Saturday, March 03, 2012

EDITORIAL >> ‘Clinton’ no masterpiece

Here’s an assignment for local high school history and civics teachers: Show the recent PBS documentary about the Clinton presidency and discuss the program’s strong points and its weaknesses.

“Clinton,” the latest series of PBS presidential biographies, was no masterpiece theater but was still worth watching for an occasional insight.

The over-hyped documentary lasted four hours over two nights and covered too much familiar territory—Clinton’s childhood, college years, early campaigns and the long-shot run for the White House—but it broke no new ground and omitted key chapters from Clinton’s presidency.

There was very little about Bill Clinton’s long political career that we didn’t already know: Instead of presenting some 20 talking heads — three from the old Arkansas Gazette alone, as well as many friends of Bill and some enemies — the producers should have invited outstanding presidential scholars, historians and economists who could have better explained the Clinton presidency’s successes and failures.

There was nothing about the bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993 or the administration’s ties to Wall Street. The attack kicked off America’s two-decades long war, but few Americans remembers much about the first attack or the financial collapse that followed 15 years later because, many believe, Wall Street convinced Clinton that financial deregulation would boost the economy. It did for a while, but the bubble inevitably burst.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich talked about Clinton’s shocking behavior with Monica Lewinsky, but said almost nothing about his successes. Economic adviser Robert Rubin, previously of Citigroup, said the Clinton administration helped create 20 million new jobs and left a $240 billion surplus. There were no fancy charts to back up the figures or an explanation of how the surplus disappeared.

Political adviser Dick Morris, the Clintons’ Rasputin, bragged about his polling skills and how he saved Clinton’s presidency. Writer Joe Klein said he was a rascal but fun to watch. More reporters and advisers followed, but the sound bites become tiresome.

The filmmakers avoided more weighty subjects perhaps because they were too complicated to cover in a television program. They rehashed Whitewater but had nothing new to say about it. Clinton said it was his worst mistake letting a special prosecutor look into Whitewater. The special prosecutors turned the probe into a long distraction, along with the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky investigations. A constitutional case could be made that the president, for example, should not be sued till after he leaves office. The Clinton documentary never discussed the constitutional issues affecting his presidency.

The investigations and lawsuits humiliated Clinton but kept him popular in most parts of the country. There was plenty of drama surrounding the impeachment proceedings, and then it was over.

We know Clinton is a talented politician who succeeded with the help of a spouse who usually outsmarted their opponents. A first-rate television biography about them still remains to be made.