To understand the presidency of William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton I think you have to acknowledge that he was the first and only rock ‘n' roll president of the United States.
Not simply because he played the sax, but because of what he embodied as a man of his place and of his time. His presidency embodied rock ‘n' roll the way culture critic Greil Marcus defined the music – “rock ‘n' roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture.”
Put Clinton in that context and the elasticity of his persona and politics are explained. He was sinner, saint, liar, hero, simultaneously an Everyman and aloof. He was fleet of mind and flawed, intellectually smart, yet ill-disciplined. He expected to be forgiven, as all great rock ‘n' roll artists do, because of the immensity of the solace they deliver, not judged on personal weakness and messes created.
The exhaustive, four-hour documentary special Clinton (PBS, 9 p.m. on American Experience) doesn't treat Clinton as a rock ‘n' roll figure. It barely notes the cultural stew from which he emerged – the Arkansas of Ronnie Hawkins, Johnny Cash and Floyd Cramer. Or the age group he defined – the first president of the baby boomer generation.
It does, however, open with a situation that lasted mere moments in his presidency, moments unfolding on Dec. 11, 1998. Clinton said, “I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds.”
It was his apology for misleading so many people over his relations with Monica Lewinsky. The apology anchors the documentary (continuing Tuesday, 9 p.m.) and haunts it. It's a clue. Clinton was a sinner. If you're rock ‘n' roll, you understand a sinner and forgive. If you're not, you don't get it and you never will.
Soon in the doc, somebody suggests that Clinton was so clever, so at ease with politics and power that he created circumstances that would act as barriers he must overcome. It sounds dubious. The guy was a force of nature as president, unique. He stands apart from those who came before and came after him as president.
The doc is as engrossing as it is exhaustive. Part of its impact is the contrast between the Clinton years and now. It's not just that we see Clinton with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1988. The 1990s seem very distant. It is astonishing to be reminded that most of the Clinton years did not have the ceaseless babble of the Internet and histrionic 24-hour TV news. It is at the end of the Clinton years that we get a glimpse of the future. While the mainstream press was leery of the rumour about Clinton's relations with Lewinsky, the online Drudge Report went full bore on the story.
As his career is covered here, there was a distinct pattern. He's clever and charming and gets into scrapes from which he must recover. But recover he does. And many people believed him because, if he was a rascal, that made him human and plausible. “I'll be there for you till the last dog dies,” we hear him declaring on the campaign trail in 1992. It's an odd phrase, but it worked, because it's rock ‘n' roll.
In Arkansas, we are told, his youth and arrogance derailed his political career as he failed to win re-election as governor and, as many cronies recount, he spent two years asking everyone, “What did I do wrong?” Nobody says it, but he was like a singer, a pop artist of some kind, entangled with his fan base, trying to figure out a way forward.
We get background. It was Hillary's fierce drive and ability that saved him, intellectually. The naiveté of his early presidency. Former adviser David Gergen says, “The harder reality was that he won with 43 per cent of the vote in a three-man race. And that's not exactly a heavy mandate.”
The second night of Clinton opens in 1995 with a “chastened” Clinton struggling to come to grips with a presidential agenda. The show takes us through the ups and downs. The Oklahoma bombing. The war in Bosnia. The extraordinary and still mystifying Whitewater investigation. But it is the Lewinsky affair that looms, always.
Robert Reich, secretary of labour under Clinton says, “Maybe Bill Clinton, who so much needed and wanted to be loved, just couldn't say no to someone who wanted affection and gave him back affection.” Tellingly, this puts Clinton in the context of artist and performer, not politician.
We're told about the livid hatred of Clinton that lurked in establishment Washington, all whipped into a frenzy in the exposure of the Lewinsky affair. But why the hate? That isn't explained. One can only guess and I'd guess at that old American tension and loathing between politics and the popular culture. Washington was politics, old school. Clinton was Elvis and all that Elvis typified – hillbilly, rockabilly, raw religion and rage at constraint, the worship of feeling.
The final hour, with its detailed account of the end of the Lewinsky mess, is fascinating. The tsunami of outrage. The hurt. All of it epic and dumb, like a rock ‘n' roll song.
Clinton is a fine four hours of television, but it sure could use more music to make any sense of its subject.
All times ET. Check local listings.