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The Ombudsman Column

'The Comeback Kid' Came Back

I was away last week but President Clinton came back for a two-night, four-hour reunion with PBS viewers as part of American Experience's series of presidential biographies. The "Clinton" documentary takes us from the turbulent childhood in Arkansas through the 42nd president's frequently turbulent eight years in office (1993-2001).

Bill and Hillary Clinton are not interviewed in the film which debuted, appropriately enough, on Presidents Day, Feb. 20. But there was no other obvious timing peg, unless the passing of 20 years from the start of the Clinton era seems enough time to merit focus by American Experience's highly acclaimed collection of presidential remembrances. The Clinton documentary is the 15th episode in this string of programs that started about 20 years ago.

Whether you were a working journalist, as I was at the time, trying to record all that was happening, or a citizen watching in bewilderment, the Clinton years were a wild ride. On balance, and as a viewer who remembers those years vividly, I thought American Experience managed to live up to its reputation with this effort, although there were not many new insights for those who were paying attention at the time.

Most of the mail I got was critical. That is not surprising, given the strong feelings about Clinton from supporters and critics. A sampling of views from those who wrote to me is posted below.

Watch Clinton on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Some of the strengths of this program are unstated. Most importantly, it reminds us very powerfully how volatile and angry American politics were just 20 years ago in so many of the same ways that we see today. It never makes this point explicitly or recalls the affairs of other presidents or the extra-marital activities of some of those leading the impeachment charge against Clinton in Congress.

It reminds us also about a painful and deadly foreign policy dilemma in 1994 that almost never gets discussed these days: the failure to intervene in a genocide in Rwanda at least in part because of a military intervention in Somalia that went very badly a year or so earlier. But it fails to take note of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, what was to become the precursor of Sept. 11, 2001.

One of the weaknesses is that it may take more than 20 years to present a more historically contextual view of Clinton's presidential years — he left office with a 65 percent approval rating, a booming economy and budget surplus but also support for some controversial financial de-regulation moves — that is not overwhelmed by his sexual and truth-telling transgressions. On the other hand, those transgressions — by a politician of extraordinary talent — seemed so overwhelming, so impossibly reckless to believe at the time and even now, that they may always dominate recollections of many Americans.

"I believe he is an argument without end — that there will be people discussing and debating the significance of Bill Clinton for a long time," journalist and author John Harris, who covered Clinton for The Washington Post and is now the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Politico, said near the end of the program.

There were many reviews of this program. Some that I found of special interest included one by Time magazine critic James Poniewozik, and others by Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times, Hank Stuever in The Washington Post, Lloyd Grove in The Daily Beast and David Zurawik for The Baltimore Sun.

And in Clinton's Corner, Lanny Davis

One of the most critical reviews came online in The Daily Caller from Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to the president. Davis writes that, except for the politically fatal Monica "Lewinsky matter," eight years of partisan Republican attacks on various "scandals" led nowhere, including the long, expensive and very high-profile investigation into the "Whitewater" real estate controversy. "There was not a single conviction of any administration official for conduct that occurred during the president's time in office," he wrote, and "at the end, [Special Prosecutor Kenneth] Starr announced that no criminal charges would be filed against President or Mrs. Clinton."

Davis also felt that the program gave short-shrift to the economic and job-creation accomplishments of the Clinton administration and spent too much time on the Lewinsky affair.

I thought Davis raised a good point about the failure to prove wrong-doing by the Clintons in the Whitewater "scandal." I thought this was an important point — worthy of more than the scant attention it got — not only in terms of closing the loop on the history of the administration. I also thought the press' role in uncovering and then covering this long-running story was worthy of at least some assessment.

As for the economic accomplishments, my sense as a viewer is that they were there, and made clear, in the film. I thought the narrator at the end of the film caught it just right. "Clinton departed the White House for the last time on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2001. In the end, he left much as he had come: a man loved by his friends, and loathed by his enemies. A politician who had achieved a great deal, yet left behind a curious sense of unfilled promise."

Here Are the Letters

Having watched your "documentary" on Bill Clinton I want to tell you that I agree with Lanny Davis's article at Newsmax.com. I'm 72 years old and an admitted Clinton fan who was chagrined at his stupidity in getting involved with Monica Lewinsky. However, I followed the different attacks on the Clinton's closely going all the way back to the attacks that began with Lee Atwater when it looked like Clinton might run for president. Included were articles that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the American Spectator, Slate, Washington Post and the New York Times, not to mention talk radio. The transparent Republican objectives were themselves scandalous and more often than not disingenuous. I will continue to support my local PBS affiliates, Maryland Public Television, but I am disappointed by the weak, incomplete and unbalanced coverage in this "documentary". And what about Monica Lewinsky: leave the woman alone!

John Kelly, Towson, MD

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Shame on you for the video on the Clintons. You should've focused on his wonderful accomplishments as leader of our country & less on his personal issues. This reeks of Republican propaganda.

Sharon Jenkins, Somerset, PA

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Just saw American Experience about President Clinton. The fact that you have people like Dick Morris and Lucianne Goldberg making snide remarks makes me sick. Add that to the fact that you completely ignore the war that the national press corps has waged since he first announced his candidacy in 1991.

De Van, Knoxville, TN

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I have been quite put off with the recent airing of the Clinton special. It is significantly biased and highlights the scandals while skipping lightly over the good the administration did. This show is not in keeping with the unbiased broadcasting policy I've come to respect from PBS shows. It appears to be a show in support of Mr. Gingrich, the most reprehensible politician of modern political memory, than a balanced look at the Clinton administration. It also appears to pander to current Republican leadership interests. I strongly believe PBS should apologize for airing this patently skewed history of an administration that did more good than any preceding or following administration since Eisenhower's and Kennedy's.

Van Buren, AR


Not Just a 'Travesty,' but 'Disgraceful' as Well

The PBS program about President Clinton was a disgraceful travesty, because it constantly dwelled upon Ken Starr's abuse of power in hounding one of our greatest presidents about his private life, instead of focusing on the fundamental historical reality that President Clinton led our country to eight years of peace and prosperity. The independent counsel's power was unconstitutional and invited such gross abuses as the prejudiced, vindictive Starr engaged in, as was demonstrated by the fact that this office was abolished — though only after Starr and the partisan Republicans wasted massive amounts of time, money and our nation's energy regarding personal mistakes of President Clinton that had nothing to do with his statesmanlike successes in economic and foreign policy.

A competent, objective documentary on the Clinton Presidency should have devoted most of the coverage to the increasing job creation, employment and other economic progress, transformation of massive deficits into a surplus by the end of the administration, international accomplishments in Ireland, Latin America, the Balkans, the Far East and elsewhere. Instead, your incompetent and superficial dwelled upon Monica Lewinsky and Ken Starr as if that outrageous abuse of power were the main legacy of the Clinton administration.

Certainly, Clinton also made some mistakes as president. It would have been legitimate to devote some time to substantive mistakes, but not the long-winded recitation of the details about Lewinsky and Starr.

Lee Powell, Waldorf, MD

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Unbelievable that you have Dick Morris commenting on Bill Clinton. Did you ask him about his toe-sucking episodes? That you consider him a credible person is sickening. I guess you're sucking up to Fox News & the right-wing.

Barbara Gleason, New York, NY

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I watched the first half of Clinton on the American Experience and was frankly so dismayed by the program's lack of balance that I am not waiting for the second night to register a viewer protest. To present well known Clinton antagonists as objective commentators without any context made me think I was watching the kind of schlock documentary run on commercial cable channels rather than the respected American Experience.

Burke, VA

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This is not a documentary or fair. I feel like I'm reading an Enquirer, or browsing TMZ. I think I'll stop the Tivo, and take a shower. Thanks for butchering the best president in 40 years. Some GOP shill was behind this production.

Jackson, WY