February 26, 2012
By Joe Rothstein
Apologies are in order, and since PBS and the producers of the four-hour Clinton documentary are not likely to do the right thing, I’ll weigh in instead.
I have standing to do this, since I’m a loyal PBS viewer, regular contributor and, much of the time, uncompromising cheer leader for the network.
But it’s hard to cheer lead for a Clinton documentary that begins with what feels like an endless rehash of the Monica Lewinsky episode, and whose unifying thread is opportunity lost.
If you go to the PBS web site promoting home copies of the program, it reads like this:
“From draft-dodging to the Dayton Accords, from Monica Lewinsky to a balanced budget, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton veered between sordid scandal and grand achievement. In Clinton, the latest installment in the critically acclaimed series of presidential biographies, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE explores the fascinating story of an American president who rose from a broken childhood in Arkansas to become one of the most successful politicians in modern American history–and one of the most complex and conflicted characters to ever stride across the public stage.”
I doubt that anyone who actually sits through all four hours of Clinton gets a message that he was “one of the most successful politicians in modern American history.” His fault lines, however, are explored in minute detail—from the women he chased during his very first campaign to the he’s-no-LBJ verdict pronounced against him in dealing with Congress.
And what about those “grand achievements?” If you happened to slip into the bathroom for a few minutes at the wrong time you missed the fleeting scenes about balancing the budget and presiding over the most prolonged economic expansion in peace time American history. There was a short segment about his orchestration of an end to the Balkan war, a job he took on at great political risk when European leaders refused to sign up for it. Clinton’s green light of an attempt to kill bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership was noted, but in the context of a suspected impeachment distraction.
More than 22 million jobs were created during the Clinton presidency. Home ownership was at the highest level ever, (without the phony mortgages that came during the Bush years). The crime rate dropped to the lowest level in 26 years. The Brady gun law was enacted. Family leave time became a reality.
Clinton made extraordinary efforts in the cause of racial harmony. (They called him “the first black president”). Thousands of Russian nuclear warheads were deactivated, and many others lying loose after the Soviet Union’s collapse were located and disarmed.
Unless I was checking email on my smartphone at the time, I saw or heard none of that.
But from beginning to end, you could have dropped into the PBS documentary nearly anywhere along its four hour time line and been told of sex, investigations, failures to live up to promise, and pseudo analysis of why Clinton behaved as he did. The producers didn’t discuss bed-wetting, but clearly they were obsessed with what made Clinton tick when he should have tocked.
Whitewater, as we now know, was a phony smokescreen Republicans used to justify what amounted to a full time, resident inquisitor who spent five years searching for anything that could tear down the Clintons. With what amounted to an unlimited checkbook of public money, subpoena power, a friendly Congress and about all the assets any prosecutor dreams of having, Kenneth Starr found nothing to hang on the President except Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
Bill Clinton was no saint. Neither were Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay or so many others hounding Clinton all those years. During the impeachment process, Rep. Henry Hyde, who took on the role of chief U.S. House prosecutor, had to admit to an extra marital affair of his own.
Neither was Bill Clinton an LBJ. So what? Can you think of anyone, Republican or Democrat, who has duplicated LBJ’s talent for maneuvering through the legislative thicket to achieve success on difficult issues? Clinton made rookie errors in his early White House years. So did Reagan. So has Obama.
To be successful, television needs viewers. And since TV is pictures, reliving scenes of a sex scandal is bound to attract and hold more eyeballs than the intricacies of balancing a budget. The Lewinsky case and impeachment did consume an inordinate amount of public oxygen for years, along with various other failed Republican efforts to bring down President Clinton. Vince Foster, the White House travel office, missing files—thinking back it all seems like a bad dream. And all so pointless and historically insignificant.
Republican attempts to criminalize the President were scandalous, and the American public knew it. He left the presidency with the highest approval rating of any president since World War II. By the time the U.S. Senate voted down impeachment the public was sick to death of the entire episode. The largest grass roots organization of the past decade, Move On, was created by those begging political leaders to do that—-move on.
The PBS documentary billed itself as one of the first post-Clinton White House attempts to put those years in context. Why then, spend so much air time with a known self-aggrandizing sleezeball like Dick Morris and not a single bona fide historian?
WAS DORIS KERNS GOODWIN asleep in the powder room?
Where were the first person interviews with members of Congress? Other than Robert Reich, who provided some excellent perspective, and Robert Rubin, Clinton’s treasury secretary, why no cabinet members? Clinton was portrayed generally as a failure in the foreign policy arena. Really? Is that how his foreign leader contemporaries viewed him? Did anyone ask Blair, Chirac or Putin?
If this attempt at defining the Clinton years were on cable TV I wouldn’t be surprised that sex and scandal were the highlight reels. But PBS?
PBS probably won’t apologize for this, Mr. President. But PBS is also the millions of us who contribute to keep it on the air. I can’t speak for anyone else, but from one loyal PBS member, I’m sorry. You deserved much better.
(Yes, millions of US but remember just one, George Soros contributed millions ensuring the highlights of the Clinton legacy would be short shrifted painting Obama, the Renaissance Man of the 21st Century.)
(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at email@example.com)