Bill Clinton has certainly been one of the most interesting presidential figures in recent memory. He was sexy, handsome and young. He seduced the dubious by appearing on late-night talk shows playing sax in shades. He felt our pain, he could “relate to” practically everybody, and no less than Toni Morrison called him “America’s first black president.” Even the bimbo eruptions made the prospect of Clinton as president more intriguing and desirable than four more years of brittle Poppy Bush. America finally, finally, got a rock star for president—some of his intimates even referred to him as “Elvis.”
But then came the reality of a centrist Democrat in high office—Clinton pandered to the conservatives on issue after issue. His vaunted single-payer health care plan was tossed overboard under pressure from conservatives. Many Clinton supporters felt betrayed by his welfare reform initiative, which gutted what little remained of the New Deal social welfare programs. By destroying those programs, it was estimated at the time that 60,000 more children would go to bed hungry every night right here in the richest country in the world. These were not the “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” Democrats of a previous generation.
Liberal sympathies swung back in Clinton’s direction during his persecution by Grand Inquisitor Kenneth Starr, when our Puritan roots were showing in an embarrassing way. Did anybody really care about a little bit of oral sex? It never truly seemed like an impeachable offense. Not like stealing an election, lying about WMDs, invading a sovereign nation that posed no real threat to us, bombing civilians, or looting his own country in broad daylight. Now, in light of the Bush administration’s hard-right, end-times, Strangelovian lunacy, the era of Bill Clinton’s centrist Democrat compromises and personal flaws seems like halcyon days in the pre-apple Garden of Eden.
My Life, by Bill Clinton, is a big, fat, 1,000-plus-page doorstop of a book. Purchasing this $35 behemoth has become a sign of liberal kinship, like putting an anti-Dubya bumper sticker on your car. Fealties aside, Clinton’s own account of his wild ride of a presidency should make for pretty engaging reading for anybody, right? Don’t count on it.
The book begins by taking the reader through Bill Clinton’s traumatic childhood, in which his possibly bigamous 28-year-old father was killed in an auto accident before Bill’s birth and his mother married a violent, abusive alcoholic who raised the boy as his own. All of this is good stuff, but Clinton the writer uses 50 words when three will do. Page 63 feels like 633. Every moment of Clinton’s childhood seems to be on public display here, no bit of minutiae too small, too unimportant to be left out. In places the text feels like a never-ending Oscar acceptance speech given in the Twilight Zone. Where was Clinton’s editor during all this? Are some writers just too big to say no to? Or is it a question of economics? Does a widely announced $10 million publisher’s advance to the writer require a book to be thick (and heavy) as a brick in order to sell it to the consumer?
My Life should be great, but it’s not. There’s a good book buried in there somewhere, but the reader has to make a grueling march through many pages before it finally kicks in. The last half of the book, Clinton’s own account of his unrelenting persecution at the hands of right-wing ideologues and extremists led by Kenneth Starr, perks things up considerably, when finally Clinton’s tone and storytelling take on real emotion: a perceptible undercurrent of rage. There are, however, 500 or so pages before this happens, and it is vast and tedious territory to slog through. As a result, the dramatic tension is all but deflated before we get to the good part.
Expressed several times in My Life is Clinton’s wish “to be a good man” who “tries to lead a good life.” Naturally, he is thwarted at almost every juncture—by an internal struggle between good and bad, by his very human appetites, by his own worst instincts and by other people. Unfortunately, this dilemma is never really examined in depth. Which is not to say that Clinton doesn’t fess up to his demons. He does, but what passes for self-examination is really a barrage of tiny, endless surface detail—mostly names and places. This gives My Life a gossipy flavor, but in the first half, at least, it lacks the juice of interesting gossip, and the words begin to swim on the pages. By the time something real and compelling threatens to happen, it’s too late.
Bill Clinton was a talented politician, compelling, conflicted, at times out of control—the Jerry Lee Lewis of American presidential politics—and it would have been great to be able to read all those pages, to reach the end of My Life and feel as though we’d gained some genuine insight into what makes him tick. Unfortunately, with this book the reader mostly gets the less interesting, people-pleasing, “yes Ma’am” Bill Clinton—the guy who took a puff, but didn’t inhale. In a way, this is perfectly understandable. After all, this is Clinton’s chance to revise the tone and telling of his presidency and its legacy, which has been so utterly savaged by his rabid and determined enemies. Of course, it is far less interesting than the unvarnished truth.