Bill Clinton. Knopf, $35 (957pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41457-2
Former President William Jefferson Clinton's hotly anticipated 957-page doorstop of a memoir is much like its author--charismatic, longwinded, and, many might say, deeply flawed. The first Democratic president to be elected to a second term since FDR in 1936, Clinton has lived what is by any account an eventful, inspiring life. As explained in early passages notable for their frankness and humanity, Clinton, born to humble Arkansas roots, never knew his father. William Jefferson Blythe was killed in an automobile accident just months before his son's birth. Clinton adored his mother, Virginia, a nurse with a large, loving family and a harmless penchant for the racetrack. Difficulties began when Virginia married Roger Clinton, who struggled with alcohol and a violent temper. A turbulent home life and the vagaries of a segregated South, however, only pushed the gregarious Clinton to achieve. He became interested in politics at an early age. He wrote, debated, played the saxophone, and eventually made it to Georgetown and Oxford universities, a law practice, then to Little Rock and the governor's mansion, and eventually to the White House. Clinton's administration was equally dramatic. Domestically, he fought to balance the federal budget, presided over a government shutdown, and beat back a conservative cultural backlash. Diplomatically, Clinton skirmished with a bellicose Saddam Hussein, ended a genocidal crisis in Bosnia, accelerated the Mideast peace process until its eventual collapse, and began to deal with the budding threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. To top that off, he left office in 2000 amid the bizarre Bush/Gore electoral crisis. Of course, what Clinton is also remembered for are the scandals that plagued his efforts. Beginning with Gennifer Flowers in the 1992 campaign, to Whitewater, Travelgate, the FBI file scandal, Paula Jones and ultimately the Monica Lewinsky affair that led to his historic impeachment, Clinton endured what then First Lady Hillary Clinton termed a ""vast right-wing conspiracy"" to push him from office. The most interesting passages of Clinton's memoir reveal a simmering, deep animosity toward special prosecutor Ken Starr. Clinton defiantly blisters Starr as an unethical, overreaching partisan who illegally leaked details of his investigations to the press; exceeded his authority; humiliated, bankrupted and jailed innocent people for not playing ball; and served only to ring up huge legal bills for the Clintons, their staff and supporters. Certainly, Clinton's memoir has the raw material for a blockbuster book. But the sheer deluge of information is mind-numbing. Rather than expose the hurricane's eye of a remarkable life and an eventful presidency, the book instead blurs into an unrelenting blizzard of names, dates, campaigns, speeches, events, handshakes, tangential observations, memories, meetings, cities and towns, and anecdotes. The result is a narrative that obscures any meaningful measure of Clinton's true character and values. Save for his strong feelings about Starr, Clinton offers only brief personal assessments of the colorful personalities with whom he crossed paths, including his wife, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and James Carville, opponents like George Bush, Bob Dole and Ross Perot, or world leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, and Yasser Arafat. Monica Lewinsky also escapes any meaningful scrutiny. Most frustratingly, Clinton, while admitting mistakes, offers no deep personal introspection. In an excerpt from a high school essay, Clinton wrote that he was a ""living paradox,"" who ""detests selfishness but sees it in the mirror everyday."" That passage marks the most insightful stroke of self-analysis in the book. Yet while lacking immediacy, the book nevertheless manages a certain gravitas, if only for being a painstakingly thorough act of recollection. Given the fevered ""tell-all"" anticipation surrounding the book's publication, however, it is certain to disappoint many readers even as it sells an astonishing number of copies. Some of that disappointment, however, was inevitable. After all, My Life is a presidential memoir, a historically self-serving category of autobiography alone unto itself and very much an extension of presidential politics--a profession that is never ""tell-all."" Even more tricky, Clinton's wife, Hillary, now the junior Senator from New York, is very much still in politics. When matched against other presidential memoirs, though, Clinton's scores favorably, certainly exceeding the flaccid efforts of his most recent predecessors, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Still, Clinton, a popular, gifted orator with a clear mastery of public policy, has missed, or, perhaps, passed on, a golden opportunity to offer a truly resonant portrait of his embattled presidency or an enduring political vision.
Reviewed on: 06/21/2004