Examine `The Clinton Years'

ABC, PBS

Preview: Koppel calls the project a second draft of video history. It's certainly compelling, but it might be somewhat dramatized.

January 08, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In the kind of joint production that looks to be the future of in-depth reporting on television, ABC News' "Nightline" and PBS' "Frontline" team up for a fascinating look back at the Clinton administration, "The Clinton Years," starting tonight on ABC.

There are two parts to the collaboration: a five-part "Nightline" series airing this week and a two-hour documentary airing Jan. 16 on public television. Both are called "The Clinton Years," and both feature "Nightline" anchorman Ted Koppel, along with ABC News correspondent Chris Bury.

The power for both productions is provided by a great ABC News video archive coupled with recent interviews by Bury with 20 or so senior staffers and cabinet members in the Clinton administration. These include James Carville, political strategist; Dee Dee Myers, press secretary; Dick Morris, chief political strategist; Paul Begala, senior White House adviser; Robert Reich, secretary of labor; Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff; George Stephanopoulos, senior White House adviser; Madeleine Albright, secretary of state; and Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services.

Both productions start with the 1992 New Hampshire primary that features Clinton, suddenly on the national radar for all the wrong reasons, from an alleged extramarital relationship with a woman named Gennifer Flowers to the logistics of how he managed to avoid the draft in the 1960s.

The stage is set in each report with replays of the ABC News stories and the interviews that Clinton did on "Nightline" at the time. The words and images transport you back to 1992. But, once the journalistic record of what happened in New Hampshire in 1992 is established, the people who were there with the embattled Clinton come on camera and start telling Bury their versions of what was going on behind the scenes.

We see Bill and Hillary Clinton on "60 Minutes," with him acknowledging that he's "caused pain" in his marriage and her saying she's "not some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." Most of us remember that well enough. But what most of us didn't know is what was happening behind closed doors at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston where the interview was taped.

Begala describes the night before as the inner circle of advisers prepped the Clintons: "It was terrible. It was terrible. It was very, very emotional. People were crying. James [Carville] was weeping piteously."

Carville says, "I didn't know which way it was going to go, and, you know, I was tired and I was scared. I was scared for them; I was scared for myself."

Stephanopoulos says, "They [the Clintons] were pale. They were drawn. They didn't really want to say too much. But inside, I think they were saying, `We'll be damned if we're going to let this take us out.' "

The Clintons' performance, watched by 34 million, made the staff feel much better - until the next morning when Flowers and her attorney played audiotapes of phone calls with Bill Clinton.

"I heard his voice on the tape, and the first thing I thought was, he lied," Stephanopoulos tells Bury. "I didn't say it. I thought it: He lied."

Though no one knew it at the time, Clinton's comeback in New Hampshire after many had pronounced him politically dead suggested the roller coaster pattern his career in the White House would follow. It's a pattern that makes for a compelling narrative in "The Clinton Years."

There is one problem with both productions, and it is a big one. Bury repeatedly asserts that what we are seeing is "the real `West Wing.' " He's referring to the hit NBC drama about the fictional presidency of Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

In an interview last week, Bury said he was merely using the reference as a shorthand to attract viewers who might not have followed all the ins and outs of Clinton's administration. I will take him at his word that such is the intention.

But, just as ABC News shaped the story of the Johns Hopkins Medical Center to fit the prime-time entertainment narrative of "ER" by emphasizing life-and-death moments in the emergency room rather than the less exciting research and teaching missions of the hospital in "Hopkins 24/7," I fear we are getting a version of the Clinton years that's more concerned with being dramatic than representative of historical fact.

It makes me even more uncomfortable that one of the witnesses to history here, Myers, is now a consultant on "The West Wing," while another, Stephanopoulos, is an analyst for ABC News. I wonder how much their recollections are influenced by the kinds of narratives they construct in their new jobs.

"This is not the first draft of history," Koppel says in an ABC News.com Web site interview. "It's too soon for that. Consider `The Clinton Years,' instead, a second draft of video journalism."

By that standard, both versions of "The Clinton Years" are important and worthwhile productions that will be especially appealing in an emotional sense for those who are going to miss having a Democrat in the White House. But remember, this is not history.

`Clinton Years'

What: Five-part series on ABC News "Nightline."

When: Tonight through Jan. 12 at 11:35.

Where: WMAR (Channel 2).

What: A two-hour documentary on PBS' "Frontline."

When: Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.

Where: On MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

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