CNN portrait of Clinton focuses on his years as governor


At this point in the presidential campaign it seems impossible we could learn much more about the contenders, especially Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who has been on the national campaign trail for the past year.

But "The Battle to Lead: Bill Clinton of Arkansas," a CNN special at 10 p.m. tomorrow, manages in 60 minutes to paint a succinct portrait of a personality some find persuasive and others puzzling.

Indeed, correspondent Ken Bode ends his report by asking, "which Bill Clinton is on the ballot" -- the eager, idealistic politician of his early career or the practiced pragmatist of the current campaign?

Viewers might wish the reporter had not limited the possible conclusions and, instead, let us decide what the biographical report explains about the candidate.

But the examination of Mr. Clinton's Arkansas roots and his years as governor clearly show a fascinating, substantive transformation of a public figure.

The show is part of CNN's "Democracy in America" series. "The Battle to Lead: The Public Mind of George Bush" will be screened at the same time next Sunday.

Mr. Clinton appears in the show in relatively brief recent interview clips. But a rich collection of tape and photographs join interview clips from a variety of former associates, foes and friends, to flesh out the narrative.

The issues of Mr. Clinton's draft status, his trip to Russia in 1969 and the early-campaign brouhaha over the affair charges of Gennifer Flowers are handled with relative dispatch and not presented as key issues.

But his entrance into politics, in 1976, when he ran for attorney general of Arkansas, and especially his terms as governor are given significant study.

That first two-year term in the Little Rock statehouse in 1978 was apparently pivotal. Mr. Clinton and a group of advisers, derisively called by some "the Baby Brigade," idealistically tackled problems from the environment to the economy.

"He never backed away from a fight," says a newspaper editor.

But Mr. Bode notes that as the term went on, constituents felt "his ideas didn't match their interests." He ruffled feathers of voters and interest groups alike, and lost his re-election campaign.

During the next two years, however, the bruised Mr. Clinton appears to have been a quick study, analyzing the failures of the first term. When he ran again in 1982 -- and won -- it was because "this time he focused," says Mr. Bode.

Instead of a comprehensive assault on many issues, he focused on education and the economy. He had learned how to accommodate and compromise and attend to constituent interests.

And the show finds that Mr. Clinton's targets, such as state schools, have benefited in his terms. It also finds other issues, such as the environment, have gotten relatively short shrift. Critics give voice to the nickname he earned of "Slick Willie," contending "the rhetoric doesn't match the performance."

Arkansas Sen. David Pryor gets the last word, noting "Bill Clinton is a dreamer," despite the pragmatism learned through controversy.

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