Introduction and Overview
This guide has been created to accompany Clinton, a four-hour AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary that presents a rich biographical portrait of America's 42nd president. The film traces Bill Clinton's rise to power as well as the major initiatives and setbacks that marked his eight years in the White House -- an era during which America was at peace and enjoyed greater economic security than at any other time in its history. Combining historical footage with eyewitness testimony and commentary from an array of colleagues, advisers, friends, journalists, and adversaries, Clinton provides a prism through which to view and analyze the modern American presidency. At the same time, the film tells a story of loss and recovery, of missed opportunities and triumphant strides forward, of scandal and redemption as a new generation ascended to political leadership in America.
Intended to spark reflection on the key themes and stories presented in the film, this guide can be used by educators, students, and other viewers as a starting point from which to discuss and analyze Bill Clinton's path to the presidency, his two terms in the White House, and his ongoing legacy, along with broader questions of presidential leadership. The guide can serve as a resource in history, social studies, government, political science, civics, current events, world studies, geography, English, and writing courses.
Learning Objectives and Curriculum Standards
Clinton provides a powerful springboard for discussion, writing, and activities that meet a variety of state and national curriculum standards and benchmarks. These include fostering an understanding of:
- Major developments in domestic politics and foreign policy during the Clinton administration, and how these developments influenced perceptions of the American presidency
- The major economic issues of the Clinton presidency (e.g., the impact of recession and the growing national debt on the Clinton administration's domestic agenda; the debate over welfare reform; the roots and consequences of the federal budget surplus)
- The influence of U.S. foreign policy on international events between 1992 and 2000 (e.g., the U.S. role in the evolving political struggles in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America; foreign policy in the post-Cold War era; U.S. goals and objectives in the Middle East; how and why human rights issues have been a factor in American foreign-policy decisions)
- The causes of terrorism and its influence on U.S. foreign and domestic policy
- The central ideas of American constitutional government and the role that the Constitution plays in limiting the powers of government (e.g., separation and sharing of powers, checks and balances, Bill of Rights)
- The process by which specific features and the overall design of the Constitution result in tensions among the three branches of government (e.g., the power of impeachment, veto power, judicial review), and the argument that the tensions resulting from separation of powers, checks and balances, and judicial review tend to slow down the process of making and enforcing laws, thus insuring better outcomes
- The process through which the legislative branch can check the powers of the executive and judicial branches by establishing committees to oversee the executive branch's activities; impeaching the president, other members of the executive branch, and federal judges; overriding presidential vetoes; disapproving presidential appointments; and proposing amendments to the Constitution
- The powers over foreign affairs that the Constitution gives to the president, Congress, and the federal judiciary; and the tension between constitutional provisions and the requirements of foreign policy (e.g., the need of the president to make expeditious decisions in times of international emergency)
- The evolving use of television, radio, newspapers, and emerging forms of electronic communication, as well as the role of polling, to influence American politics and shape public opinion
- The role of Hillary Rodham Clinton in expanding and redefining the position of First Lady
Source: Adapted from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's Content Knowledge Standards and Benchmark Database (www.mcrel.org/standards)
Using This Guide
This guide is divided into two parts. Part One presents a series of discussion questions organized into four thematic blocks. These focus on Bill Clinton's path to the presidency, his domestic accomplishments and setbacks, his foreign-policy accomplishments and setbacks, and the role of the media in creating and shaping Clinton's image. These questions can be used for small-group or whole-group discussion, or as writing prompts. In Part Two, you'll find suggested projects and extensions related to the film, including activities on interpreting editorial cartoons and analyzing campaign videos and political theme songs.
Clinton is a four-hour documentary divided into two parts: "The Comeback Kid" and "The Survivor". Should class time allow for viewing of the entire film, you may want to screen half-hour segments to permit time for discussion.
While this is a PBS documentary to be aired for the general public, teachers should note that the film contains explicit references to President Clinton's extramarital affairs and alleged affairs. Teachers are encouraged to preview the film before screening with students to determine what is appropriate for classroom viewing and discussion.
Part One: Discussing the Film
Before Viewing: Questions for Discussion
Activating Prior Knowledge. What do you already know about Bill Clinton? What were some of the highlights and low points of his presidency, including domestic and foreign initiatives? What impressions do you have of him? How do you think Clinton's image has changed since leaving The White House?
Making Predictions. What aspects of Clinton's life and presidency do you expect the film to cover? In the documentary, Clinton is called the "Comeback Kid." What earned him this name?
You may assign one or more of the questions below to the whole class, or ask individual students or small groups to choose one area on which to focus during viewing.
1. As you watch, make a chronology that lists Clinton's major domestic and foreign-policy initiatives. (You may find it helpful to review the timeline online.) Of these initiatives, which were most successful? Least successful? Why?
2. The theme of "second chances" runs throughout the film. Track this theme and Clinton's many comebacks as you watch. Then discuss: What events necessitate a "second chance" for Clinton? Dee Dee Myers, who served as Clinton's press secretary, asks in the film, "How many second chances does any one person deserve?" How would you answer this question?
3. Trace the evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton's political career and her relationship with Bill Clinton. In what ways does she challenge traditional expectations for a First Lady? How is she both an asset and liability to her husband?
4. Note who is interviewed about Clinton. What was each interviewee's relationship to Clinton or role in the Administration? You may want to choose one figure as the subject of a more in-depth biographical sketch, focusing on his or her relationship to and perspective on the Clintons. (A list of intervieweesfeatured in the film can be found on the website.)
After Viewing: For Discussion or Writing
The following post-viewing discussion questions are organized into four strands, focusing on Clinton's path to the presidency; domestic achievements and challenges; foreign-policy achievements and challenges; and the media's role in creating perceptions of Clinton.
The Path to the Presidency
1. Roots and origins. To what do you attribute Bill Clinton's ambition to become President of the United States? Describe his path to the presidency. (You may find it helpful to review Chapter 2 (Political Ambition), Chapter 3 (Early Life), and Chapter 4 (Entering Politics) of Part 1 of the film.) What advantages and disadvantages resulted from Clinton's growing up in Arkansas? Why did he return there to launch his political career? How and why was political life in Washington, DC initially a shock for him? What role did Hillary Rodham Clinton play in his early career?
2. Clinton's vision. As a candidate for president, what was Bill Clinton's vision for America? What was new about his rhetoric? What were his major campaign promises? What qualities do you think propelled Clinton to be selected as the Democratic nominee for President in 1992?
3. "A political natural." The film refers to Clinton as "a political natural." What adjectives, anecdotes, and images from the film capture Clinton's style as a politician and as a manager, both on the campaign trail and in the White House? How would his supporters describe him? His detractors?
4. "The Comeback Kid." Robert Reich argues that Bill Clinton was "constitutionally incapable of not coming back." What did Reich mean? What events and details presented in the film support this statement? Of the many comebacks chronicled in the film, which strikes you as the most dramatic? Why?
Domestic Accomplishments and Challenges
1. Agenda for reform. According to Senate aide Lawrence O'Donnell, what did Bill Clinton envision as the "giant monument" of his Presidency? How did Bill and Hillary Clinton approach their effort to overhaul healthcare in America, as described in Chapter 12 (Health Care) of Part 1 of the film? What were the key aspects of their proposal? What opposition did they encounter? How did they respond? What was the outcome? What other aspects of domestic policy did Clinton seek to reform? Consider welfare, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the federal budget. What was Clinton trying to accomplish in each of these areas? To what extent was he successful?
2. "The Republican revolution." What happened in the midterm elections of 1994? What message did this "Republican revolution" send to Bill Clinton? How did this election alter the balance of power in Washington? Why was Clinton described as a "hostage in his own White House"? What did Clinton mean when he told a reporter, "The Constitution gives me relevance"? What changes in his approach to governance did Clinton adopt after the midterm elections? (You may want to review Chapter 13 (Midterm Elections) of Part 1 and Chapter 2 (A Change in the President) of Part 2 as you consider these questions.)
3. Balancing the budget. What led to the government shutdown of 1995-96? What role did Newt Gingrich play in this event, and how did Clinton handle the Republicans' demands for a balanced budget? How was this crisis eventually resolved? What "line in the sand" did Clinton draw in response to the shutdown? In your opinion, who came out ahead following this crisis -- Clinton or the Republicans? Why?
4. The Starr Report. Why does Clinton point to his decision to order an investigation into Whitewater as "the worst mistake" of his presidency? What does journalist Max Brantley mean when he describes Independent Counsel Ken Starr's investigation as "a persecution, not a prosecution"? How did the Starr investigation come to include Monica Lewinsky and ultimately focus on that incident and not Whitewater? What was the essence of the Starr Report? Watch the excerpt from Clinton's apology (in Chapter 12 (Impeachment) of Part 2). What is your reaction to Clinton's statement?
5. Impeachment and trial. Define "impeachment." On what charges was Clinton impeached (that is, accused) by the House of Representatives? What happened when the Senate found Clinton not guilty on both articles of impeachment? According to the film, how did this event affect his last two years in office? What comparison is made in the film to Richard Nixon? What "fundamental difference" does journalist Michael Isikoff see between the two Presidents? (Review Chapter 11 ("Wag the Dog") of Part 2 to help answer these questions.) Do you think Clinton should have resigned? Why or why not?
6. Economic progress. What shape was the U.S. economy in when Bill Clinton took office? When he left office? What specific measures of economic progress did Clinton point to? At one point, the New York Times wrote: "Economists, historians and members of both parties will no doubt debate for years whether Mr. Clinton was lucky or good when it came to the economy." Based on evidence presented in the film, how would you answer this question?
Foreign Accomplishments and Challenges
1. Somalia and Rwanda. Review Chapter 10 (Somalia and Rwanda) of Part 1. What events in Somalia and Rwanda led to calls for the U.S. to intervene in each country? How did President Clinton respond in each case? What was the result? Reflecting on these contrasting responses, what lessons can you draw about when and why the U.S. should intervene in the affairs of other countries?
2. The Clinton Doctrine. What is "the Clinton Doctrine"? Using your own words, summarize this approach to foreign policy. What does Wesley Clark mean when he says that this doctrine "wasn't necessarily a military doctrine; it was a national security doctrine"? In what specific places was the Clinton Doctrine applied?
3. Responding to Al-Qaeda. In 1998, the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed. What group was identified as responsible for these attacks? How did Clinton respond? How successful was Clinton's response? In Chapter 11 ("Wag the Dog") of Part 2, Richard Clarke notes that some saw Clinton's action in Africa as an attempt to "wag the dog." What does this phrase mean? What is your opinion? How would you have advised Clinton to act in this situation?
Media, Image, and Public Perceptions
1. Dick Morris and the role of polling. Who is Dick Morris and what role did polling play in the Clinton White House? What advice did Morris offer Clinton during Ken Starr's investigation into the Lewinsky incident? How did Clinton respond to Morris' advice to "tell the truth to the American people"?
2. Images and perceptions. What image did Bill Clinton attempt to project to the country? What perception did detractors such as Lucianne Goldberg have of Clinton? (See Chapter 7 (Second Term) of Part 1 for Goldberg's description of Clinton as "a used-car salesman.") The documentary refers several times to public distrust of Clinton and Hillary. To what do you attribute this?
3. Clinton and the media. Compare these two clips: the segment in which Clinton is debating George W. Bush and Ross Perot (Chapter 6 (The Whitewater Investigation) of Part 1), and the clip in which Clinton is preparing to give a speech and asks whether he will have a teleprompter (Chapter 7 (Second Term) of Part 1). What qualities and character traits does Clinton exhibit in each instance? In what ways do these clips show Clinton's mastery of the media? Where is he at the mercy of the media?
Part Two: Activities and Extensions
1. Analyze a cartoon. Review the "Capitol Hill Playground" cartoon that appears in Chapter 7 (Second Term) of Part 1.
Then answer the following questions:
- How is Bill Clinton depicted in this image? How are Republicans portrayed?
- What does the seesaw represent?
- What comment is the cartoonist making about the balance of power on Capitol Hill? How does he convey this argument?
- According to observers interviewed in the film, what was Bill and Hillary Clinton's reaction to their reception in Washington?
- How does the fact that Clinton won only 43 percent of the vote in the three-way election of 1992 election help explain the dynamic depicted in the cartoon?
2. Write a critical review. Imagine that you are the TV critic for your hometown or school newspaper. Write a review of Clinton, taking into account the following questions:
- Do you feel the film is balanced in terms of political bias? Cite examples of ways in which the film offers opposing perspectives and opinions about Clinton.
- If you were making the documentary, who else might you interview? What would you ask?
- What other questions would you ask those interviewed in the film?
- Why you think the film does not include interviews with the Clintons? How would that change the tone of the film?
3. Music and politics. Watch the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" on YouTube and read the lyrics. Clinton played this song at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and then got Fleetwood Mac to reunite and perform at his 1993 inauguration. He later used some of the lyrics and played the song at several key political events during his presidency. Why do you think Clinton chose this as a theme song? Do you feel it was a good choice? What message does it send? If you were running for office, what would your theme song be? Why?
4. A Man from Hope. Watch this campaign video, first played at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, and analyze it. (The full video is online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=6l_h9ltTZD0 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPrfYLBoZdo.) What issues was this video designed to address? What aspects of Clinton's career and family background did it highlight? What perception of his character is it intended to convey? What was daring or unexpected about this video? How effective was it in 1992? What issues or controversies of Clinton's presidency does it foreshadow?
5. Take a stand. Writer Gail Sheehy comments in the film that Hillary Clinton "had been caught out trying to be a co-President." Is this a fair assessment? Given Hillary Clinton's skills and talents, should America have embraced her as a co-President? Respond to these questions in a persuasive essay in which you express your opinion on the pros and cons of a co-President and on what you see as the optimal role for a First Lady.
6. Dig deeper. Choose one of Clinton's major initiatives from the following list and, working in small groups or as a class, learn more about this issue and what it says about Clinton's effectiveness as president. Share your findings with the class. As you research the topic, consider Clinton's approach to or vision for this issue; opposition he encountered; his response to the opposition; and the ultimate outcome. Initiatives to investigate include:
- North Atlantic Fair Trade Act (NAFTA)
- The Brady Bill
- Healthcare reform
- Welfare reform
- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
- Balancing the budget
- Creating a budget surplus
- Middle East peace talks
- Tanzania and Kenya
7. Then and now. What have Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton been doing since they left the White House? Choose one of these figures and write a brief update on his or her life and work since 2001. In what ways has his or her image changed? Conclude your piece by creating a list of three or more questions you would like to ask Bill, Hillary or Chelsea Clinton if you had the chance to conduct an interview on their post-White House years.
Culminating Activity: Assessing Clinton's Legacy
Greatness, argues journalist Joe Klein in the film, is usually thrust upon a president by a crisis: "Abe Lincoln had the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt had the Depression and World War II." In your opinion, did Bill Clinton have a similar crisis that brought out his greatness? For what is Clinton remembered? How do you think he should be remembered? Will history remember him as a great president? Discuss, citing examples from the film to support your argument. (You may wish to review the article on Clinton's Legacy on the website.)