The Clinton Years
By Gil Troy
The Journal of American History. Bloomington: Dec 2003. Vol. 90, Iss. 3; pg. 1143
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||The Clinton Years. Prod, by
Lisa Koenig and Madhulika Sikka. ABC News Nightline in
association with WGBH/Frontline, 2001. 120 mins. (PBS Video, 1320
Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314-1698; 800-344-3337;
firstname.lastname@example.org; http://shop.pbs.org/education [Sept. 15, 2003])
Bill Clinton's successes and failures remain mystifying. It is astonishing that Clinton survived so many self-inflicted crises as candidate and president. This co-production of PBS's Frontline and ABC News's Nightline offers a breezy yet somehow exhausting two-hour overview of Clinton's era, often lurching from crisis to crisis. Mostly narrated by revealing and often critical interviews with Clinton's inner circle, this video demonstrates just how integral Clinton's personal and political failings are to the story of his roller coaster presidency.
"Boy, he did a good job. . . . But he might have been great," says George Stephanopoulos. "What a waste," sighs Clinton's old friend Robert Reich. It is fitting that those twin laments begin the documentary, which follows the interpretive lines Stephanopoulos and Reich developed in their memoirs, all Too Human (1999) and Locked in the Cabinet (1998), respectively. Ted Koppel portentously proclaims: "If daily journalism is a first draft of history-this broadcast is a second draft of journalism." In fact, this broadcast offers the basic Clinton plot, "a tale of two Presidents" as Leon Panetta says. One was a "thoroughbred," a "brilliant" politician and liberal visionary seeking peace and prosperity, and the second was a slob, an amateurish leader and pathological liar who resurrected the Dark Ages of partisan journalism instead of the Era of Good Feelings.
Unfortunately, this video, like most other "first drafts" assessing the Clinton presidency, does little to reconcile these clashing visions. Viewers will be reintroduced to many of the defining personalities, images, and moments of the nine years Clinton dominated America's consciousness, from the tumultuous 1992 campaign through the controversial pardons in 2001. In addition to stating and restating the riddle more than solving it, the video ignores broader historical forces. A two-hour highlight reel, The Clinton Years focuses on Clinton's "crisis playbook," his ability to attract trouble, and his more remarkable ability to endure. We get Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky-without any consideration of the legacy of Watergate or the sexual revolution's impact on American politics. We get Bill's "seesaw" relationship with Hillary Clinton as she fails at health care, alienates Americans, and finally succeeds as an embattled wife and senatorial candidate-without reflection about feminism's importance or the complexity of being First Lady. And we are bombarded with headlines about budgets, bills, and bombings, shorn of any economic, political, or diplomatic context. NBC's The West Wing better illustrates how presidents decide; this documentary shows how Clinton acted and reacted. Still, as memories fade of the Clinton wars, this video reminds students what happened, leaving historians to begin the hard work of analyzing what Clinton accomplished, and what it means.
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