Bill Clinton

"Clinton": President Bill Clinton greeting citizens of Charleston, W.Va. (Aug. 9, 1993).

(SHNS photo courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library / PBS)

Pasadena, Calif. • “American Experience” executive producer Mark Samels pondered the question: When does history begin? At what point does it make sense for the respected PBS documentary program to profile a past U.S. president?

For a new film on President Bill Clinton (9 p.m. EST Monday and 8 p.m. Tuesday, check local listings), Samels looked to the past and a film on Ronald Reagan that aired 10 years after he left office.

“It felt like it had some perspective,” he said at a PBS press conference last month. “I feel like the distance we have now from the Clinton presidency — 12 years — is enough time to make an assessment. It’s not journalism, so it’s not a first pass of history. It’s sort of a mid-pass at history. Someone like Clinton, I think, is going to have a wild ride through the rankings of American presidents as time goes by.”

“Clinton” does not shy away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, beginning its first part with President Clinton’s Rose Garden apology before flashing back in time to scenes of the diminutive George Stephanopoulos — now a “Good Morning America” anchor — working on the Clinton campaign.

Colleagues, politicos, journalists and authors weigh in on the Clinton presidency.

“With Bill Clinton, you cannot separate the impulses that drive him in reckless directions from the one that drove him to the White House and his idealism,” journalist David Maraniss, author of two books on Clinton, said at the press conference.

Filmmaker Barak Goodman, who wrote, produced and directed “Clinton,” said at the session that he saw history repeating. He pointed out similarities in the first two years of the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Maraniss expounded on the similarities and differences in their personalities.

“I think that he went into politics to do good, but he came out of a dysfunctional family,” Maraniss said of Clinton. “And unlike Barack Obama, what Bill Clinton did was just plow forward all the way through his whole life, not really dealing with the holes in his life, just getting past it. He learned how to survive because of that.

“So he got to the White House, and he carried his problems with him there, but they also allowed him to overcome those problems. He was an incredible survivor. And when the Republicans went after him in 1994, he ate them alive because of all those skills he developed, whereas Barack Obama, coming out of dysfunction, resolved that. He spent nine years of his life dealing with his own sort of biracial, bicultural, all of that — living with not having a father, not living with his mother that often. He worked that all out, got to the White House an integrated person. ...

“He’s an ultra-rational man in an irrational society. So Clinton and Obama come from the exact same places and dealt with them differently, and it carried, in both places, into the White House.”

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