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'American Experience: Clinton' Assesses the Comeback Kid, Again

So many of the political struggles in Clinton sound like the turmoil and responses that have characterized Barack Obama's presidency so far, that you're left to ponder whether anyone has learned any lessons.

American Experience: Clinton

Airtime: Tuesdays, 8:30pm ET
Cast: Jonathan Alter, Kofi Anan, Sandy Berger, James Carville, Michael Isikoff, Dee Dee Meyers, Robert Reich, Gail Sheehy, Jeffrey Toobin, Campbell Scott (narrator)
Network: PBS
Director: Barak Goodman
Air date: 2012-02-20

"How many second chances does any one person deserve?" asks Dee Dee Meyers. "Clinton's view is, as many second chances as a person is willing to try to take, you know? I mean, 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?"

The soundtrack music swells as Meyers speaks and the scene cuts to a clip of Bill Clinton at a podium, arms up and voice hoarse while he proclaims, "We will together build a bridge to the 21st century, wide enough and strong enough to take us to America's best days." Such a call for collaboration is common enough in presidential speechmaking. Still, as becomes clear in American Experience: Clinton -- premiering 20 and 21 February on PBS -- the context for Clinton is specific. On his second inauguration, when he most famously referred to this bridge, he had already endured four years of ongoing battle with the Republican party, including dramatic Democratic losses in the Senate and House during midterm elections. And he was about to face more and increasingly brutal fights.

To survive, he would need all his skills, which friends and enemies alike agree are formidable. "There's a stick-to-it-iveness about him that's just phenomenal," observes Max Brantley, "an abiding belief that if he can just have enough time, he can win over just about anybody." Clinton has had that time, before, during, and since his presidency, and he's still working to win over "just about anybody."

As Clinton has it, these efforts when he was president were alternately noble and ruthless, intelligent and stubborn. If the program doesn't reveal much new information about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, it does lay out a chronology that suggests some causes and effects, surmising that their partnership has evolved according to their needs, mutual and individual, as well as the needs of those around them.

That's not to say that the interviewees, from James Carville and Joe Klein to Lucien Goldberg and Trent Lott, have much to say about their own parts in Clinton's presidency. They play predictably sober roles in Barak Goodman's film, remembering what happened when and occasionally characterizing what they saw. "It was so clear he was an exceptionally talented politician from the kind of get-go," says Carville. "His ability to adapt, his ability to walk into a room, to size up an issue, to understand. I've never seen a candidate, I've never seen a human being who, with the most limited briefing, can understand the dimensions, the parameters, the nuances of everything of any kind of a policy or political problem." Just so, the film shows Clinton doing what he does best, conversing with citizens, looking into their eyes and touching their arms in apparently heartfelt sympathy.

This capacity to make someone "feel like I was the only person in the room," serves Clinton well throughout his career, the program points out, and it also left him unprepared for the hardball politics of Washington when he was elected in 1992. And here the story sounds very much like that of Barack Obama, from the assumption he would be able to convince opponents get along to his early frustrations with aggressive tactics used by people like Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr. (It's not a little disquieting to listen to Gingrich then, as his declared themes and tactics sound so similar to what he's saying now.)

Again and again, Clinton was drawn into fights he couldn't win (Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the hoped-for health care overhaul are prime examples), and confronted with opposition that seemed designed to bring down the US government rather than let Clinton or the Democrats "win." (Again, this story is dismayingly familiar.) As much as Clinton wiggled and maneuvered, he continually struggled with his adversaries. Increasingly, these adversaries saw and promoted their grievances as personal, and their efforts to make him, first an "illegitimate" president (because the '92 vote was split three ways, with Ross Perot included), and then, a dishonest big-government cheat, find echoes in recent tactics regarding Barack Obama.

As the second term began, Clinton overcame early "foreign policy missteps" and came to promote the Clinton Doctrine, advancing the United States, as Wesley Clark phrases it, "as an indispensible nation," and further, one committed to the idea that "where you can make a difference, you should." Domestically, he attended to Morris' incessant polling, working to get done what he could get done. That is, turned to "a politics of the possible," enacting smaller bits of policy, attending to the needs of the middle class, and pursuing what Morris identifies as "a third way." That is, until he ran into his impeachment, a months-long process that distracted the Congress from legislating and left the population disgusted with both parties.

As all this sounds so much like the turmoil and responses that have characterized Obama's presidency so far, you're left to ponder whether anyone has learned any lessons.


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