Mr. President, we have a problem

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2012 - 6:32 PM

A new PBS documentary on Bill Clinton obsesses over Monicagate.

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President Bill Clinton, in a 1995 photo with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Photo: OIC, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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LOS ANGELES - Monica Lewinsky is back.

Of course, you couldn't do a four-hour documentary on President Bill Clinton without at least mentioning her, but in "Clinton," which airs Monday and Tuesday on PBS, the world's most famous intern dominates the discussion, which strongly suggests that the former president could bring peace to the Middle East, win the Boston Marathon and cure cancer, but still will be best remembered for a White House affair.

The movie, the 15th presidential-themed installment of public TV's prestigious "American Experience," opens with Clinton's 1998 Rose Garden apology ("I gave in to my shame") and never lets go, returning time and time again to the fact that Clinton couldn't keep his zipper closed. (It only takes 9 minutes for narrator Campbell Scott to mention Clinton's first reputed fling, Gennifer Flowers.)

The filmmakers are quick to defend their emphasis on infidelity.

"It provided the lever which his enemies and opponents pulled to try to unseat him from power. That makes it hugely important in the story," said director Barak Goodman, who won an Emmy and a Peabody Award for a 2010 "American Experience" piece on the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre.

The Lewinsky scandal also serves as a vehicle for the documentary's overarching theme: Clinton's subconscious desire to crawl from the wreckage. Journalist Joe Klein puts it best near the top of the film by suggesting Clinton needed to set up barriers to leap over.

Whether Clinton agrees is unknown. Neither he nor his wife was approached to be interviewed for the documentary, which follows a long-standing policy of "Experience" producers.

"That's been a standard of these 15 films" about U.S. presidents, said the series' executive producer, Mark Samels. "We don't want these films to tip into autobiography."

Focusing so much on Clinton's darkest chapter may lead viewers to believe the documentary is a hatchet job, but at times he also comes across as a highly sympathetic character.

The film details Clinton's troubled childhood -- his parents were alcoholics -- as well as his strong work ethic and endless drive to be loved by all, even opponents.

Hillary Clinton comes across as far less likable, a savvy but cold and polarizing figure who demanded too much power as first lady.

The film also avoids giving Clinton's political enemies too many opportunities to tee off.

Former Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott, conservative columnist Tony Blankley and Kenneth Starr -- the prosecutor whose investigation led to the president's impeachment -- are among the 53 talking heads, but conspicuously absent are Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and other prominent conservatives.

Ultimately, Clinton's allies are tough enough on him.

Harold Ickes, his former deputy chief of staff, sums it up best:

"What a squandering of talent."

  • CLINTON

    When: 8 p.m. Mon., 7 p.m. Tue.

    Where: KTCA, Ch. 2.

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