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Watching TV: "Clinton"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 20, 2012

PBS's "American Experience" continues a series of presidential profiles tonight with a twp-part, four-hour portrait of Bill Clinton. (It concludes tomorrow night.) The program is profoundly sad in its presentation of two tragic figures -- not only Bill but Hillary, who put aside her own promising career to support Bill's and endured countless private humiliations as well as a huge public one.

And it is a sorrowful look at American politics because Clinton -- for all his belief in his ability to persuade anyone to his way of thinking -- also proved very good at making people hate him; he was if not Slick Willie certainly slippery, with a lawyerly way of approaching language, a willingness to abandon most priinciples when they seemed unwinnable (even his much praised economy-boosting budget, the program argues, arose after the budget he wanted was seen as a political loser) and a destructive sexual appetite.

It was after all during what would prove to be one of his greatest political triumphs -- the standoff with House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich which led to a government shutodwn -- that Clinton had his first liaison with Monica Lewinsky (a moment he in his mild-phrasing way calls an "inappropriate encounter" in his memoirs). What followed was a summation of all the problems Clinton faced or created, from his evasiveness to his deceving even those close to him to the bank of hatred he had generated in his enemies that drove Ken Starr (who is among those interviewed in the program) to look for anything that might nail Clinton. It also drove his enemies in the House to impeach him even though they would never get a convictiion in the Senate; in the process, it just added to Amercains' cynicism about politicians generally.

Indeed, I would argue that Clinton still taints politics; the book "Game Change" certainly shows him as a complicated, difficult presence in Hillary's presidential campaign, and much of the animus driving politics these days carries an impliicit desire not to let anyone get away with what Clinton did.

Of course, part of the argument underlying "Clinton" -- which draws on interviews with friends, enemies and writer who have observed him; vintage video, often remarkable photographs and writing about Clinton, including his memoirs -- is that he, America and the world will always be as haunted by his failures as his success. A military disaster in Somalia, for instance, kept him from acting on the horrors in Rwanda. The Lewinsky issue consumed him privately for years when he might have accomplished more as president. He may have been elected president twice (and I voted for him both times) but to this day questions remain about his morality, his self-discipline and his legacy.

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