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TV REVIEWS : ‘Frontline’ Searches for Clinton’s Soul

The worst thing that might be said of Bill Clinton is that he mirrors the nebulous national soul, and thus is the perfect President for this conflicted time. With an instinct for the good act and another for the face-saving maneuver, Clinton uncommonly expresses American altruism and American self-centeredness in one stroke. He seems to inspire deep passions in citizens because citizens recognize so much of themselves in him.

“Frontline’s” state-of-the-President report, “What Happened to Bill Clinton?,” earnestly searches for the core of Clinton--or lack of it--which has disappointed so many. Instead of a core, what is found are many Clintons, all of them indicating almost sure political disaster.

Skipping past the ream of impossible promises Clinton served up during his 1992 campaign, the report dives right into the early mistakes of his presidency--from his bowing to congressional pressure in delaying his promised campaign finance reforms, to the mixed signals sent on the gays-in-the-military issue. Accommodation, a paramount Clinton concern, was read by his Washington allies and enemies alike as weakness. And weakness usually means political death.

In a recent Times essay, psychiatrist Ronald A. Heifetz perhaps best summed up the Clinton problem of needing to please all sides on an issue, the dilemma that he “seems to care too much about others for his own good.” Thus, he cared very much about his campaign promise to “invest” in jobs growth and infrastructure, but he also cared very much that he avoid an economic debacle by bringing down the federal deficit. Doing both at top speed was impossible; he opted to cut the deficit but broke his promises.

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This is why public resentment built so quickly against Clinton--that, and the impossible rate of expectation set by his campaign. “What Happened to Bill Clinton?” mistakenly plays down the effect of right-wing talk radio on fueling the fire against Clinton, but it does reach down into his soul--and finds a country that probably no one could govern very well.

* “What Happened to Bill Clinton?” airs 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.


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