tv review

TV review: MSNBC's 'President of the World,' basking in Bill Clinton's afterglow

GOOD OLD DAYS: The 42nd president and Chris Matthews on MSNBC.
GOOD OLD DAYS: The 42nd president and Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011

Valentine's Day was a week ago, but MSNBC's Chris Matthews has belatedly gifted a particular former president with a mash note - strike that, a one-hour special called "President of the World: The Bill Clinton Phenomenon," airing on the cable news channel Monday night.

Why? Because it's Presidents' Day. Also because it's been a full decade since Clinton left office, embarking on an epic quest to remain at the forefront of the celebripoliticomedia hive mind. Or, as Matthews reminds us much more than once: He is Everywhere.

"Bill Clinton's position in the world continues to grow. He's part dignitary, part humanitarian, part politician, part international statesman, and somehow, greater than them all," he intones.

For much of the hour, you'll wonder if you're watching one of Robert Smigel's old "X-Presidents" cartoon parodies for "Saturday Night Live." Matthews, aided by the likes of Terry McAuliffe, Mary Steenburgen and various biographers, remarks again and again how smart Clinton is, how generous, how famous, how friendly, how productive. Perhaps this special is some sort of MSNBC covert-op to cause paralytic apoplexy over there on the right? The kind of people who still keep the Starr Report at the ready?

There is no doubt that Clinton has busied himself in worthy ways, especially when he heads toward disasters (wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, hostage crises) to raise relief funds or broker a solution. He loves the world and, as we see on many a tarmac and in convention halls and hotel lobbies hither and yon, the world still loves him. The best part of the special is the story of how two American reporters who were arrested and held in North Korea in 2009 reacted when he showed up to rescue them: The door opened, there stood Bill Clinton, and they collapsed into his arms, weeping with relief.

The not-very-sub subtext of "President of the World" is a nostalgic grieving for the glory of the Clinton years. Matthews's special reminded me of a line from this season of "Glee," an exchange between Artie (the guy in the wheelchair) and Brittany (the uncannily dense cheerleader). Artie says, "I thought I was over someone, but I still think I have feelings for them."

"The Clintons?" Brittany asks.

Ever cooperative, Clinton grants Matthews interviews and permission to tag along for a few days. Nothing new is reflected upon, except how good he feels at 64, and what a charge he gets out of globe-trotting. We learn little of the partnerships and financial underpinnings of the nonprofit Clinton Global Initiative and its philanthropic offshoots. We get little insight into Clinton's daily life as a millionaire VIP.

The real story - glossed over and merely admired here - is how Clinton discovered previously uncharted territories of fame and motivates other celebrities to do their saintly best. There is also an unforgettable narrative about a marriage, but the name Hillary Clinton barely comes up, except in the context of his role in her presidential campaign or how his travels often pave a way for her diplomatic efforts as (you may have heard) secretary of state.

"President of the World" triggers another thought: We need more time apart, him and us. Bill Clinton is too young - and too alive - for anyone to make a good one-hour special about, just yet. Matthews has merely made a promotional film for someone who isn't running for anything.

Comparisons are made to other X-Presidents (I never knew Herbert Hoover oversaw European famine relief after World War II, but we've certainly seen Jimmy Carter lift cinder blocks), but finally we are told that there is no ideal job description for a former president. As seen here, everything is just afterglow.

President of the World: The Bill Clinton Phenomenon (one hour) airs Monday at 10 p.m. on MSNBC.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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