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TV Tonight: The ’90s Are Back, with PBS’ Clinton

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Bill Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

It may not be the most novel political insight to point out that history repeats itself, but the most intriguing thing about watching PBS’s new American Experience documentary, Clinton (airing tonight and tomorrow), is seeing how quickly it does. So many elements of today’s politics are here—a deeply polarized Washington, a new President criticized by his own party for caving too quickly on the issues, hyperbolic debate over health care—that once we get to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and a new-old face appears, that of Newt Gingrich, it seems only natural. Flannel shirts may have gone out of style, but the ’90s never really left us.

History repeats in its patterns, but its particulars are specific to individuals. The portrait of Bill Clinton that this documentary draws will not be too surprising, in its facts or its arc, to anyone who followed politics in the past couple of decades: a people person who deeply needed to be loved (individually and collectively), a man who relished retail politics and policy yet often undermined himself through overreaching and personal failings. The political Clinton is captured in anecdotes like one, from his early days running for governor of Arkansas, when he insisted on landing a small plane in a storm rather than possibly miss meeting a handful of voters. The personal Clinton is drawn with familiar bio details—his childhood with an alcoholic stepfather, his courtship of Hillary Rodham, and so on. And the two Clintons collides in the second night of the documentary, which, like much of his second term, is taken up with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As his onetime press secretary Dee Dee Myers says, Clinton was a man believed in second chances, as many as he could get, and “The American public is pretty forgiving of a guy who sees himself as a sinner.”

All this recent history is less interesting for any new revelations than for the way it reflects on politics today. If you believe that Washington is more polarized that it ever was or could have been, Clinton takes you back to the Whitewater investigation and the suicide under pressure of Vincent Foster. If you believe that President Obama is a unique disappointment to his Democratic base, who wanted a fighter and got a compromiser, Clinton walks you though the various setbacks, reversals and withdrawn nominations of the 42nd president’s first term. (In an editorial cartoon, Clinton is shown as a batter boxer in a corner, the ring littered with towels labeled “BAIRD,” “TAX CUT,” “HAITI.” “Slow down, Bill,” his trainer says, “you’re running outta towels.”) The complaint by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich that Clinton wanted too much to be liked and refused to twist arms like LBJ sounds a lot like similar complaints you may have heard about Obama from, say, Robert Reich.

The major weakness of the documentary may be a result of skittishness about dealing with historical events so close to the present: very little that happens during Clinton’s terms is related to much of American history before or after it. When Clinton successfully passes an upper-income tax increase as part of a deficit-reduction deal, there’s little mention of the Reagan-era trends away from progressive taxation. And while an event like the al Qaeda bombing of US embassies in Africa, in retrospect, seems far more important than the Lewinsky investigation, it and the response get only scant minutes in comparison. It’s like we’re re-watching the Clinton administration in real time, with events treated exactly as important as they were at the time, while the documentary deliberately avoids bringing any historical perspective to bear.

But as a re-immersion in the media circuses of the 1990s, Clinton (which, like all PBS American Experience documentaries, does not interview the principal subjects) is well-done, with a strong eye for small moments, like the walk across the White House lawn, after Clinton’s admission of the Lewinsky affair in 1998, in which a teenage Chelsea Clinton made herself a bridge between her parents by taking each of their hands. In retrospect, so much of the drama of that era seems tiny and remote. Except for the aspects that truly mattered, and to see those play out, you need only turn on tonight’s news.