'Clinton' Doc Turns Lens On Former President

Host Audie Cornish talks with writer and director Barak Goodman about his latest project, Clinton, part of the American Experience: Presidents series. The first of two installments airs Monday night on PBS.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

February's issue of Esquire magazine places with the headline proclaiming: Agree, making the case that he's someone we can all agree on. But a new documentary, premiering on PBS tonight, offers a stark reminder of the partisan warfare and the ugly scandals that mired his presidency. In fact, the four-hour series opens with the former president's 1998 apology for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds. I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends and my family. Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.

CORNISH: The documentary is called "Clinton" and it's part of the "American Experience: Presidents Series." Barak Goodman is the writer and director and he joins us in the studio. Welcome.

BARAK GOODMAN: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: So everyone, and I mean everyone, has a point of view or an opinion when it comes to Bill Clinton. What was yours?

GOODMAN: You know, I, like all people my age, live through his presidency and had certain feelings about him. But...

CORNISH: And what were they?

GOODMAN: You know, I felt nostalgic. Those were good times. Those were times of prosperity. Those were times of peace, for the most part. But as a documentarian, as a biographer, you learn to check those feelings at the door when you enter into something like this. You really see events afresh. And as you dig deeper, those initial feelings rather quickly subside and you sort of form new feelings, new ideas.

CORNISH: Well, let's get into it a little bit more. The film discusses obviously some of the President Clinton's achievements, fiscal policies that helped grow budget surpluses, and the reasoning behind, you know, foreign-policy decisions from Somalia to Rwanda and even terrorism - Osama bin Laden. But the documentary spends a huge amount of time on his infidelities and the scandals and problems with women. It hangs over the entire thing. Why?

GOODMAN: Well, I'm not sure I completely agree with your characterization. It's not about the infidelities. It's about the consequences, the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky affair. And I feel that we had no way of avoiding that story as one of the major centerpieces of the film - it consumes most of the fourth hour because it has such long-range consequences for the country. You know, as a filmmaker it would be wrong to avoid that story.

CORNISH: This comes up quite early in his political career.

GOODMAN: It does. It comes up before - as he's running for Congress. And, of course, then it comes up again with Gennifer Flowers. And it comes up again with Monica Lewinsky. And it came up many more times than we...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOODMAN: ...could or would include...

CORNISH: One of the more striking stories about the night before he decides to announce that he would not run for president...

GOODMAN: Right, this is a somewhat a little known or forgotten moment. In 1988, he was very seriously entertaining ideas about running for president and was prepared to announce. He had called the National Press Corps to Little Rock for the announcement. The night before the press conference, his very loyal aide, Betsey Wright, had a conversation with him in which he went down a list of women that she was afraid would surface during the campaign. And she gave him strong advice that he couldn't run.

And he, surprisingly to some degree, he accepted her advice. And the next day at the press conference, he pulled out of the race. He didn't say why. He didn't offer an explanation. But behind the scenes, he had decided he could with his family through that. And what's very interesting is that four years later, he decided he could and would, and ran.

CORNISH: What was it like trying to get people to talk about some of these very personal moments? I mean, in that case, with an anecdote, it's discussed that Ms. Wright came to him with this list of all of the potential infidelities that could surface. She doesn't quite confirm it on camera.

GOODMAN: Right.

CORNISH: But she does say this is not the right time. And it made me wonder what it was like as an interviewer.

GOODMAN: Obviously, people are concerned about revealing that kind of intimate, personal stuff about Clinton. And I was rather surprised, happily surprised, that people were as candid as they were. In the case of Betsey Wright, she's been absolutely unwilling to discuss any of that history with the press. She felt, I think more so than anybody perhaps outside of Hillary herself, betrayed by him and really abandoned by him as some people have felt over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CLINTON")

BETSEY WRIGHT: Yes, I felt betrayed. He lied to me, yeah. He lied to a lot of people about that, not least of whom was himself.

CORNISH: Now, as you said, Betsey Wright, a former chief of staff for Clinton.

Were you surprised that they were surprised?

GOODMAN: One is surprised sometimes that looking at the people very close to Clinton at how blinded they were sometimes they were about his behavior. But the people around him were almost entranced by his charisma, his idealism, his skill. They believed in him. And I think that that aura he has around him is very real, and accounts for both the loyalty people feel towards him, and the extreme betrayal they felt in that moment because they so believed in what he could do for the country.

CORNISH: At several points in the film, commentators describe Clinton's opponents as angry or irrational, having a real like a personal dislike of him. Did you really believe that or, to me, it sounded like they were playing pretty close to what the Clintons have always argued in their defense.

GOODMAN: Both. I think both are true. I think the Republicans never accepted his legitimacy and really wanted to undermine his presidency. And I think that...

CORNISH: But what did you come to see as the Clintons role in that, as well? I mean, it just seems it's kind of like, well, they hate us and we'll never be any good. Just sounds kind of...

GOODMAN: You know, the Clintons have always said: We were the victims of a political conspiracy. Their opponents have always said: They were the author of their own problems. And I came to believe both were true. Yes, the Republicans didn't want Clinton to succeed. And, yes, they threw up every possible roadblock. They used everything they could to get him out of power.

On the other hand, Clinton gave them the sword. He gave them the means by which they could succeed in that. And I think - so neither side is entirely correct when they say it's the other guy that's at fault. They were both deeply at fault for the dysfunction and the toxic atmosphere that, I think, overtook Washington and to some degree paved the way for what we have today.

CORNISH: The Clintons have been so examined in books and in movies. I mean, a lot of the story has been told or painted one way or another. And how do you, I guess, go into that knowing that all the stuff is out there?

GOODMAN: It was a decision made by the series I work for, the executive producer, Mark Samels, that while there have been a lot of prickly books written about Clinton, they've mostly been pieces of journalism that were written either during his administration or really shortly after. But this sort of second wave of scholarship is just now beginning and we have the opportunity to be first out of the gate. So, we're able to get really deep interviews with people. And I think people were very, very candid with us.

It was definitely a lot of discussion around have enough time gone by to really treat this as history. And I think the decision was finally, yes, there have been.

CORNISH: Barak Goodman, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOODMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

CORNISH: Barak Goodman, he's the writer and director of the new documentary "Clinton," part of the "American Experience: Presidents Series" on PBS. part one of two premieres tonight.

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