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American Experience: Clinton (Blu-ray Review)

12 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Two-disc set
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.

Just as President Obama has to date reaped immeasurable benefits from first, Donald Trump, and then the subsequent Republican equivalents of what Joe Louis followers used to term “the bum of the month,” William Jefferson Clinton had few peers when it came to picking enemies.

And now they’re back: failed Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and his maddening Nurse Ratched passive-aggressiveness (he could have been her brother). Also thrice-wed, messily divorced hack Congressman Bob Barr from Georgia — who, when he wasn’t hosting gun rallies with Chuck Heston, was accusing Clinton of trying to play “wag the dog” during impeachment by taking an air strike out on some guy named Osama Bin Laden. More briefly, there’s pitiably angry Linda Tripp, the Monica Lewinsky co-worker who became Clinton’s by-proxy successful accuser before John Goodman played her in drag on "Saturday Night Live" — also Tripp conspirator/literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who can’t show up on screen here for more than a blink without making a crack about Hillary Clinton’s hair. And yes, there is also what has come to be a constant: Newt Gingrich — who, if he’d been around when it was made in 1958, could have starred in The Thing That Couldn’t Die.  

On the other hand, no one since Richard Nixon was as good as Clinton when it came to what Nixon himself called handing his “enemies the sword” — which is why Clinton will always be a definitive “on the other hand” president. You have to take it super seriously when former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers and other crestfallen staffers testify how chapped their boss’s actions left them — to say nothing of his engaging in unconscionably shabby treatment (and worse, shabby public treatment) of the First Lady. A common theme here is that in some fundamentally twisted way, Clinton was almost compelled to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so that he could reinvent himself again, which is not exactly a mindset anyone craves in the Oval Office. Still, I keep reminding myself: good economic times, a budget surplus and no bogus invasions of another country.

By my count, American Experience has profiled every 20th-century-and-beyond U.S. president from Clinton back to Woodrow Wilson with the exception of Coolidge and Harding (as scintillating a view as a Harding go-round might be). I own and have seen all of them, and director Barak Goodman’s Clinton portrait is right up there — though as any documentarian must, Goodman must go where the material leads him, which in this case isn’t going to be the Treaty of Versailles. His telling examines, though just a tad, the idea that thoughts about the fleetingness of life (Clinton’s biological father died before his born) might have motivated his behavior in the kinds of ways that motivated, say, Mickey Mantle’s own self-destructiveness. There is somewhat more material on the oft-advanced theory that growing up in an alcoholic household (this would be Clinton’s namesake stepfather) might have nurtured some behavioral patterns as well. Among the many heavy hitters interviewed to offer formative detail is writer David Maraniss, whose First in His Class is generally considered to be the best biography ever of a sitting president (his Clemente is also my favorite sports biography of all time).

The other major theme here (in terms of personal life) is the law school-and-beyond professional link with wife Hillary, whose brains and judgment Clinton respected more than anyone else’s. And how she was forced to submerge her own personality — and did — in those early Arkansas days and beyond before getting the belated opportunity to act upon on her heavy collegiate potential to become a political late bloomer. Even my lifelong Republican mother says she would vote for Hillary if she ever ran for president (Hillary vs. Jeb Bush — now, that would be a mindbender).

Due to the material, which does relive legitimate world events as well, the 3 hours, 34 minutes here go very fast, aided by the appearances of an array of players including standout journalist Michael Isikoff (who made his career with the Lewinsky scandal), Ken Starr himself and a lot of faces political junkies like myself watch every night on the political talk shows. People will debate forever whether or not it was a substantive molehill that Republicans made out of a mountain when there were, after all, one or two substantial crises germinating around the globe and with mortgage holders. But just to complicate the central Clinton perjury issue, I feel obliged to say that I have heard friends of both sexes opine that oral sex isn’t really sex — and that the first time I heard this assertion advanced to me, Nixon was president. I’m not saying I agree with this assertion — but the claim that Clinton is   the only person who’d ever advance this theory was always a Brooklyn Bridge best unloadable on Bob Barr (who?) and his boys.

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