Fox's 'Television & the Presidency' Revisits Clinton-Lewinsky

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

Remember how long we waited between "seasons" of "The Sopranos"? Those gaping interludes were nothing compared with the gaps between chapters of "Television & the Presidency," a series of documentaries about politics and media. The fifth installment in the cycle airs tonight on the Fox News Channel.

The first aired in 1984.

That's especially odd because there was no Fox News Channel in 1984. But a spokeswoman for the channel explains: The first documentary was produced for the regular old Fox network by media maestro Roger Ailes, who is now the mischievous CEO of Fox News. He no longer produces the specials himself, however; tonight's was done by Clay Rawson and Peter Russo.

Alas and alack, paranoia being the order of the day (and millennium) and Fox News being known for an ever-so-gentle rightward tilt (we're being as charitable as possible), Part 5, which deals with the years 1997 through 2000, will inevitably be seen by some viewers as nothing but an excuse to exhume Bill Clinton's sex scandals and trot them across the screen again. Sigh.

Considering the euphoria that has greeted Democrat Barack Obama's election as the 44th president, it seems like pure and simple party-pooping for Fox to rewash this dirty linen now, even if there is a certain nostalgia value in hearing such names as Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones again. Still, you'd have to be either sick or cynical to say, "Those were the good old days."

Chris Wallace, nothing if not a solid and respected newsman, anchors the hour, the script for which does not seem overly overtly anti-Clinton or anti-Democrat; among other sights, we see Clinton printing a large zero under "national deficit" on a poster; imagine the nation being in utterly splendid economic health! The prevailing message, though, is shame and sorrow over opportunities lost because a certain somebody couldn't resist even modest, middling temptation.

Many non-scandalous but provocative memories are reawakened by this report: Clinton's nearly successful attempt to obliterate Osama bin Laden, which, if it had succeeded, would presumably have spared America the horror of 9/11; Joe Lieberman's first foray into political treason, rising on the Senate floor to piously condemn fellow Democrat Clinton; Clinton's memorable and rather existential observation, part of his videotaped grand jury testimony during the impeachment process, that "it depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

And then there are such colorful incidentals as Al Gore making exasperated faces during one of his debates with George W. Bush in the 2000 election and Gore's much-ridiculed use of the term "lock box" when explaining his grand plans for the future. Back to the TV screen again comes Kenneth Starr, a so-called independent counsel whose recklessness was the real outrage of the era -- though Wallace sounds respectful.

Those who missed previous installments in the "Television & the Presidency" series (Part 4 aired in 2000) can catch them in reruns on subsequent Saturday nights through the rest of this month and into next. Fox's spokeswoman had no word on when the next one will air, but Wallace says on the program that it will hark back to Dwight David Eisenhower and the birth of the television age. Maybe that means Fox researchers have dug up some dirt on Adlai Stevenson and needed an excuse to flaunt it in our faces.

For the record, the hour is skillfully edited, written and assembled, and Wallace does an effortlessly authoritative job (how we miss his old man as the most prodigious presence on "60 Minutes"). The show isn't bad; it's the timing that's unfortunate and naggingly suspect.

Part 5 of Television & the Presidency (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on Fox News Channel.

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