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Preview: New doc details how TV producers helped Clinton's White House climb

Published February 20, 2012 6:49 am

TV • Documentary credits Thomason duo for re-framing the Arkansas guv's image.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason are best known as television writers and producers. She created and wrote "Designing Women," "Evening Shade" and "Hearts Afire," among other credits; he produced those shows, among others.

They're also partly responsible for putting Bill Clinton in the White House — which is touched upon in the "American Experience" two-part, four-hour biography of the 42nd president titled simply "Clinton."

The documentary is a hard-hitting look at Clinton's life and presidency that doesn't shy away from his many failings. Clinton haters will dislike it for pointing out his triumphs; Clinton lovers will cringe at the recitation of all the missteps and scandals.

The Thomasons, longtime friends of the Clintons, directly contributed at two pivotal points. One came in 1988 after Clinton — then governor of Arkansas —gave a long-winded nominating speech for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention. He droned on so long that the crowd cheered when he said, "In conclusion."

It was a disaster that could have ended his career. "Everybody was making fun of him," Thomason said. "We were devastated. And so that night around midnight, Linda woke me up. And she said, 'He's got to go on "The Tonight Show." You've got to get up in the morning.' So I do what she says."

Thomason got in touch with Johnny Carson's producer, Fred de Cordova. But Carson had a policy against putting politicians on as guests.

"I couldn't face everybody, mainly because of Linda, and tell them I didn't get him on," Thomason said. "So about a half-hour later, I called back. And I said, 'Freddie, listen to me. He's going to come on the show as a musician. He's going to play the saxophone.' "

And it worked, four years before Clinton famously played his sax on Arsenio Hall's late-night show.

What you don't see in "Clinton" is what happened next. Clinton started practicing. Thomason overrode objections by the governor's staff. And Clinton arrived at Carson's Burbank studio with more than just a saxophone.

Just as he was about to go on, Bloodworth-Thomason handed him a big hourglass.

"She says, 'OK now, when you go out and he asks how you're doing or something, you just set this down and turn it up and start it. It will get a laugh,' " Thomason said. "So we give it to him, and Fred de Cordova turns white and says, 'Don't do that.' "

When Clinton joined Carson, the late-night legend pulled out a big hourglass of his own and got the big laugh.

Bloodworth-Thomason was also behind the film "The Man From Hope," which marked another turning point. The biography of Clinton, showing his humble beginnings in the tiny Arkansas town of Hope, helped him get a big push when it ran during the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

"I produced it, but my wife wrote it [and] put it together," Thomason said. "And she had the most unusual relationship between an artist and a president, I think, there's ever been."

In an age when major campaigns are micromanaged down to the tiniest details, Clinton just said: "Go make a film."

"And everybody wanted to come out and help contribute, and he told everybody to stay away," Thomason said. "There was never any input from the pollsters or this or that. He just trusted her to do that." The Clintons "didn't see 'The Man from Hope' until about two hours before it screened at the convention."

spierce@sltrib.com; facebook.com/nowsaltlake —

Portrait of a president: 'Clinton'

The two-part, four-hour "American Experience" documentary airs at 8 p.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on PBS, Cable Channel 7.