With Bill Clinton taking on the role of senior statesman these days, you might think that a PBS portrait of the 42nd president would mute the harsher tones. That assumption gets kicked to the curb in the opening seconds of the two-part American Experience documentary Clinton, airing tonight and Tuesday.
We start in the Rose Garden on Dec. 11, 1998, at one of the most humiliating moments in Clinton's life. Months after shaking his finger at cameras and declaring, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," the president of the United States, under the shadow of impeachment, must now admit that he lied about his relationship with 23-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Quite simply, I gave in to my shame,'' he says.
The four-hour documentary chronicles Clinton's struggle with his unruly libido from the beginning of his political career. It includes interviews with close advisors, some of whom are speaking publicly about the affair for the first time.
Supporters who worked with Clinton on his initial bid for governorship in his home state of Arkansas refer to his involvement with a long queue of women. Marla Crider, who worked with Clinton in Arkansas and had an affair with him, describes women as being "literally mesmerized ... It was like flies to honey.''
One campaign chief remembers dealing with "25 women a day" who came into the office looking for Clinton, while aide Betsey Wright recounts how she eventually presented him with a list of girlfriends he had to deal with before he could stand as governor. "It became clear it was not the time to do it," she says.
As a result, Clinton pulled out of the race at the last minute.
Robert Reich, Clinton's Labor Secretary, describes the rocky start to Clinton's presidency in 1993. "The atmosphere in the White House in that first year was chaos," he says. "Clinton wanted to be a part of everything."
The documentary details early difficulties such as the scandal surrounding Clinton's affair with Gennifer Flowers, the sexual harassment suit brought by Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, and the suicide of the Clintons' close friend, Vince Foster, at the time that the suspected Whitewater land fraud first case came to light.
Then Monica Lewinsky began her internship at the White House.
"Monica Lewinsky gave him something that he needed at that time: to be adored," says Crider, the one-time girlfriend.
The Lewinsky affair is covered in depth in Tuesday's night installment of Clinton, subtitled "The Survivor.''
Ken Gormley, a legal expert working in the White House, recalls the sexual tension between the president and Lewinsky. "There were almost these sparks flying between them from the first moment when they saw each other."
Clinton's pollster, Dick Morris, tells of the moment Clinton called him just before evidence of the affair was about to be made public.
"Bill said to me: 'Ever since I got here to the White House I've had to shut my body down, sexually I mean, but I screwed up with this girl. I didn't do what they said I did, but I may have done so much that I can't prove my innocence.'''
Reich expresses his sense of shock about the Lewinsky affair. "He would not be so stupid as to jeopardize his whole presidency, I felt. That was not the man I knew."
Even members of the inner circle express wonder at how one very public person can bounce back from so many self-inflicted problems.
"How many second chances, right?" says former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "How many second chances does any one person deserve?"
Her answer: "He disappoints them every time on some level, but he always gets up and tries to make it better. What else can you ask from a sinner?"
Goodman, the documentary's producer, describes Clinton as perplexingly complex. "Any biographer wants to figure out his subject and come to some conclusion,'' he says. "It's really a fool's errand with Clinton. You can't ever tie him up in a neat bow and say, 'This is who he is,' because he is so vastly contradictory as a person. For every one aspect of his personality, you find the opposing aspect."
Clinton himself was not interviewed for the documentary, nor was Hillary. The filmmakers want it to be a documentary, not a memoir.
"We did go to the Clinton camp early on, because a group of people in the film, a large group, required their blessing, as it were, to participate,'' Goodman said. "And I think understanding who American Experience is, who PBS is, they gave their consent."
Lewinsky was not interviewed, either. "We felt it would tilt [the documentary] toward sensationalism," Goodman said.
After the scandal, Lewinsky went through a period of alternately embracing and avoiding her celebrity. She attended the Oscars with Sir Ian McKellan, became a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, hosted a reality show called Mr. Personality, was a correspondent for a British news program and sold a line of handbags.
In 2005, she left the U.S. and moved to London, attending the London School of Economics and graduating with a masters in social psychology in 2006. She has kept a low profile in recent years.
Reporting: Los Angeles Times, The Guardian (London), Canoe.ca, Plain Dealer (Cleveland).