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PBS American Presidents Documentary on Bill Clinton Airs

Part One Not So Insightful; Redemption in Part Two?

The much anticipated PBS series “American Presidents: Bill Clinton” aired last night with the first installment of the two-part documentary. The 2-hour program opened with clipped footage of the former president approaching the podium on the White House lawn in December of '98 to deliver an apology speech for his misdeeds in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

After his opening sentence, the show cuts to Clinton’s former Press Secretary, Dee Dee Myers, who establishes “the Comeback Kid” and second chances theme of the program with her articulate yet highly scripted remarks. Myers is one of the select few subjects who were interviewed for the program and chosen to deliver commentary on the personal and political life of Bill Clinton.

Unfortunately, the most colorful commentary by far came from Senator Trent Lot. Even more unfortunate for viewers, the Senator’s comments were not related to the former president, but instead described Newt Gingrich and his arrival on the republican scene. We do not hear from the Senator again.

Who are the primary interview subjects chosen by producers to personally navigate viewers through the life and times of Bill Clinton?

As mentioned, we hear from Dee Dee Myers a few times. A longtime “friend” from Clinton’s high school and coming-of-age years appears several times during the program. However, her comments are mostly about generational attitudes toward politics at the time. She alludes to Clinton being inspired by JFK, but never delivers enough information to conclude that Clinton’s early interest in public service was Kennedy-invoked.

Then there’s a former member of Clinton’s White House Counsel. We hear quite a bit from him. His part in the program seems to be geared toward adding insight into the tragic suicide of the administration’s Chief of Counsel who was also a close friend to both Bill and Hillary. However, he never says anything insightful or particularly candid regarding either Bill or Hillary, or Clinton’s presidency.

And of course, there’s Charlie Rose. Other than his affiliation with PBS, it’s hard to imagine why he was selected. We also get commentary from a former Arkansas political reporter who spent a lot of time with Clinton covering his earliest forays into politics, and who –on paper, at least –has the credentials to give viewers unique insight and interesting anecdotes. He does not. He offers a story about an airplane trip he took with the former president in Arkansas wherein Clinton jumped out of the plane while it was still taxying. His delivery falls flat and somehow manages to dull-down an otherwise exciting scene.

Somewhere in the first hour, we hear from a man who is given the generic title of Writer. He talks about Bill Clinton’s tumultuous childhood and how Clinton chose to process growing up in a dysfunctional family. Of all commenters, this “Writer” is the most promising. But alas, we only hear from him twice during the program.

Part One of Clinton: An American President was largely disappointing. Perhaps the more interesting and compelling content wound up on the cutting room floor. The documentary did seem to fixate on the obvious at the expense of the lesser known.

For example, allotting precious time to commenters describing how Clinton enjoyed his sexuality during his prime was of little value. It was analogous to declaring that a 2-year-old is fascinated with foreign objects. While such physiologies may hold entertainment value, they do not contribute toward any unique perspectives on the individual.

It would have been more instructive and insightful if the program dug deeper into what Bill Clinton was like in high school, for instance. How did he engage with his peers? How did he interact with his teachers and other adults? What coping mechanisms did he successfully construct?

What did you think about the first installment? Give your high or low marks and comments below, and tune-in tonight for Part Two of the series. Here’s hoping the last two hours more than make up for the first two.