Reviewers have almost unanimously dismissed Bill Clinton’s mammoth book of memoirs as boring. It is easy to see why: much of it is an undigested mass of diary entries, apparently re-dictated without thought or reflection. Old speeches seem to have been pasted in randomly in the same manner.
And yet, if you gird yourself to read the book through, you keep stumbling across odd moments of revelation. Like this one: in the summer of 1971, young Bill Clinton had just taken an important political position as coordinator of Southern states for Senator George McGovern’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The trouble was that Clinton’s new girlfriend, Hillary Rodham, had accepted a summer job at a law firm in Oakland, California. So Clinton quit the campaign and headed west. “During the day when [Hillary] was at work,” he writes, “I walked all over the city, read books in the parks and coffee shops, and explored San Francisco.”
Here was Bill Clinton’s first major political responsibility—a responsibility he had been given by people who trusted him, a responsibility he had freely accepted—and he shrugged it off to chase a girl and spend his summer in coffee shops. History sometimes really does repeat itself.
The book suffers, too, from even worse faults than turgidity. Again and again Clinton reverts to his old habit of using lawyerly language for purposes of concealment. Here, for example, is his version of the episode in 1998 when a former White House aide, Kathleen Willey, accused him on national television of having kissed and fondled her: “[She] claimed I had made an unwanted advance toward her while she was working in the White House. It wasn’t true.” By now, any reader who knows anything about Bill Clinton will know enough to ask what, precisely, “wasn’t true.”
Yet on this front as well, My Life can surprise you, often agreeably. When he wishes, Clinton can be both frank and lucid in his use of language, and his stories often ring with more truth than presidential autobiographers are accustomed to permit themselves. Here is his account of how he persuaded one Arthur Barbieri, the Democratic boss of New Haven, Connecticut, to endorse George McGovern over the other Democratic contenders in the 1972 primary campaign:
When I walked into his office and introduced myself, Barbieri was cordial but businesslike. He sat back in his chair with his hands folded across his chest, displaying two huge diamond rings, one big circular one with lots of stones, the other with his initials, AB, completely filled with diamonds. He smiled and told me that 1972 would not be a replay of 1968 [when he was caught off-guard by the Eugene McCarthy campaign], that he had already lined up his poll workers and a number of his cars to take his people to the polls. He said he had dedicated $50,000 to the effort, a huge sum in those days for a town the size of New Haven. I replied that I didn’t have much money, but I did have 800 volunteers who would knock on the doors of every house in his stronghold, telling all the Italian mothers that Arthur Barbieri wanted to keep sending their sons to fight and die in Vietnam. “You don’t need that grief,” I said. “Why do you care who wins the nomination? Endorse McGovern. He was a war hero in World War II. He can make peace, and you can keep control of New Haven.”
Barbieri was won over.
Boring and revealing, disingenuous and candid: such contradictions are as typical of Clinton’s memoir as they are of Clinton the man. It has been four years since he left office, and we still do not quite know what to make of him. There is the charm that comes through even these dry pages—until it is pierced by mawkish self-pity or a sinister insinuation about one or another political opponent. There is the sprawl and the mess that spoil much of My Life as they are said to have hampered Clinton’s presidency—and yet within the sloppiness are virtues that never wholly go into eclipse.
My Life is, in brief, the story of a man endowed with an extraordinary gift for making other people like him. As for those otherwise predisposed, toward them Clinton adopts the same attitude that he adopted toward his future father-in-law, who also did not like him at first: “I decided I’d work on him.”
In his political life, Clinton’s gift for working on people took him all the way from Arkansas to the White House. There, however, the gift lost its power. It had done for him all it could do; that was not enough to make him a great or even a merely effective President.
Once in office, Clinton careered from crisis to crisis, unguided by any fixed purpose. He knew he disliked the racial segregation of the old South—but segregation had vanished long ago, and the cause of civil rights needed no further help from him. He knew he wanted to make sweeping changes in American life—but he was never quite sure what those changes might be, let alone how to bring them about.
At the beginning, of course, there were many who saw a higher purpose in Clinton’s ascendancy to the presidency. They saw him as the man who would belatedly realize the blasted dreams of the generation of the 1960’s. There were many who feared exactly the same outcome. Both turned out to be wrong. The record of Clinton’s presidential initiatives, laid out in tedious detail in this book, shows him to have been, instead, the sort of man Groucho Marx might have been thinking of when he quipped, “Gentlemen, I have my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have other principles.”
In one way, though, Clinton did achieve an unequivocal success as President. He came to Washington to have a good time—and what a time it was, and how he enjoyed it:
I took every opportunity I could to bring all kinds of musicians to the White House. Over the years, we had Earth, Wind, and Fire, Yo-Yo Ma, Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, and many other classical, jazz, blues, Broadway, and gospel musicians…. For the entertainment, we usually had room to invite more guests than could be accommodated at the dinner. Afterward, anyone who wanted to stay returned to the foyer of the White House for dancing.
The [White House] mess was a wood-paneled room with good food prepared by Navy personnel. I ordered lunch from it almost every day and enjoyed going down to visit with the young people who worked in the kitchen. Once a week they served Mexican dishes I especially liked.
And so forth. The photo sections of the book resemble some hyperactive teenager’s camp bulletin: Bill Clinton with the White House valets. Bill Clinton with his Secret Service detail. Bill Clinton surrounded by adoring voters, by adoring Colombian schoolchildren, by adoring Ghanaians.
At the conclusion of My Life, Clinton waxes magniloquent: “I wrote this book to tell my story and to tell the story of America in the last half of the 20th century; to describe as fairly as I could the forces competing for the country’s heart and mind; to explain the challenges of the new world in which we live.” Etc., etc., etc. Clinton the writer indulges in a great deal of this kind of high-flown hokum, just as he did when President. Whether or not he himself believes it, he wants his readers to believe that he was doing something more in the White House than spending his days gabbing with the kitchen staff or eyeing the breasts of the Italian prime minister’s second wife. Yes, it was party time; but all the while, he was toiling on that bridge to the 21st century like a John Henry of the age of the Internet.
In fact, Clinton was given one of the easiest rides of any President in history. He arrived in office after other men had ended the cold war and after other policies had propelled the United States into one of the greatest booms in its history; he left before his neglect of fundamental problems, from terrorism to Social Security, would exact its terrible toll. Dreading decisions, in his first term he flinched from them again and again; then he wasted his second term because he could not discipline his appetites or honestly confront his own actions. No chief executive since Warren Harding has brought more derision and disrespect upon the presidency.
But, as always, there is yet another interesting complication. The Bill Clinton story is not over. The same outstanding personal qualities that brought Clinton to the presidency have become relevant again now that he has left it, while the personal deficiencies that hobbled him in office have ceased to matter quite so much now that the nation no longer looks to him to lead it in war or protect it in peace.
Since exiting the presidency, Clinton has generally conducted himself with surprising grace and tact. He has been an articulate and effective spokesman for the United States when he travels abroad, while conspicuously refraining from criticizing his successor. Naturally, he has supported candidates of his own party, but he has largely stayed out of partisan politics. In this he could not have been more different from the only other living Democratic former President, Jimmy Carter, whose speech accepting the 2003 Nobel peace prize—during which Carter denounced on foreign soil the foreign policies of President Bush—may have been the most disgraceful act by an ex-President since John Tyler took a seat in the Confederate Congress.
In My Life, Clinton often talks about the process of maturation. Like many members of his generation, he has been late to reach full adulthood—not even being elected President quite got him there. Now, at sixty, he may at last have arrived. And who knows? There may still be important work yet for this gifted man to do, especially if ways can be found to deploy his persuasiveness and charm in the service of his country on the world stage. If that were actually to come about, the day might yet dawn when Americans of all political points of view would be ready to give the contradictory teller of this contradictory tale the affection and respect he has craved above everything else in life.