Because Bill Clinton served as president when I was just a kid, what I know about him is limited to what I’ve heard from my parents, read in history books and been taught by teachers. I think the same can be said for how a number of college students view Clinton; we have little knowledge of Clinton’s presidency beyond the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.
I have to admit, his allegations of sexual misconduct and his affair with Lewinsky are what come to mind when I think of Bill Clinton. And it’s hard for me to justify that what he did was okay, because it’s a fairly straightforward situation without much room for forgiveness, in my opinion. What he did was wrong, and I believe it’s fair for people to consider this aspect of his character when making a judgement on how they feel about him.
In my Media History class last semester, we were asked to make a list of what we thought were the top five major news events since the 1980s. The Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal (1998) was fourth on my list, because it validated the possibilities of the Internet and changed the media landscape in the 21st century. This is due to the way that the story was broken: Matt Drudge exposed Clinton on his website called the Drudge Report, and although the rest of the story was false, the information had entered the public sphere. From January 1 to April 1998, 46 percent of stories on the nightly news on ABC, CBS or NBC focused on the Clinton sex scandal, according to David Copeland in his book “The Media’s Role in Defining the Nation: The Active Voice.”
Because Clinton is a public figure, the media can criticize his behavior and publicize it in their news outlets without being accused of libel, because public figures, such as government officials and celebrities, are required to prove actual malice. The fact that Clinton would do something so defamatory to his when he is representing the entire country comes almost as an insult to the American people. Was he not taking his role seriously? This point is made in the documentary “Clinton,” written and directed by Barak Goodman. The documentary begins with Clinton apologizing on camera to the American people for his inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, signifying how much emphasis is placed on this aspect of his presidency. The people interviewed in the documentary went on to ponder, how many second chances does one person deserve?
But Clinton was able to recover. He didn’t completely regain the popularity he had at the beginning of his term, but rumors of extra-marital affairs had also surfaced during his campaign for presidency, so he never really started with a clean slate.
Clinton has to be recognized and remembered for the way he changed political campaigning. He appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” a late-night television program, wearing sunglasses and a saxophone around his neck and jammed on an Elvis Presley tune. Afterwards, he had a conversation with Hall where he talked casually to people, all the while being witty and charming. His appearance on an entertainment program changed campaigning forever. He was able to discuss issues that the United States in an informal setting. He realized that the television offered a candidate a way to have direct access to millions of Americans without the conversation being filtered by the gatekeepers of the media. True, his appearance created controversy: many thought playing the saxophone and talking about marijuana was not something a potential president should be doing. But his ability to appear as an everyday person worked, and forced the way that news media approached those running for office to change.
Clinton may have disappointed the majority of America. But he was able to stand up and attempt to make it better. His ability to comeback — his resilience — is central to who is as a man, according to the documentary. In fact, the first part of the documentary is titled “The Comeback Kid.”
Although Clinton’s reign as president may be over, he has not disappeared from from the media or from politics. Even if college students had not given him much of their attention, before, they should now. In 2011, Bill Clinton launched a Facebook App to help college students get funding. an announcement made at the Clinton Global Initiative University, which engages leaders on college campuses around the world.
And Clinton’s popularity has increased since his presidency. According to survey results released by Gallup politics on July 21, 2010, 61% view Clinton favorably, with 52% for Obama and 45% for George W. Bush.
So I don’t think it’s unreasonable that my generation may view Clinton unfavorably. They have good reason to. But Clinton must be acknowledged for both the good and the bad. Referred to as “Secretariat” when he was received favorably and “Slick Willy,” when people were skeptical, Clinton no doubt divides the American people. But this assignment allowed me to see more to Clinton than just a man with a severely tarnished reputation. And I am thankful for that.