Public Television touted the Bill Clinton documentary as a long-awaited warts-and-all piece. USA Today called the two-parter a "solid and even-handed account ... of a remarkably skillful politician with an immense intellect." While calling it "tedious and predictable," The Washington Post described the documentary as "honest."
In the first hour, the documentary stumbled out of the gate. If it were a racehorse, they'd have to put it down. The whopper we get hit with right away and again and again is this: Clinton inherited a recession -- not an economy that long ago came out of a recession. Never mind that 1993 -- 19 years ago -- is within the living memory of many Americans. Yet we are repeatedly told that Clinton entered office under a full-on economic meltdown.
The narrator says: "Heading into the fall (of l992) ... with the economy still faltering. ..."
The narrator later says, "As Clinton took office in the winter of 1993, the economic crisis that had propelled him into office showed few signs of abating."
Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin adds: "We had had a recession. We had high unemployment. And it was a lot of uncertainty about whether the United States was going to get on its feet again or whether we could be in for a prolonged period of real difficulty. So he came into a very difficult environment."
Journalist Joe Klein describes Clinton's first budget battle, in the late summer of '93, as a gamble "in the midst of a recession."
And midway through the piece, the narrator informs us that "by the fall of 1994, the economy was growing again."
This is simply extraordinary, mind-boggling.
Whether Bill Clinton was a good president, whether he deserves the credit for balanced budgets and projected surpluses or whether he should have been impeached are matters about which reasonable people can and do disagree. But whether Bill Clinton entered office "in the midst of a recession" and whether, in the fall of '92 and the winter of '93, the economy was "still faltering" and "showed few signs of abating" -- these are matters of fact.
The National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., is the official keeper of the U.S. business cycle. It defines a recession as "a period of diminishing (economic) activity." It tracks when recessions begin (a "peak" -- the month when a period of economic growth ends and a downturn begins) and when recessions end (a "trough" -- the month when the downturn bottoms out and the economy begins to grow again).
Bill Clinton entered office in January 1993. According to the NBER, did he inherit a recession? Not even close. The recession began in July 1990 and ended eight months later, in March 1991 -- a full 19 months before Clinton was even elected.
Let's be charitable. Perhaps the documentary used a different definition of recession. True, some experts use another standard: two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. But during Bush-41's last year in office -- 1992, the year voters elected Clinton -- the economy grew every quarter, averaging 3.2 percent.
But today, nearly two decades after the fact, the PBS narrator solemnly states that "as Clinton took office in the winter of 1993, the economic crisis that had propelled him into office showed few signs of abating" -- even though the economy was then on its 22nd consecutive month of positive growth!
Really? "In the winter of 1993 ... the economic crisis ... showed few signs of abating"? Jan. 29, 1993, seven days after Clinton took office, The New York Times wrote, "U.S. Says Economy Grew at Fast Pace in Fourth Quarter: The economy grew at a faster-than-expected annual rate of 3.8 percent in the final quarter of 1992, the strongest performance in four years, the Commerce Department reported today."
The confusion is understandable. Many in the media suffer from CRAP -- Clinton Recession Amnesia Problem. CRAP spares few victims. Take MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who once said she knows little about economics and, bless her, seems determined to prove it. In January 2009, the month President Obama took office, Maddow said: "Clinton took the oath during an economic downturn, but that was a romper room compared to today's down-crash."
In October 1992, as President George Herbert Walker Bush ran for re-election against Bill Clinton, the economy was 18 months into a recovery. But as Investor's Business Daily noted, 90 percent of the newspaper stories on the economy were negative. Yet the following month, when Clinton defeated Bush-41, suddenly only 14 percent of economic news stories were negative!
Given the media recitation of the false history of the state of the 1992-1993 economy -- when Clinton entered office -- why expect PBS to get it right?
Historical revisionism occurs when someone challenges a conventional point of view. But the Clinton documentary -- as to the state of the economy he inherited -- is not historical revisionism. This documentary simply recites the "facts" as the traditional media see it: Clinton inherited a recession left by his Republican predecessor -- and that's that.