As anyone who has been breathing for the past couple of months knows, William Jefferson Clinton's MY LIFE is more than a book. It is a news event, a slice of history, a personal testament, a work to be argued over for years to come by political partisans, most of whom will not have actually read it.
Perhaps general agreement might be possible on one point: This massive book is the most complete and wide-ranging apologia ever produced by a former American President. Its only distant competitor is U. S. Grant's autobiography --- but when you compare the scope of the two books, Clinton's emerges as much wider by a large margin. It is not simply an account of his two Presidential terms; it is a full-bore autobiography, starting with his birth on page 1 and continuing to his retirement from office and final summing up on page 957. Even as a physical object MY LIFE is daunting. On my bathroom scale the book weighed three and a half pounds.
Clinton sums himself up as "both a political animal and a policy wonk." This is a good capsule summary of the book, which is awash in lists of the programs he advocated, policies he backed in every conceivable field, foreign and domestic; speeches he delivered, and travels he undertook, leaders he dealt with from rural Arkansas bosses to foreign heads of state. The book is far too long, and one shudders to read in his acknowledgements of how much he was persuaded to leave out. The writing can be sprightly and quotable on one page, then ponderous on the next.
Is MY LIFE self-serving? Of course. This is Clinton's brief in his own defense, his chance to fire back at his numerous still-active critics. He sees himself as a moderate progressive, not radical enough for the far left and openly at war with the far right faction of the Republican Party. His scorn for the Gingrich-DeLay-Armey wing of the GOP is a major theme throughout. Perhaps the most important of his political heroes is a fellow Arkansan, Senator J. William Fulbright, legendary chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Clinton began his Washington career as a lowly clerk for that committee.
The former President is also unhappy with our national preference for political trivia over substantive news. Time and again he complains that public fascination with nonessentials kept the world from learning about things he considered important and newsworthy.
This brings us, of course, to the subject of his private life as President. Readers whose only interest is in the Monica Lewinsky affair, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, Vincent Foster and other such titillating events will find them all here, treated with Clintonian reserve and strictly from his personal point of view. He admits to sexual wrongdoing and apologizes (rather too profusely, I feel). But these episodes are only one strand in the larger tapestry of his public career and embattled Presidency. Most of them he dismisses as partisan attempts to destroy him rather than honest investigations of questionable goings-on. Kenneth Starr in particular emerges as a kind of homegrown Javert, an unscrupulous and unprincipled tormentor rather than an honest prosecutor.
There is no point in a reviewer trying to sort this out. Every reader will have his or her own perspective. I for one am grateful, however, that these subjects do not take over and dominate the larger narrative of which they form a distasteful but certainly necessary part. Clinton's narrative of his political baptism of fire and upward rise in Arkansas, for one thing, seems far more interesting and important in the overall picture of his life. It's not sexy, certainly, but it matters more.
Clinton as a writer lacks the same thing he lacked as President: self-discipline. The level of detail in this book is staggering (remember those 80-minute-plus State of the Union speeches?). The number of names dropped is immense; we learn about the personal styles of political operators in half the small towns of Arkansas, and also those of government leaders in half the banana republics on the face of the globe. Hillary and Chelsea are there too, of course, sometimes cheering him on, sometimes putting up with him. And White House staffers, down to the level of his valets, are duly memorialized.
Clinton is no more successful than other writers have been in making the details of Washington budget battles interesting to the lay reader. The same caveat applies to some extent in international affairs; the protracted negotiations on peace in the Middle East, for example, are here at a level of detail that will certainly be of interest only to specialists.
MY LIFE is one of those books that has "Important" written all over it. It is not, however, consistently interesting because it bogs down in too much detail. It is Bill Clinton's testament, his boast and his mea culpa all at once. When you reach page 957 you know you have read something that really matters --- but you're glad it's over.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 12, 2011