American Experience

S24 E3 | CLIP

Clinton Chapter 1

A biography of a president who rose from a broken childhood in Arkansas to become one of the most successful politicians in modern American history.

AIRED: July 21, 2020 | 0:08:24

PETER JENNINGS: We interrupt your regular program

for quite an extraordinary moment

in the history of the United States.

A short while ago, President Clinton's staff came to tell us

that he was going to come to the Rose Garden now

and make some remarks.

REPORTER: Peter, the president will make another attempt

to say he's sorry about what he's caused.

(cameras clicking)

NARRATOR: Bill Clinton had come into office

with notions of an heroic presidency,

to inscribe his name in history alongside FDR and JFK.

Good afternoon.

NARRATOR: But on the afternoon of December 11, 1998,

he came to the Rose Garden of the White House

to apologize to the American people.

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, or my family.

Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.

JOE KLEIN: It's almost as if all of this was just too easy for him.

It's almost as if he had to set up these barriers

that he could then leap across, or stagger across,

but get across in any event, always.

I'm going to give you this election back.

And if you'll give it to me, I won't be like George Bush.

I'll never forget who gave me a second chance

and I'll be there for you till the last dog dies.

And I want you to remember that.

DEE DEE MYERS: How many second chances, right?

How many second chances does any one person deserve?

Clinton's view is as many second chances

as a person is willing to try to take.

You know, I mean, as many times as you fail,

don't you deserve the chance to redeem yourself?

Isn't history loaded with people who have fallen and gotten up,

and fallen and gotten up, and fallen and gotten up

and done great things?

We will together build a bridge to the 21st century

wide enough and strong enough to take us to America's best days.

Will you do that?

MAX BRANTLEY: There's a stick-to-itiveness about him

that's just phenomenal.

An abiding belief that if he can just have enough time,

he can win over just about anybody.

(crowd cheering)

DAVID MARANISS: The central repetitive theme of Bill Clinton's life

is loss and recovery.

Never count him out

because, always, he will find his way back.

I end tonight where it all began for me.

I still believe in a place called Hope.

(crowd cheering)

MYERS: Where does it come from?

The unwillingness to quit on himself,

on the things he believed in, on the people he cared about?

He disappoints them every time on some level,

but he always gets up and tries to make it better.

You know, what else can you ask from a sinner?

JOHN HARRIS: Success, misjudgment,

in some cases catastrophe, followed by comeback.

That resilience is central to who he is as a politician.

I think it's central to who he is as a man.

(crowd chattering)

NARRATOR: He would emerge

from the political backwaters of Arkansas--

"like a country tornado," one newspaper wrote...

What's your name?

NARRATOR: ...a political natural unlike anyone had seen in a generation.


But in the winter of 1992,

as Bill Clinton began campaigning for president

in New Hampshire, he was still a relative unknown,

eager to win over voters and his young campaign staff.

JAMES CARVILLE: It was just so clear

that he was exceptionally talented politician

from the kind of get-go.

How do you get the ideas we develop in America

in the manufacturing jobs here?

There are literally...

CARVILLE: His ability to adapt, his ability to walk into a room,

to size up an issue, to understand...

I've never seen a candidate, I've never seen a human being

who, with the most limited briefing,

can understand the dimensions, the parameters,

the nuances of everything

of any kind of a policy or political problem.

If we had a broad-based national health policy,

it would never be in anyone's interest not to hire you...

He could see six sides to the Pentagon.

All right, Bill!

NARRATOR: In a primary field crowded with Democratic candidates,

Clinton's determination and skill

quickly distinguished him from his rivals.

His aides nicknamed him after a legendary racehorse,


You spent $200 on medication?

WOMAN: Yes, $200 spent on medication.

KLEIN: There was this famous instance

just before the New Hampshire primary.

A woman started talking about that she couldn't afford

the drugs that she needed to survive.

And she started to cry.

And Clinton's reflex action was to get down on his knees,

put his arms around her, and he's crying, too.

CLINTON: I'm really sorry.

It isn't right, it isn't right.

MYERS: The story that I heard from people over and over was,

"For that one moment, he looked me in the eye,

"he touched me on the arm, he listened to my story,

and I felt like I was the only person in the world."

And he did it over and over and over.

And the only way you can have that moment

over and over and over is if you really are interested.

NARRATOR: Throughout New Hampshire--

in union halls, truck stops and diners--

Clinton heard stories of depressed wages

and vanishing jobs, as the state and the nation

struggled to emerge from a recession.

CLINTON: Ten years ago, we had the highest wages in the world.

Now we're tenth, and we're dropping.

What else do you think we ought to do?

HAROLD ICKES: He knew these people, knew what they were thinking,

knew their concerns, and felt that government in Washington,

in large measure, was just not addressing those concerns.

NARRATOR: The mostly white, working-class voters

Clinton met in New Hampshire,

like those in his own state of Arkansas,

had been fleeing the Democratic Party for years.

HARRIS: Bill Clinton knew that Democrats

were not going to regain the presidency

until they re-established a connection

with these middle-class and lower-middle-class voters

who had been attracted for various reasons

to Republican politicians and to conservative ideas.

NARRATOR: For nearly a decade,

as he rose through the ranks of Democratic politics,

Clinton had been honing a message

to win back these so-called "Reagan Democrats."

DICK MORRIS: The entire thrust of the traditional Democratic Party

was based on entitlements and endowments.

They would bestow money on people.

Bill Clinton's incredibly bold idea

was to change the grant to a transaction--

"We'll give you something, but we demand something back."

The way he would phrase it is, "We'll give you opportunity

but you have to take responsibility."

If you want the right to receive welfare benefits,

you have to assume the responsibility to get educated,

to have job training, and to go to work if you can do it...

MICHAEL WALDMAN: When he went out and said,

"We need opportunity for all,

but responsibility from all Americans,"

that was different from what Democrats had been saying.

NARRATOR: Preaching his "New Democrat" message in New Hampshire,

Clinton began to catch fire.

People say I'm not a real Democrat

and I say I'm against brain-dead politics in both parties.

NARRATOR: By mid-January, he'd pulled ahead

of his strongest competitors and into the lead.


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