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Photo by Steve Fenn

On January 20th, George W. Bush will bring the Clinton presidency to a close when he takes the oath of office and becomes the 43rd president of the United States. While the press is busy trying to understand what kind of president Bush will become, historians will begin to review Clinton’s eight-year tenure and ask the central question: what will be his legacy? Frontline begins this look back on January 16th when it airs The Clinton Years, a steady look at Clinton’s presidency through the eyes of those who served him.

The first thing that may strike a viewer is how young the Clintons looked on the New Hampshire campaign trail in 1992. Along with their followers, they proffered a message of hope lined with new ideas—reforming healthcare and welfare, and putting Americans back to work. One is also struck throughout The Clinton Years at the number of important events that took place during this time: the Waco compound fire, Vince Foster’s suicide, Serbian warfare, the healthcare debacle, the ’95 budget battle, the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich, and the bombing of the pharmacy in Afghanistan. Ironically, the many scandals, usually involving Clinton himself, seem less remarkable: they were hard to forget because they never really went away.

Photo by Robert McNeeley

Through numerous interviews with close aids, including spokeswoman and press secretary Dee Dee Myers, communications director George Stephanopoulos, budget director Leon Panetta, and political advisor David Gergen, the Frontline team sifts through the events and behind the scenes maneuvering of the Clinton presidency. The reoccurring factor throughout his tenure was neither a particular ideology nor a closely held political belief; time after time, his most enduring quality was his ability to come back from certain political death. Pundits believed a man with so many liabilities would never win the Democratic nomination; many predicted that the Republican Congressional landslide in ‘94 would make him irrelevant to the process; and the special prosecutor’s investigation, and then the impeachment trial in the senate, promised to rob him of his popularity if not his office. Each time Clinton returned, rejuvenated and riding high in the polls.

While this is certainly a good political asset, it doesn’t make a legacy. In the end, many of his followers have been left with a deep ambivalence about Clinton. He had a rare ability to connect with people, proved the perfect healer for the nation during crisis like the Oklahoma City bombing, and possessed the political skills necessary to become the first Democrat to win a second term since F.D.R. But his personal failings, including his inability to tell the truth to even his closest advisors, his seeming lack of steadfast political beliefs, and a lack of personal discipline, sapped precious energy from his administration. Frontline reveals both sides, providing an excellent analysis of the ups and downs of The Clinton Years. This revealing overview will give Americans a good place to begin their own assessment of this presidency, leading them to ask the same inevitable question: what will be the Clinton legacy?

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


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