Television tends to deal with the President of the United States — whether Democrat or Republican — in one of two ways: either as a figure of unquestioned veneration or as an object of pathetic amusement. The network news plays up the veneration angle as one excuse for avoiding its proper role of aggressive skeptic. President-as-amusement manifests itself variously: in the opposition party’s criticisms, often delivered in the form of haughty derision; and the presidential ribbing that takes place on entertainment programming, where details about the Commander-in-Chief’s personal life are incessantly ridiculed. Politically Incorrect to the contrary, there’s no such thing as real political satire in America anymore. Comedians no longer inject their jokes with venom, lest it make them ”controversial” and damage their chances for a sitcom deal. Meanwhile, people with passionate adversarial political beliefs tend to be too self-righteous to have a sense of humor — or are too marginalized by the media to make it into the public eye.
All of which helps to explain why Bill Clinton: Rock & Roll President is worth watching: It transcends the veneration and ribbing of contemporary presidential coverage. Produced by VH1 (the baby-boomer music channel that has recently been giving confused cousin MTV a run for its money in imagination) and hosted by Carly Simon, Bill Clinton features an interview with the president about his love of popular music. At first, the hour seems tediously familiar: There’s the stock footage of Clinton in shades on a campaign-year Arsenio Hall Show, blowing ”Heartbreak Hotel” on his sax; and Fleetwood Mac swallowing their pride to back the newly elected President on ”Don’t Stop” during his 1993 inaugural party.
But pretty soon, this special takes on a little specialness, around the time the 42nd President of the United States says: ”My mother loved Elvis Presley from the first time she saw him. She thought rock & roll was great for kids.” (A fondness for Elvis as well as the racetrack — I always knew I liked that Virginia Kelley.) The President goes on to get personal about the King: ”I felt a real special relationship to Elvis Presley, because he was from Mississippi [Deep South neighbor to Clinton’s Arkansas], he was a poor white kid, he sang with a lot of soul. He was my roots.” At a time when Presley is as much of a puffy punchline as the leader of the free world himself, it’s nice to hear him defended as an inspiration, and the references to ”poor white” and ”soul” remind us of a racial awareness — an ease and familiarity with African-American influences — that has always been one of Clinton’s most winning traits.
The President makes that awareness explicit in Rock & Roll President by ticking off his other major musical influences. He speaks of absorbing a ”phenomenal amount” of black gospel, citing in particular Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin; he likes the R&B of Ray Charles and saxophonist Jr. Walker. On the white side, Clinton’s a singer-songwriter man, praising James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joni Mitchell. (Bill and Hillary named their daughter after Mitchell’s ”Chelsea Morning,” but the show allows Judy Collins, who covered the tune, to take credit for the pleasure the Clintons have derived from what Collins calls ”my song.”) And we learn that Clinton is — wouldn’t you have guessed? — a big Beatles fan.
Clinton also uses the hour to issue a plea that schools not scrap their music programs — as if he had nothing to do with an educational and cultural atmosphere that makes such budget cuts routine. Of course, the producers of Rock & Roll President never permit such real-life questions to intrude upon the President’s reveries. The value of this special, which includes interviews with Clinton’s music teacher and former high school and college band mates, is that despite its context of hushed blandness, it lets us glimpse some of Clinton’s passion — a few of his rough edges and strong opinions that television rarely seeks out. B