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Commentary: Bill Clinton's Messy Life, Messy Memoir


For Americans of every political stripe, the national drama that is Bill Clinton remains endlessly fascinating -- a story still looking for an ending. And so we stay glued. Yet no American seems quite as fascinated by the Man from Hope as the Man himself. How else to explain My Life, a 957-page memoir that leaves almost no pebble unturned in the 58-year existence of William Jefferson Clinton. The trouble is, many of the most interesting stones are flipped over and then too quickly flipped back. How the crucial combo of James Carville and Paul Begala came to join his Presidential campaign, for example, is dealt with in a paragraph. Other moments that are about as compelling as an Arkansas gravel pit are relentlessly examined and cataloged. Does anyone really care that on Apr. 29, 1994, Clinton hosted Native American and Native Alaskan leaders on the South Lawn of the White House?

No matter. All the uninhaled pot at Oxford won't stop My Life from becoming a blockbuster. The reselling of this President has been a brilliant mix of hype, buzz, and tease. From the $10 million contract coughed up by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, to the chronically late Clinton's deadline scramble, to his soulful and down-homey interview on 60 Minutes, Bill has been playing us like a country fiddle. Again.

After all the ink and hyperbole, though, the prospective reader must confront three simple questions: Should I buy this book? If I do, can I believe what it says? And will I learn anything new about Bill Clinton?

Starting in reverse order, the answer to the last question is a resounding yes. Unless you are a Streisand-style Bill-aholic -- and we all know a few of them -- My Life will try your patience. But from the parallel lives that Clinton frequently mentions, there slowly emerges one complex, compassionate, scarred, sometimes bitter, often maudlin, always political man who loves his kid, his kin, his compatriots, his country, and himself.

Whether Clinton recognized the dual life that he was leading when he was President is unclear. But he surely does now. On one track was the dogged, wonkish work life of the best living American retail politician in the past half-century. That Clinton, with his inquisitive intellect, is on display as he recounts how, shortly before his first inauguration, he sat down with a roomful of advisers -- Bob Rubin, Laura Tyson, Larry Summers, and Al Gore among them -- to hammer out an economic policy that would best boost productivity, growth, and employment. On the campaign trail, he had promised a middle-class tax cut -- but he listens, argues, and processes. In the end, he sides with the deficit hawks, abandons the tax cut, and signs on to a modest stimulus package. It's hard to imagine that sort of healthy debate in the Bush White House, where ideology often trumps discourse and the Chief is famously incurious.

On the other hand, it's equally hard to imagine the current President or most previous occupants of the Oval Office living the life that runs on Clinton's other track. The Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Ken Starr life that seems so out-of-control and tawdry. That Bill was over-the-top yet altogether recognizable to many peers of the "first baby-boom President...carrying more baggage than an ocean liner," as Clinton describes himself.

Candor of that kind comes in random bursts in My Life, and it is at such points that Clinton reveals himself -- rather than in the passages to which those seeking titillation will turn. Writing of the killing fields of Rwanda, where in the early months of 1994 some 800,000 people were murdered in a gruesome frenzy, he concedes: "We were so preoccupied with Bosnia, with the memory of Somalia just six months old, and with opposition in Congress to military deployments in faraway places that were not vital to the national interests that neither I nor anyone on my foreign policy team adequately focused on sending troops to stop the slaughter." How's that for flat-out honesty about a serious failure?

The juxtaposition of Clinton's two lives is never starker than in June, 1994, when he and Hillary go to Europe for the 50th anniversary of D-day. They meet the Pope, chat with John Major at Chequers, dine with Queen Elizabeth and the royal family on their yacht, walk Utah Beach with American vets, and are taken on a midnight tour of the "new Louvre" by French President Fran?ois Mitterrand and the architect I.M. Pei.

Back home, Whitewater is waiting. Clinton signs a new independent-counsel law that in short order leads to the firing of Robert Fiske, the first Whitewater special prosecutor, and the appointment of Ken Starr. Clinton calls his original request for an independent counsel "the worst presidential decision I ever made." But he repeatedly blames Starr for politically motivated misconduct and a brazen abuse of power that ruins lives and finances.

Clinton is more subtly critical of the press -- especially The Washington Post -- for overtly negative coverage and for egging on the multiple investigations that hound him. He takes some comfort in the notion that it's not all personal, that he just happened into office during a new heyday of attack journalism.

Snarling Dogs

Years of dealing with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather and then putting on a happy face outside the home enabled him to compartmentalize, Clinton writes, to focus on the business of the Presidency while the dogs of the Right snarled outside his door. But after he confesses his relationship with Lewinsky to Hillary and they go off to Martha's Vineyard on vacation, he sets a frank yet disturbing scene: "I spent the first couple of days alternating between begging for forgiveness and planning the strikes on al Qaeda." A distraught husband sleeping on the couch hardly seems in the right frame of mind to think clearly about going after Osama. But Clinton never stops to ponder for long enough the true toll his private life takes on his public duties.

Like Clinton himself, My Life sometimes entertains, sometimes enlightens, and frequently exasperates. One can only presume that, given time, Clinton's well-regarded editor, Robert Gottlieb, could have carved a masterly work out of what is an encyclopedic but insufficiently analytic sprawl. And it's hard not to lament what the Clinton Presidency itself might have accomplished with tighter planning, structure, and editing.

Still, the $35 that My Life costs will get you only three summer-movie tickets and a large popcorn in New York. For the same money, you can get a seat at the wildly careening, predictably uneven Clinton Show, the first reality-TV Presidency -- and likely the last.

By Ciro Scotti


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