After twelve years of Republican control of the White House, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton defeated President Bush in 1988. Clinton’s victory was credited to a new Democratic Party strategy, developed by the Democratic Leadership Council after Walter Mondale’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984. lt moved the Democratic Party to the right and called for balanced budgets, free trade, tough-on-crime laws and welfare reform.
I spent two days with Clinton in 1986, producing a piece on Arkansas education for Roger Mudd who had a show on NBC called 1986. I traveled with Clinton by plane around the state and he was clearly very smart and knowledgeable about issues, respectful of the views of others and interested in everything. I watched him connect with back woods Delta farmers, black and white, in the southeast and with high-powered businessmen in Little Rock. Everybody loved him. I called my wife and told her this man could be president.
Sitting in the bar of the Capitol Hotel, its dark wood and leather looking unchanged since 1870 when the hotel was built, local reporters chuckled at my speculation. They didn’t disagree, but they said there were a couple of things about Clinton that everyone eventually found out. He doesn’t always tell the truth and he doesn’t leave the party with the same girl he came with. They called him “Slick Willie.”
Clinton was so comfortable with African-Americans, and maybe because he played the saxophone, some people called him “the first Black president.” But Civil Rights advocates were not so sure. He sabotaged Jessie Jackson at a Rainbow Coalition meeting by attacking a controversial rap singer without warning Jackson in advance. ‘You had a rap singer here last night named Sister Souljah,’ Clinton said. ‘Her comments before and after [the] Los Angeles [uprising following the not guilty Rodney King verdicts] were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight’. . . Manning Marable recalls this incident in an important book, The Great Wells of Democracy. Manable goes on to point out that Clinton called attention to the speech with national interviews, explaining that ‘if you want to be president, you’ve got to stand up for what you think is right.’
Another book on racial politics, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton, by Kenneth O’Reilly, reminds us that Clinton left New Hampshire just before the primary vote to return to Arkansas and preside over the execution of African-American Rickey Ray Rector. O’Reilly comments, “In March he posed for pictures in front of forty mostly black prisoners in their prison uniforms. Jesse Jackson called it a moderately more civilized ‘version of the Willie Horton situation.’ Two weeks later, on the day after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, Clinton again showed he was a different type of Democrat by golfing nine holes, accompanied by a television camera crew, at a segregated Little Rock country club.”
“Only days before the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Clinton signed the ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,’ with the stated goal of ‘ending welfare as we know it.’ . . . Clinton repeatedly criticized the lack of ‘personal responsibility’ of those on public assistance.”
Both parties have us locked into an agenda that may have been best described by economist Larry Summers who served in the administrations of both Clinton and Obama. In an interview with journalist Ron Suskind during the early days of the Obama administration, Summers said: “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.” What does that mean? It’s one of the clearest statements of oligarch privilege I’ve ever heard.
We produced People Count: The Facts of Life for TBS. It was an early look at our environmental crisis, growing consumption by a growing population, degrading the environment. When we sent the first cut of our show into TBS, we were told that Pat Mitchell, who was Turner’s President of Productions at the time, hated the show, but we never got any notes explaining why. Jane Fonda, Ted Turner’s wife at the time, liked the show and give us twelve pages of detailed, thoughtful notes that helped make the program stronger. In my many years of producing, I’ve found that it’s always a pleasure to work with people who are truly thoughtful and intelligent. People Count is no longer available, but copies were still being used in classrooms in 2017. Broadcast on TBS August 8th, 1997. Winner of an Environmental Media Award.
I spent the next few years pitching great ideas that never got funded. I spent time with Micky Hart, including sitting on stage at a Grateful Dead concert, developing a show around his book, Drumming on the Edge of Madness. We we’re going to start in New Orleans and trace drumming back to its roots, through Haiti, Brazil, Africa and finally ending in the Euphrates valley 25,000 years ago when women drummers began the great tradition. Micky had world-class drummers available at every location to take part. Discovery funded development and then chickened out at the end. “Is Mickey’s theory really true?” a Discovery executive wanted to know. I told them we weren’t doing journalism. We were getting the greatest drummers in the world to tell a story that will fascinate everyone. It didn’t really matter if it was true, although like Homer’s long discredited Ulysses, it may eventually turn out to be so.
I had actor Murray Abraham signed up to play Galileo in a special based on James Reston’s superb book Galileo: A Life. Discovery spent a small fortune keeping me in Italy selecting locations with Idanna Pucci. Vatican officials took us on guided tours after hours, and we were promised unprecedented access to Vatican sites that had never been filmed, to the very room overlooking the Vatican (in private hands) where Galileo stood when an emissary from the Pope described the torture instruments that would be used if he failed to recant. We had a fully developed script. Discovery pulled the plug at the last-minute. Tim Cowling told me there had been a confrontation at a Discovery celebration between author Jim Reston and Discovery’s John Hendricks that was “the last straw.” I never got any further explanation.
We developed a script and scouted locations for a documentary on the impact of the introduction of horses to Native Americans in the 17th Century. My fondest recollection is of a Native American leader telling us that if there were two Native Americans in a discussion, you could be sure of at least four different opinions of them.
I started producing shows in the wilderness for National Geographic, the Turner Broadcasting System and the Learning Channel. We produced Arctic Adventure with Audubon and Turner Original Productions. Native American actor Graham Greene visited a proposed international Arctic Park that if completed would have spanned the Bering Sea and included parts of Russia and Alaska. Broadcast in April of 1997, on TBS.
In Killer Whales of Tysfjord, we travelled five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. After an agonizing wait without an orca, our underwater cameramen captured never-before-seen images of Killer Whales as they mated, mourned their dead and herded thousands of herring in a feeding frenzy. Broadcast on National Geographic in the Spring of 1997.
Sky Archeology took us on foot, carrying our camping gear and equipment, 45 miles into a Guatemalan rain forest to discover an ancient, lost Mayan city first observed by analyzing satellite data collected 22 miles in space. We were able to talk to scientists in Atlanta from the top of one of the pyramids and share a map with our exact location via satellite phone. The guy in Atlanta told us about another temple a few hundred yards away. Broadcast on the Learning Channel, August 1998.
My wife and partner Susan directed City at Peace, a film that chronicled the making of an original musical based on the lives of sixty Washington, DC teenagers. I helped as producer and we brought on Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman as Executive Producers. They contacted us after they saw part of the documentary on Nightline. During the course of a year, a cross-section of American youth overcame differences of race and class to discover a common humanity. Premiered at the 1998 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Broadcast premier on HBO on May 1st, 1998.
We produced Reel Models: The First Women of Film for American Movie Classics. Barbra Streisand was our Executive Produced and she hosted it together with Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver. Premiered on American Movie Classics May 2000. Winner of a 2001 EMMY.
Then came an opportunity to return to journalism that I thought I couldn’t refuse. I should have known better.