In December 2010, former President Bill Clinton and current President Barack Obama held a joint press conference at the White House. The topic was a proposed framework agreement intended to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits. After about 10 minutes, President Obama had to leave so as not to be late for an appointment with his wife. “I don’t want to make her mad, please go,” Clinton urged the President; Obama departed. Following this, Clinton continued to man the podium with all the skill and aplomb of a seasoned professional.
As I watched this spectacle, I couldn’t help but be somewhat in awe of Clinton’s abilities. It was clear that he was enjoying himself and perhaps he felt, briefly, that he was the President again. I also couldn’t help but notice the contrast between Bill and Barack: the latter, although visibly more robust, seemed more repressed, less fluid in performance than the former. I thought I detected moments in which Obama looked upon Clinton like a student absorbing lessons from a teacher. Perhaps there was also a hint of jealousy.
I am not alone in thinking more kindly of President Clinton in recent times; my father is very conservative, a stance which has only been hardened by his consumption of American talk radio. Yet he continually refers to Clinton as being a “great politician” and states that he is far more able than the present leader. He also admits, however, that he wasn’t a fan of Clinton at the time he was in office. Indeed, there are reasons even for the most ardent progressive to have qualms about Clinton: one’s sex life is definitely a private matter, however, having an affair with a junior subordinate, with the disparity in power relations that implies, is quite another thing. Furthermore, his private problems meant that his Presidency was damaged. Perhaps worst of all, he let down those closest to him.
It’s difficult to accurately portray this mix of both ability and flaws, of cunning and stupidity, of intelligence and impulse. However a new documentary entitled simply “Clinton” and directed by Barak Goodman is probably the best summary that has yet been achieved.
The film begins in “a place called Hope”, which is about as far from the alabaster halls of power as one can get. Nevertheless, the documentary makes clear that his self-confidence came to him naturally: given his humble surroundings, it seems it was woven into his DNA. His biological father, after all, was a travelling salesman. His abundant abilities manifested themselves in school; the film makes his early life seem like an almost effortless series of triumphs against adversity. This may be a disservice to his struggles as a young man; nevertheless, his talents did smooth his progression.
He continued his rise through university and won a Rhodes Scholarship. However, meeting Hillary is shown as a critical milestone. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a joke dating from Clinton’s first term:
Bill and Hillary are driving along a country road and need to fill their car up with fuel; they spot a small, dingy gas station up ahead and pull over. A gas station attendant comes out to help them: upon spotting him, Hillary gets out of the car. The attendant and Hillary share smiles, hugs, and chat happily for several minutes while the tank is filled. After finishing, Hillary and the attendant bid each other farewell and she gets back into the car. Bill and Hillary drive off.
After a few minutes, Bill can no longer contain his curiosity and asks, “Who was that man, Hillary?”
“Oh, him?” Hillary replies, “He’s an old boyfriend of mine. I nearly married him.”
Bill smiles. “Well honey, look how your life could have turned out: instead of marrying the President of the United States, you could have been the wife of a gas station attendant.”
“No Bill,” Hillary replies, “if I’d married him, he’d be President and you’d be pumping gas.”
The anecdote, which was funny at the time, is still amusing because of the truth behind it. The documentary makes it clear that Bill and Hillary remain a team, in an almost symbiotic relationship: the two balanced each other. He possesses easy charm, she possesses determination. He has vision, she is more practical than he. It was clear from the outset that they were a couple that intended to “go places”. Once Hillary enters the picture, the film accurately keeps her firmly in it for most of the narrative.
Clinton’s political career is shown to have not proceeded as smoothly as his academic pursuits: he lost his first attempt to run for Congress in 1974. However, he adapted to defeat: his run for Attorney General in 1976 was successful. He then became governor of Arkansas in 1978, and then lost it again in 1980: but again, he and Hillary adapted. He won back office in 1982. He was a rising star among governors, but then nearly wrecked his career with a terrible, droning speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988. He laughed at himself and then launched a run for the presidency in 1992. By the time the Presidential campaign arrives, the viewer may feel like a yo-yo on a string, the ups contrasted by big downs contrasted by big ups again.
The same motif applies to his time in office: defeat on health care reform is contrasted with victory over Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. The film credits Clinton’s budget with having created the basis for America’s economic expansion in the 1990’s: a flaw is its lack of mention of the arrival of the internet and dot com industries in spurring that growth. Furthermore, the film notably doesn’t address the presence of former Goldman Sachs personnel in senior positions, e.g. Robert Rubin; I don’t recall any mentions of the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, which was a key component in creating the current economic turmoil.
Where the film shines is in portraying the mess of scandals surrounding the Clinton Administration: it starts with Whitewater, which turned out to be a complicated road to nowhere. However, as the documentary shows, that affair gave Clinton’s interlocutors a taste for blood and a suspicion that he was less than truthful. This meant that when Monica Lewinsky appeared on the scene, there were far less qualms about delving into a matter which was on many levels a deeply personal one.
Having an affair with Ms. Lewinsky is shown to be a truly stupid thing for Clinton to have done: indeed it’s such a radical departure from expected behaviour that it seems neither Hillary nor Clinton’s colleagues believed it possible. Attempts are made to explain why he did this: the best elucidation is offered by Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labour. Secretary Reich suggests that Clinton needed to be loved and in his isolation as President, he reached out to a convenient source of affection. Nevertheless, this explanation is permitted to be inadequate within the context of the film. Hillary’s humiliation is spelled out. Chelsea’s often overlooked role as the bridge between her parents is stated clearly. The fatal damage done to the Presidency is clear: the yo yo stops at that point, at a relatively low ebb.
Yet the documentary leaves one thinking more kindly of the man: he’s a sinner, he has flaws, yet surpassing and enduring skills. Each individual is apportioned both talents and defects: in Bill Clinton both the good and the faulty were in heaping measures. It is to his credit that he was largely able to use them to the good: the country was much stronger in 2001 than it was when he arrived in Washington in 1993. It is possible now to reflect on his Presidency with more refined emotions; while I remain appalled by his weakness, I also cherish Clinton’s time in office as a golden period, when more seemed possible than in our constrained and restrictive epoch. It was not that long ago; perhaps the saddest thing about this film is that it reminds us of what we have lost.