The Clinton administration was the major administration in my formative years, as dominant as the Reagan administration was when I was born. I remember hearing about Kosovo, and a little bit about Bosnia, the Democrats losing control of Congress, and, of course, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” But I didn’t seek out more details about what I heard. I was busy going to elementary, middle, and high school, and figuring out who I was and what I might want to do with my life.
January 20th, the day of President Obama’s official swearing-in according to the Constitution and the day before his second inauguration, will mark 20 years since Bill Clinton took office. Now seems to be the right time to assess his impact on the nation after the proper distance of time. Moreover, having long passed being 8 years old, and looking at 29 in two months, my love of presidential history and a desire to know what else happened in the world while I grew up compels me to seek out everything there is to know about the Clinton administration, to learn about what I didn’t know beyond the surface news.
Watching The Clintons: An American Odyssey, I’m amazed at how much I don’t remember, simply because I never sought out any of this. I didn’t watch as many of Clinton’s speeches as I once thought. His inauguration speeches, shown in part here, are as foreign to me as his speeches about the conflict in Northern Ireland, reaction to his impeachment, and the speech after he was acquitted. This is a quick and easy opportunity to hear some of them, to see how youthful Clinton looked in his first two years in office, and then, during a speech admitting failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda, how he began aging, how tired he looks. It’s the nature of this massive job.
The overarching feeling about this documentary, written and directed by Robert D. Kline, is how well it would fit in at the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, shown a few times a day in a screening room there, if they have a screening room, or at least steadily supplied in the souvenir store. But hold on! Look at this on the back of the DVD case: “Film and Photos Courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library.” Obviously, with that kind of cooperation, Kline doesn’t dig deeper than he has to. He glosses quickly over the failure of Clinton’s health care plan and the fall of Apartheid, and almost makes you wonder if Clinton’s tribute to JFK at the JFK Presidential Library will be followed by his speech at Nixon’s funeral just to show that he’s bipartisan. It comes much later.
Political junkies will have a lot of fun with this documentary, analyzing each moment, probably determining that it’s obviously very favorable to Clinton, but just how favorable? That’s up to those viewers to decide. For me, it raises a lot more questions, such as exactly how much Vice President Gore got to do during those eight years, the logistics of putting together the Middle East Peace Conference that saw Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat shaking hands, and the real history behind the political relationship between Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Moreover, it makes me want to watch The Special Relationship again, which dramatizes that relationship, and sees Dennis Quaid as Clinton.
The title is somewhat of a misnomer, though. It’s mostly about Bill. There’s footage of Hillary giving a speech at an international women’s conference in Beijing as First Lady, and then the end of the documentary rushes through her accomplishments as a senator and Secretary of State, while asking the still-tantalizing question of her possibly being the first woman elected president. Kline does a grave disservice by not intertwining her time in the White House with his. She was definitely not a First Lady who merely smiled and stood in the background. She was just as much a force as he was back then, and deserves just as much time.
No doubt we can never truly know the private lives of the presidents as intimately as they themselves did and do, their inner turmoil as they agonized over the hard decisions they had to make, and those times when they felt pure joy at what they were able to accomplish. It’s understandable that Kline presents the fully public face of Clinton with all these speeches, but we do get just a glimpse of the private side. Clinton’s speech to the nation about lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and his farewell address show him looking at the camera that broadcasts his image to the nation. The angle we’re looking at is just off to the side. We can concentrate solely on his facial expressions if we want, wondering what he might be thinking as he gives those speeches. What do you remember about Clinton? How did you feel? Sit back with The Clintons: An American Odyssey and think about it as you watch these speeches. As with any president of recent times, you’ll be feeling a lot, and certainly remembering your own life back then.