AUGUST 9, 2004
My Life By Bill Clinton (Alfred A. Knopf, 957 pp., $35) Click here to purchase the book.
Bill Clinton used to tell us that he wanted to feel our pain, even though he often gave us one. In this characteristically garrulous volume of almost one thousand pages, he tells us all about his own pain. We learn how his traumatic childhood experiences led him to be a "secret-keeper" whose skill at living "parallel lives" helped him to cope when the "old demons of self-doubt and impending destruction reared their ugly heads again." We are told also that he lived a private life of self-doubt and was harrowed by feelings of inadequacy even while he conveyed an impression of vigorous self-assurance. And we are assured that he, like all deeply sensitive and self-doubting people, wants desperately to be liked.
So Bill Clinton, too, lest we ever questioned it, has known his dark nights of the soul. That, dear reader, is the good news. For the first couple hundred pages in his memoir, Clinton talks with disarming frankness about the father who died before he was born, and the abusive alcoholic his mother later married to help raise her child; about how this plucky and appealing woman nourished his hopes and passed on to him her zest for living; about his drive to succeed and to make everyone like him; about the road that took an ambitious, winning boy nicknamed Elvis from a bend in the road called Hope, Arkansas to Georgetown, Oxford, Yale, and the governor's mansion at Little Rock by the age of thirty- two. He does not tell the story nearly as well as David Maraniss did in First in His Class, his engrossing study of Clinton's pre-presidential years. But Clinton writes with grace and fluidity, and knows how to relate the greatest story he ever told.
That, as I say, is the good news. The bad news is that the following seven hundred pages is a largely indigestible mass of appointment-book entries, policy-wonk explanations of the legislative process, and scrapbook notes about encounters with the world's top-notch people. There is public accountability ("Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we hosted a large number of receptions and parties for Congress, the press, the Secret Service, the residence staff, the White House staff and cabinet, other administration officials and supporters from around the country, family, and friends"), respectful hat-tipping ("That night the Jordans hosted a birthday party for me, with old friends and some new ones. Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her companion, Maurice Tempelsman, came, along with Bill and Rose Styron, and Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post and one of the people I most admired in Washington"), and name- dropping ("In early July, Hillary, Chelsea, and I, after a couple of relaxing days with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia on the island of Majorca, were in Madrid for the NATO meeting"). At times the juxtaposition of the banal and the bizarre, the gossip and the self-promotion, leaves one uncertain whether to yawn or to laugh.
Consider this triple-whopper paragraph:
A week later, after I announced an eighteen-month extension of our mission in Bosnia, Hillary and I were on our way to Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand for a combination of work and a vacation that we needed. We began with three days of pure fun in Hawaii, then flew on to Sydney, Australia. After a meeting with Prime Minister John Howard, a speech to the Australian parliament in Canberra, and a day in Sydney, including an unforgettable game with one of the greatest golfers of our time, Greg Norman, we flew north to Port Douglas, a coastal resort on the Coral Sea near the Great Barrier Reef. While there, we walked through the Daintree Rainforest with an aboriginal guide, toured a wildlife preserve where I cuddled a koala named Chelsea, and snorkeled around the magnificent reef. Like coral reefs the world over, it was threatened by ocean pollution, global warming, and physical abuse. Just before we went out to see it, I announced America's support for the International Coral Reef Initiative, which was designed to prevent further destruction of reefs everywhere.
For much of its leisurely length, this book reads like the longest shaggy dog story ever told. It moves along inexorably, almost majestically, with excruciating slowness, like a glacier loosened by global warming, sweeping up everything in its wake--the good, the bad, the ugly, along with forests (of paper pulp) and rivers (of ink). Still, it must be said that, by current standards, it is not badly written. And it is distinctive among modern presidential memoirs, along with Jimmy Carter's engaging books, in almost certainly having been written by the credited author himself.
Like most celebrity biographies, this volume would be twice as good were it half as long. (Are high-profile books ever read by their editors before they are published?) Of course, one does not approach Bill Clinton expecting a fine economy of phrase, any more than one goes to McDonald's for a mini-burger on a dry bun. The oversized, over-decorated package is a central part of the message. My Life is not, to be sure, a literary masterpiece in the same league as, say, the memoirs of Charles de Gaulle. But considering that we are currently graced with a president who has trouble putting together two consecutive unscripted grammatical sentences, Clinton's articulateness must count as an achievement.
A good part of Clinton's appeal is the transparency of his motives. He is such an ebullient character, wanting so eagerly to please, that his political calculations come spilling out even when he is unlikely to intend it. Consider his account of how, when he was governor, the Arkansas legislature passed a popular bill to raise gasoline taxes to pay for new highways. "I liked the program and thought it would be good for the economy," he relates with a straight face, "but in the election I had pledged not to support a major tax increase. So I vetoed the bill and told its sponsors I wouldn't fight their efforts to override it." And thus he had the best of both worlds--a situation that happened more than once in his charmed life. One finds it again, for example, in his tortuous ten-page narration of why he was not drafted to serve in Vietnam: "The deescalation of the war reduced the need for new troops to the point that my number was never called. I always felt bad about escaping the risks that had taken the lives of so many of my generation whose claim to a future was as legitimate as mine." Is this disingenuous? Probably. But, to his credit, he at least recognizes and deals directly with an issue that others of his generation--such as, again, the current incumbent of the White House--have preferred to sweep under the rug.
But Clinton, too, sweeps some things under the rug. He has no space in his tome for the case of Ricky Ray Rector, the mentally defective convicted murderer whose execution he hurried back to Little Rock to approve during the touch-and-go campaign of 1992; but he does devote nearly two pages to recounting why he got a fancy haircut from a Beverly Hills stylist, and how the flare-up over that critical issue distracted the media from reporting an unfairly under-publicized photo-op basketball game he played with poor kids in a Los Angeles ghetto. In the matter of his endorsement of Attorney General Janet Reno's disastrous decision to launch an FBI attack on a fundamentalist sect in Waco, Texas, resulting in the deaths of more than eighty people, Clinton blames bad staff "advice that ran counter to my instincts." And while he acknowledges that "the failure to try to stop Rwanda's tragedies became one of the greatest regrets of my presidency," he devotes little more space to it than he does to his prowess in the Arkansas tomato-eating contest in which he participated during the election for governor in 1978.
Forever in the running for best-liked guy, he seems incapable of making a truly harsh judgment of virtually anyone, except of course his obsessed tormentor Kenneth Starr. And of the tragicomic impeachment episode--part right- wing putsch, part media pornography--one gets an angrier and more detailed account from his former staffer Sidney Blumenthal in The Clinton Wars. But otherwise Clinton has a kind word for nearly everyone. Listen to him, a private citizen who has no official position obliging him to be mealy-mouthed today, on the current authoritarian Italian-media-monopolist head of state:
Berlusconi was, in some ways, Italy's first television-age politician: charismatic, strong-willed, and determined to bring his own brand of discipline and direction to Italy's notoriously unstable political life. His critics accused him of trying to impose a neo-fascist order on Italy, a charge he strongly denied. I was pleased with Berlusconi's assurances that he was committed to preserving democracy and human rights, maintaining Italy's historic partnership with the United States, and fulfilling Italy's NATO responsibilities in Bosnia.
Neville Chamberlain was no doubt similarly reassured in the 1930s by the explanations of another "charismatic, strong-willed" Italian politician "determined to bring his own brand of discipline and direction to Italy's notoriously unstable political life."
But it would be a mistake to cavil too much over the low crimes and misdemeanors in this book. The reader must regard My Life not as a literary work or even as a first cut at history, but as a celebrity tell-all or, more accurately, tell-some. That, certainly, is how the people feel who have been lining up for blocks and waiting for hours to obtain their very own copy of the book with its author's signature and, if they are lucky, a hug from the author himself. Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton, it is obvious that he transcends the narrow boundaries of the office he held with such high drama and low theater for eight years. He is a national--even an international--celebrity. Were he not blocked by the anti-third-term amendment in the Constitution, he could almost certainly be re-elected today. After all, despite--or because of-- his notorious troubles, he left office with a 63 percent approval rating.
And he is not ours alone. If the feuding peoples of the world had to agree on a single figure to bless and coax and entertain them all as the chief executive of a contentious planet, to whom else would they turn? Clinton is our first global celebrity president. Reagan, too, was a celebrity who showed how the presidency could be treated as a role. Certainly it was the best role that Reagan ever landed, and it was a role that he played even more triumphantly and ceremoniously in death. But Reagan was a scripted president whose every word and gesture was carefully calculated, designed to reveal virtually nothing of the man inside. Reagan's appeal, however real it was to millions of Americans, was entirely domestic. He did not sell well beyond the home market.
Clinton, by contrast, seems human--all too human--in his carnal excesses, his emotional sloppiness, his physicality, his spontaneity and impulsiveness, his willingness to test how far he could push his charm and his luck, his sheer joy in being at the center of power and attention. He is a supremely unscripted man. And he is also a born storyteller, whose natural story, greatest story, and perhaps only truly interesting story is himself. Would that in this book there were more of that story.
Clinton's place in our national mythology rests not on his accomplishments or the lack of them, but on his personality. His whole life has been devoted to making people like him. And he has been remarkably successful at it. Thus it is hardly surprising that he is such a consummate and unself-conscious narcissist. Consider the title of his book. Other politicians write memoirs with yawninducing titles such as Power and Purpose or A Time of Decision or The Price of Responsibility. Clinton chose a title that reflects his major interest, and for that matter the public's major interest in him. It was inevitable that he would call the book My Life. Oprah Winfrey, America's great maestro of the confessional, will probably give her memoirs the same title.
The title is good marketing, of course, and at least it is honest. But it perfectly captures the Clinton problem. The man's overriding passion, greater even than his passion for politics, is himself. He accomplished a good deal during his eight years as president, but not nearly as much as he might have accomplished had he not been so self-indulgent and so self-regarding. Of course he had ferocious enemies, some of whom seemed driven by their own demons at times. They envied him for his effectiveness and his supreme self-assurance as much as for his policies, and their envy intensified their hatred. Some of that hatred will soon seem unbalanced and even demented, just as we now consider the frenzied denunciations of Franklin Roosevelt during his presidency. But the fact is that Clinton stopped far short of what he could have done and could have been.
He even addresses this issue himself in quoting an editorialist's judgment that he "missed the greatness that once seemed within his grasp." His retort is to list his achievements, which were not inconsiderable, and to note apologetically that history is always revising judgments made about political leaders. There is truth in this: the current veneration of Reagan, which rests entirely on a sentimentalization of his carefully crafted persona, will seem incomprehensible a decade or two from now. To be sure, great leaders are judged not only by what they do, but also by what they might have done with the powers and abilities they had. The fact that Bill Clinton was not a great president-- of which there have been few--does not diminish the fact that on balance he was a fairly good president. Yet he could have been more. And that is a pity not only for him, but also for us.
By Ronald Steel