Clinton, a four hour documentary that is receiving it’s global premiere on PBS UK on Monday February 20th at 10:15pm (the series will be aired by PBS in the US some four hours later at 9/8c), is not something I sat down to watch without reservation. In fact, truth be told, as someone who wrote an incredibly long college paper on the life and presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, I went in with the frame of mind that this documentary would not impress me in the slightest.
Why you ask? Having sat through a handful of documentaries on Clinton in the past, I was certain that it wasn’t possible for any one documentary to strike the correct cord. Politics aside, some of these documentaries I have watched on the man have been imbued with Democratic ideology and play Clinton as a martyr, while others have been imbued with Republican ideology and attack the man for his infidelity and what some would describe as a lack of morality etc. Surely Bill Clinton is simply too polarising a character for a documentary to present this man in a balanced way. Boy, did Clinton prove me wrong!
Under the experienced hand of Director and Producer Barak Goodman, Clinton delivers a world class, perfectly crafted, a-political documentary on America’s 42nd president. Unlike previous attempts, this entry on Bill Clinton does not put forward an opinion, it merely presents the facts. And it does so by interviewing the people involved on both sides of the aisle; both Clinton supporters and detractors.
Some of the notable individuals contributing to Clinton are: Leon Panetta (who served as Clinton’s OMB Director and later White House Chief of Staff), James Carville (Campaign Strategist), Bernie Nussbaum (former White House Counsel), Jeffrey Toobin (CNN’s Chief Legal Corespondent), David Gergen (former Counselor on Domestic and Foreign Affairs for President Bill Clinton and Senior Political Analyst for CNN), Dee Dee Myers (former White House Press Secretary), Robert Reich (former United States Secretary of Labor) and Kofi Annan (Secretary-General of the UN). But it doesn’t end there. As I have said, what truly sets this documentary apart is it’s honest approach. Rather than merely cite the Ken Starr report, the documentary features Ken Starr and other notable Republican’s such as Peter King, Lucianne Goldberg Senator Trent Lott and other republican strategists and legislators.
As I have stated, I sat down to watch Clinton sure that I would find something wrong, erroneous or otherwise misleading. To the credit of the producers, in nearly four hours of footage I found only one such error, so minimal it is hardly worth mentioning. (As you’re curious: When discussing the federal budget showdown of 1993, Leon Panetta, while giving inside information, is described on screen as “White House Chief of Staff” when at the time of that showdown he was in fact the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. I told you it was hardly worth mentioning) But the fact that, in a documentary about such a polarising figure, only one such inconsequential mistake can be found speaks volumes to the quality of Clinton.
There are so many gems in this documentary its hard to pick and choose just a few to highlight. So much inside information that was previously unknown is revealed here. There is the revelation of how Bill and Hillary Clinton first met, their whirlwind romance, how much Hillary put on hold to facilitate Bill’s political career and just how vital her input was in the early days of the 1992 presidential campaign to prevent the stories of Bill’s extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers from toppling his campaign. Then there are the stories of Bill’s rocky child life, with an alcoholic father who used to beat his mother. The launch of his political career after leaving college and what some in the documentary described as his “need” to be loved by the electorate.
As the documentary continues, we learn the minutiae of the Lewinsky affair and how it became public. The manner in which Lewinsky befriended Linda Tripp at the Pentagon who in turn used what Lewinsky had revealed to her to attempt to sell a book about the affair through conservative literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. Goldberg goes on to describe Tripp as “an angry woman” and described her motives by saying “She wanted the world to know about this [affair] and I believe the motivation was no more deeper or shallow than that.” It is perhaps the revelation that Ken Starr knew of the Lewinsky affair and watched the Paula Jones deposition to see if Clinton would lie, that will shock most who are not familiar with the blow by blow of the scandal.
Beyond the scandals that gripped the administration, some truly powerful moments can be found in the examination of Clinton’s foreign policy. One such moment occurred in 1998. After the bombing of US embassies overseas, the FBI identifies the terrorist group behind the attacks as Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden. The CIA then obtains information of a meeting between key commanders of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. The National Security Council wants to send cruise missiles to the camp to take out the higher echelons of the organisation. It was when discussing this in the Oval Office that a national security staffer suggested any attack could be viewed as cover for the Lewinsky scandal. Clinton snapped at the staffer, saying “You don’t think about that, you think about national security. You give me the advice you would give me if this wasn’t going on.” The staffer was proved correct, however, when the missiles did not kill Bin Laden and many members of Congress suggested the attack was ordered to distract public attention from the Lewinsky scandal. An example, National Security Co-ordinator Richard A. Clarke says, of Clinton’s willingness to do what was best for the national security interests of the United States regardless of the political ramifications.
The final moment I would highlight comes from Kofi Annan. When speaking of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Annan (then UN Secretary-General), recalls that the death of so many US soldiers, who had been sent to Somalia By President Clinton to capture Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and specifically the image of a dead US soldier being paraded through the streets of Mogadishu, led to the Clinton administration balking at committing troops to any conflicts that did not directly impact American interests. A decision which led to the Clinton Administration’s later decision not to intervene in the Rwandan massacre; something Clinton would later state was the biggest mistake of his presidency. As Kofi Annan states “Rwanda had lived in the shadow of Somalia and paid the price for what had happened in Somalia.” President Clinton’s regret over Rwanda is something that would prompt him to establish the ‘Clinton Doctrine’ and, following the massacre at Srebenicka, to get involved in the Bosnian war and deliver one of the biggest successes of Clinton’s presidency: the Dayton Peace accords.
It is so easy to define the Clinton presidency by Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and the various other scandals that gripped the administration, that it is easy to overlook the promise and potential he brought into office. There are a great many things Clinton achieved while in office and this documentary highlights the man behind the adulterer. It highlights his strengths, weaknesses and the positive effect he had in the world in both Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Clinton is a wonderful addition to American Experience, perfectly crafted and A-political, a must watch.
Clinton premieres on PBS UK on Monday February 20th at 10:15pm and on PBS in the US on Monday February 20th at 9/8c.