Even if you have a strong recollection of the Clinton years, seeing his life and presidency laid out in an unblinking, four-hour documentary puts him into perspective.
PBS' "Clinton: American Experience," which airs in two parts Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 20 and 21 (check local listings), does an excellent job of chronicling the first president to be impeached since Andrew Johnson in 1868.
It opens on Dec. 11, 1998, with a somber Clinton in the Rose Garden.
"I am profoundly sorry for all I have done, in my words and deeds," he says. "Quite simply, I gave into my shame."
If there is any fault with this documentary it is how much time -- roughly a quarter -- is devoted to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"There's a lot of time devoted, but it's more how much time the press was devoting to it," says longtime Clinton friend Harry Thomason, a TV and film producer who made "The Man From Hope," which was shown at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.
Neither the former White House intern nor anyone close to her, or for that matter the Clintons themselves, are interviewed, which is in keeping with the documentary series' format. However, some 70 others are, including those who worked with Clinton.
Among those is Robert Reich, Clinton's secretary of labor. Reflecting on whether the economy could have continued to boom as it did then, Reich, now a professor of public policy at University of California-Berkeley, says, "Alan Greenspan cooperated by lowering interest rates, and that combined with a solid recovery, which enabled the economy to do exceptionally well, with 22 million, net, new jobs created over those eight years."
Yet there are regrets, Reich says. "We didn't manage to alter the structure of the economy. By that I mean we didn't invest adequately in schools, job retraining, infrastructure and basic (research and development) and opportunities for poor kids. So by the time the next downturn occurred, the nation was back where it was in the previous recession, and we did nothing to lift the real wages."
He talks about the politics of trying to pass true reform and how a Republican Congress stymied Clinton.
The film also focuses on Clinton's personal life and examines his marriage. Hillary Clinton, now the secretary of state, knew about her husband's infidelities early on, and this makes clear that whatever marital strife they endured since their October 1975 wedding, there is a deep love between them.
She recognized immediately how advantageous it could be for her husband to go on TV after his endless speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. It was Thomason, at the urging of wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who called Johnny Carson's producer, Fred de Cordova, and asked him to let Clinton go on the "The Tonight Show."
Carson had a policy of not inviting politicians as guests. Thomason did not want to face his wife with the rejection so he called back de Cordova and suggested Clinton go on as a musician. Clinton played the sax, then became the first politician on a late-night show.
The timing for a full look at Clinton was right, says series producer Mark Samels.
"Typically in the past, the rule of thumb was a generation needed to pass before you could really enter into the realm of history," he says. "And we're sort of in an accelerated period now."
One of the take-aways from this is that Clinton "is often depicted almost solely cynically," says filmmaker Barak Goodman. "I would say both Clintons are fundamentally driven by idealism."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun