, only one project, Eugene Jarecki’s “Reagan” on HBO, managed to weave a chronological use of footage, photographs and experts into a more artful interpretation of meaning. “Reagan” had a firm feel for the vibe of an era. “Clinton” could use more of that.

The film does work as an indulgent bit of nostalgia for those who still pine for the Clinton years. Who wouldn’t want the budget surpluses and robust economic recovery? It’s a wonder to think about now. Even still, that bit of fantasizing can last a viewer only so long.

Soon enough, the film tires out, with the same sense of fatigue that greeted the end of his term. When I moved to Washington in the fall of 1999, the true believers, the antagonists and the journalists all seemed exhausted. The narrative had been thoroughly wrung out. Like the president they admired, loathed and covered, they were compartmentalizing to some degree, boxing off the hurtful parts, overcompensating for pain.

“How many second chances does any one person deserve?” former press secretary Myers wonders now, both in the prologue to “Clinton” and, more fully, at its end. “Clinton’s view is as many second chances as a person is willing to try to take. As many times as you fail, don’t you deserve the chance to redeem yourself? Isn’t history loaded with people who have fallen and gotten up, and fallen and gotten up, and fallen and gotten up, and done great things?”

“Clinton” keeps alive this idea that Clinton is the one who got up, brushed himself off, reckoned his sins and moved on. It makes much of his “bridge to the 21st century” speech and suggests that we’d never have crossed it without his leadership. Fair enough, but I kept waiting for one of his friends to suggest how kind it was of our culture to let Bill Clinton come along with us before that bridge crumbled away, allowing him to prosper in the present and not be left standing in the 1990s, surrounded by cardboard file boxes and regret.

Clinton (four hours, in two parts) begins Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT. Concludes Tuesday at 8 p.m.

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Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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