Video: Clinton, episode one
The first part of PBS's new documentary series Clinton, on the life of the charismatic 42nd president of the United States of America.
If Clinton (PBS) were a drama rather than a documentary, the final scene of the first episode would have to be written off as wildly implausible. It was the one where William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as the 42nd president of the United States.
This was, after all, a man who’d grown up in the least promising of circumstances and whose political career seemed to have been over at least three times. As a programme on PBS - America’s high-minded, non-commercial channel - Clinton was never going to be sensationalist. At times last night, though, it came pretty close to being sensational.
Bill Clinton was famously born in Hope, Arkansas. By then, his father was already dead, and - in what sounded like the kind of euphemisms once employed in British newspaper obituaries - his mother was variously described by friends here as “vivacious”, “outgoing”, “exuberant” and “fun”. Moving to the party town of Hot Springs, she clearly came into her own. Less happily, she married Roger Clinton, an alcoholic who beat her in front of the children.
According to assorted witnesses-cum-amateur- psychologists, Bill dealt with the situation in what proved to be his habitual way: he pretended it wasn’t happening. Instead, he became so dazzling at school that in his final year the principal banned him from standing as class president, so as to give the others a chance.
Sadly for a UK audience, Clinton’s time at Oxford University barely rated a mention. Then again, the programme didn’t say much about his time at Georgetown or Yale either - except to note that “on one of his rare visits” to the Yale library, he met an earnest young woman, possibly even cleverer than himself, called Hillary Rodham.
The attraction, said friends, was instant - although, rather touchingly, both were a bit mystified as to what the other person saw in them. Not long afterwards, Hillary threw up her own promising Washington career and, much to the dismay of her feminist chums, joined Bill in Arkansas - a place that ranked 49th in most indicators of the well-being and prosperity of American states. (Hence the Arkansas catchphrase, “Thank God for Mississippi.”)
As you might expect, the Clintons’ marriage featured prominently last night. Yet, even with the best efforts of those amateur psychologists, it remained irreducibly mysterious. In the end, the best that a selection of exasperated aides could offer was that “they really love each other”.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Bill stood for Congress - and, although he narrowly lost, it was clear to Arkansas’s leading Democrats that this was a politician of unusual brilliance and charm. By 32, he was the state governor - but only for two years. Being voted out in 1980 marked the first time that his political career was generally agreed to be finished.
Two years later, he was back as governor, thanks to a campaign masterminded by Hillary. It was now time for Democrats nationwide to realise that he was “the brightest boy in the school”.
At that stage, the plan was to run for president in 1988. But then, in one of the episode’s great set-pieces, his female campaign manager sat him down and produced a long list of the women he was known to have been “involved with”. “I don’t think that you can run,” she told him firmly, after going through every one of them. Clinton’s political career was, it seemed, finished.
Except that four years later, he was back as a Democrat candidate and well ahead in the polls. Then came the appearance of Gennifer Flowers who, to the unconcealed delight of the press, was a lounge singer with tapes of their phone conversations. As the journalist Joe Klein put it last night, “The general thinking is that he was dead. Politicians don’t survive this thing.”
A few months later, Clinton accepted the nomination - although he was felt to have little chance against the Cold-War winning incumbent George H. W. Bush. Which of course brings us to that swearing in of January 1993…
Clinton continues for the next three nights - and my guess is that so will the same winning mix of impressive talking heads, well-chosen footage and one of most extraordinary political tales of recent times.
Clinton begins on PBS on Monday 20 February at 10.15pm.