THE BLOG
06/08/2008 08:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Clinton's Failed Television Career

High of my list on people to interview when I was writing Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, was Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes and its long-time executive producer.

I wanted to talk to him to learn more about what went wrong with Hewitt's idea to update the Shana Alexander/James Kilpatrick, liberal/conservative point/counterpoint. Hewitt's brainstorm, which he proposed in person to Bill Clinton in Chappaqua in January 2003, was to match Clinton with a lively, sharp conservative and, viola, great television. Just two years out of the White House, Clinton was still struggling to find his place; Hewitt spent four hours chatting with the former president who insisted on showing the television pioneer scores of souvenirs from his presidential travels.

Hewitt hoped that this updated face-off would become so popular that it would be parodied on Saturday Night Live, as the original had been by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd. Out of that segment came the lasting line, "Jane, you ignorant slut."

Hewitt knew the Clintons well; it was he who invited Bill and Hillary on 60 Minutes on Super Bowl Sunday 1992 to respond to the charges by Gennifer Flowers that she had a 12-year affair with the Arkansas governor. Those charges, backed up by audiotape, almost derailed Bill's campaign.

Hewitt recalled for me shooting that show in a room in Boston's Ritz-Carlton. A line nearly as famous as the "ignorant slut" one came out of that night "when I knew he was lying and she knew he was lying and he knew she was lying and I knew they were both lying, and yet that's the night they got the nomination, when she said, .... "I'm no Tammy Wynette standing by my man*" and somehow that resonated with the American public. I think that was the one line that came out of that thing that people remember the most."

[*"You know, I'm not sitting here - some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."]

Hewitt knew that Bill had a way with the camera and that if he could find a conservative who could also seduce the camera, he'd have something that viewers (and advertisers) would love. His first pick to face off against Bill Clinton was Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, but that idea did not appeal to Clinton's advisers or to Clinton. He thought it beneath him to engage with a man, whom CNN's Larry King told me, Clinton considered "a prankster, a huckster."

And so eventually Hewitt agreed to go with the choice of Clinton's people: Bob Dole, former senate majority leader and Clinton's opponent in the 1996 presidential race. That wasn't much of contest, and the two men parted friends. Just after Clinton's reelection, he invited Dole to the East Room and bestowed on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dole joked that he dreamed that he would be receiving the key to the front door of the White House, but he also wiped away a tear.

Clinton/Dole on 60 Minutes was a yawn; there were few sparks. Dole's dry sense of humor was far too dry for television. Everybody was bored and all agreed, after just 10 weeks, that it was a dud and should be killed.

Hewitt says that he regrets that he didn't propose former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. There was a mutual respect between the two, Hewitt knew; they were both big thinkers who loved to talk and debate and were each others' equals in intelligence and articulateness. "I think he would have gone with Newt Gingrich," Hewitt said. "He respects Gingrich."

Clinton's advisers would likely have nixed that idea for many reasons; including the big one that Gingrich was the architect of the "Contract With America" that contributed to the Democrats' loss of both houses of congress in 1994. Then there was the fact that it was during the Gingrich-orchestrated government shutdown that Clinton, working late, had the thong-flashing encounter with Monica Lewinsky. (Steven Gillon has written a fascinating book titled The Pact that delves into the complicated relationship between Clinton and Gingrich.)

On the subject of Lewinsky, Hewitt mused, "Do you know there's not one kid who has died in Iraq who wouldn't be alive today if there never was a Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky changed the world. Had there been no Monica Lewinsky, Tipper Gore wouldn't have insisted that she didn't want her husband campaigning with Bill Clinton; they would have won two more states if they had allowed him to campaign with them in the South. ...I think [Monica] did more to change the world than Cleopatra." (That's a totally unfair burden to put on Monica, but, nevertheless, a thought-provoking observation.)

Someone at Newsweek calculated that Clinton and Dole each pocketed $1,667 per second for his efforts. (Not surprisingly both men were represented by the same lawyer/agent, Robert Barnett.) For their money, each wrote a 45-second commentary and engaged in a 15-minute rebuttal.

As it turned out, Bill Clinton could make more speaking, and because he gives his speeches without a script, he didn't even have to put pen to paper, if only for 45 seconds worth of words.