Last night PBS debuted part one of its American Experience look at the presidency of Bill Clinton, with all its triumph and scandal and fraught middle ground. It was an entertaining, oddly familiar look at the recent past, a time that seems in some ways no different from now.
Written and directed by the handily named Barak Goodman, Clinton takes a mostly glancing look at Clinton's early years — the death of his father, his active high school years — before getting into the meat of his political life. Goodman makes sure to establish Clinton's try, fail, come back, succeed pattern early on, starting with his failed congressional run in the early 1970s. After that defeat we follow the story to his Attorney General victory, the first gubernatorial win, followed by a loss, then followed by another victory. There's a kind of easygoing yet rollicking lyrical rhythm to the ever-mounting story, a rise to power and success that's not so meteoric that you can't stop for a breather every once in a while.
Of course those slower periods can allow for some darkness to creep in, and indeed it did for Clinton. Gennifer Flowers and Whitewater come into play in the first part of Clinton, while of course the impending doom of Lewinskygate looms on the horizon. The documentary is fairly evenhanded when it comes to both scandals and policy failures, though the overall tone is rather awed and reverential, so the criticisms sort of sound like narrator Campbell Scott is simply trying to humanize a god. It's unlikely that this or really any other piece of work on Clinton will attempt, successfully or not, to deify him the way Ronald Reagan has been, but there are moments in Clinton that feel guided by a pretty heavy hand.
Chronicling the story up through the midterms of 1994, the first part of the documentary is a pretty speedy look at things, with the budget of 1993 and Hillary Clinton's failed health care initiative getting dramatic but swift treatment alongside the suicide of Vince Foster and the troubles in Rwanda and Somalia. The most compelling and dispiritingly familiar segment comes at the end, as Goodman details the rise of Newt Gingrich and the right's grand and angry push-back, a movement that has carried us all the way up to this current election. Nothing seemes terribly different then from what it is now, save for fewer wrinkles and some truly terrible haircuts. (The bespectacled busybody Lucianne Goldberg pops up briefly to neg on Hillary's hair, which she is unfortunately not wrong about.) I'd imagine that this part of Clinton would be an interesting thing to watch for any person in high school or early college who is experiencing their first presidential election as a voter, as the debate and rhetoric sounds almost exactly the same. (Socialized health care, take back America, jobs, etc.) Ha, well, interesting? Yes. Encouraging? No, not exactly.
It's hard to put a stamp on Clinton without having seen the second part, but so far it's a thorough if not terribly in-depth look at a political story that marked some vague beginnings and some grim endings. Watching it, it's strange to feel almost wiser than Clinton, as we're blessed with the knowledge of the future, we know how it all turns out. There's an air of bittersweet nostalgia about the whole thing — the recent-ish past seems much more tangible and thus, in an odd way, that much further away. Were we ever so young? Did we ever know so little? All that health care hope! All that surplus and growth! It'll all go to rot I'm afraid, Mr. Clinton. If only we could warn you.