Our 42nd President is famous.
Famous for putting duties off to the last possible moment (and sometimes beyond). Famous, too, for the fact that when he finally gets around to whatever he’s supposed to be doing, be it going after bin Laden or telling the truth, any shortcomings will be excused, rationalized, blamed on others. Most famous, perhaps, for inflicting on one and all the intimacies of a life untidy in the extreme. That’s part of why he’s so hypnotizing. Who can turn away from a 10-car pile-up?
All these traits (and a number of shining ones beside) are neon-lit in My Life , the most exhaustive explication yet of the tangled psyche of William Jefferson Clinton-though assuredly not in ways intended.
Since the Monica dish is the principal reason Knopf’s already booked a record two million–plus orders, let’s get that out of the way first:
Bill had to sleep on the couch for a stretch after fessing up that there was more to his acquaintance with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky” than he’d been letting on-news, he writes, that left Hillary looking “as if I had punched her in the gut.” A year plus of once-a-week, all-day counseling sessions (far more attention than terrorism seemed to be getting at the time) banished the First Lady’s divorce musings.
As for what got him into this fix in the first place, Mr. Clinton unfurls a Couch Canyon laundry list. There’s the “old demons” that have always haunted him; the “parallel lives” he alternates between (sunny on the outside, tormented on the in); the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” credo he learned as a child; the determination to “drain the most out of every moment of life” that was the legacy of his father’s early death; perhaps even a bit of the fright that Mr. Clinton remembers accompanying his sexual awakenings.
Once the Dr. Phil recitation is over, though, Mr. Clinton piles opprobrium on himself. As he phrased it during his 60 Minutes sit-down with Dan Rather on Sunday evening, “I think I did something for the worst possible reason-just because I could.”
About Monica herself, we learn next to nothing. Her entire life is summed up in part of one sentence on page 773 giving her employment history at the White House and Pentagon. From thereon, she appears only as party to the “inappropriate encounters” that “disgusted” Mr. Clinton with himself.
Much of what we do learn about the events that gained her book royalties and a handbag company that’s reportedly on the rocks is not new. Nor are Mr. Clinton’s self-diagnoses. The Washington Post ‘s former White House correspondent, John F. Harris (whose forthcoming book on the Clinton administration will be the one to read), notes that in his 1992 campaign bio-pic, The Man From Hope , Mr. Clinton speculates that growing up in an alcoholic household made him eager to please. He also points out that in 1998, shortly after he’d admitted to lying about Monica, Mr. Clinton told his cabinet that beneath the genial surface lurked deep anger that resulted in liaisons with Ms. Lewinsky.
In any case, now that Mr. Clinton’s remounted his hobbyhorse, he’s riding it. “I hope [the book] will free other people to talk more openly about their mistakes and their problems and their fears,” he says in an interview with Time this week. “I’m trying to liberate people.”
He’s succeeded, at least, in polarizing literary opinion. Dan Rather awarded My Life “five stars on a scale of five,” hailing Mr. Clinton’s craftsmanship as the equal of the acknowledged genre master, Ulysses S. Grant. But in her front-page Times review, Michiko Kakutani pronounced the same book “sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull-the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history.” And that was just throat-clearing.
Much has also been made of the Exxon Valdez of bile Mr. Clinton dumps on Ken Starr, the point man of the vast right-wing conspiracy. This one, you gotta feel Bill’s pain. If somebody turned your sex life in all its kinkiness into a libel-proof best-seller; nearly got you fired; locked up one of your close friends for a year and a half because she wouldn’t blab; dragged your wife before a grand jury through a howling mob of reporters; drained your life savings hiring lawyers; made you a national laughingstock; and put an asterisk after your name that will remain until the end of time-you might avail yourself of payback opportunities, too.
Apart from Mr. Starr and a few others who get theirs in My Life (including 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, whom Bill “wanted to slug” for pressing during a circa 1992 New Hampshire primary interview about his denied but true affair with Gennifer Flowers), Mr. Clinton insists he’s got his anger managed. Sufficiently, apparently, that he felt no need to write about the tantrums that terrorized the White House staff. Indeed, Mr. Clinton told The Guardian this week that-at the urging of Nelson Mandela, no less-he’s forgiven Ken Starr, who for his part has announced he’s buying his victim’s book and would like to have dinner with him sometime.
“It’s not good for a person to be as mad underneath as I was,” Mr. Clinton tells Time . “I think if people have unresolved anger it makes them do nonrational, destructive things.” Unfortunately, even as the words were showing up on the magazine’s Web site on Sunday, the London press was delighting in a several-minute, on-camera detonation from a visibly furious Mr. Clinton. The source of the fuse-lighting: Panorama host David Dimbleby inquiring on BBC 1 why he took up with Monica, knowing he was already under investigation by Ken Starr.
“Let me just say this,” a finger-wagging, clench-jawed Mr. Clinton lectures. “One of the reasons he [Mr. Starr] got away with it is because people like you only ask me the questions. You gave him a complete free ride. Any abuse they wanted to do. They indicted all these little people from Arkansas. What did you care about them? They’re not famous-who cares that their life was trampled? Who cares that their children are humiliated? Nobody in your line of work cared a rip about that at the time. Why? Because he was helping their story. And that’s why people like you always help the far right. Because you like to hurt people, and you like to talk about how bad people are and all their personal failings. Look, you made a decision to allocate your time in a certain way, you should take responsibility for that, you should say, ‘Yes, I care much more about this than whether the Bosnian people were saved, and whether he brought a million home from Kosovo.'”
Brush-up counseling may be called for.
In My Life , Mr. Clinton goes on at length about his rearing in a household whose multiple dysfunctions-a five-times-married, gambling, good-hearted mamma; a hard-working daddy who’s killed in a car wreck at 28, before Bill’s born; a no-account step-brother on his way to being a coke dealer; and an abusive, alcoholic stepfather who beats mamma and takes a shot at her, one drunken night, nearly hitting the older son who’s taken his name-would have beggared Tennessee Williams. Every childhood’s formative, but after plowing through nearly 100 pages of reminiscences like “Mammaw’s” injunction to “eat a lot, learn a lot, and always be neat and clean,” Ms. Kakutani wondered if maybe the trip through the Magnolias coulda been shorter.
Nothing fascinates Southerners like their birthplace, where slavery and defeat were known firsthand. The past is ever palpable in the South, as Mr. Clinton himself notes; so is the freight of guilt and inescapable difference that comes with it. The Man from Hope is very much in this tradition. His consciousness was also forged by the choice race forced on every member of his generation-with the notable exception of his fellow Southern successor, who appears to have devoted every waking moment of the 50’s and 60’s to partying, or preparing to.
Because Bill Clinton was there , in the fullest sense of the term, explains why he’s in the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. It accounts as well for the passages about the granddaddy “who taught me to look up to people others looked down on, because we’re not so different after all” being among the most moving in the book.
Not everything Down Home has the same power. However well-written, there’s nothing moral or political about being the only kid at the Easter egg hunt who doesn’t get an egg because he’s too chubby to keep up-or a youth spent as a “fat band boy,” who breaks a leg skipping rope in cowboy boots. Still, the wrenching episodes of apartness offer a window into Mr. Clinton’s character and engage our sympathy-much needed when we get to the scandals.
Had he halted there, Mr. Clinton might have had a small jewel of a book, a more angst-ridden version of Jimmy Carter’s praised account of his Southern upbringing, An Hour Before Daylight (2001). Were such a volume appearing now, with the grown-up sequel safely put off until after the election’s conclusion (by a decade or so, former press secretary Dee Dee Myers suggested), Mr. Clinton might be gathering bouquets instead of brickbats. Certainly, the Kerry campaign would be breathing much easier. But agendas other than his own seldom motivate Mr. Clinton, who embodies the motto “Too much ain’t never enough.”
So on he plunges: through undergraduate days at Georgetown; studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (site of non-inhaling marijuana experiments that go unmentioned in these pages); the years at Yale picking up a law degree and falling in love with a classmate named Hillary Rodham (“She conveyed a sense of strength and self-possession I had rarely seen in anyone, man or woman,” Bill says of his first glimpse); and innumerable tries for Arkansas office that follow: four successful, two not, all excruciatingly detailed.
There are items of interest along the way, such as Bill’s continued puzzling over whether his contortions to avoid Vietnam were the result of “conviction or cowardice.” (Having to ask provides the answer.)
But in the manner of the pony at the bottom of the manure pile, such nuggets lie deeply buried.
Not until page 471 do we finally find the author in the White House. And what is the quality of the chronicling of the eight years that ensue? About what you’d expect, given the time Mr. Clinton spent writing it. Namely, 11 weeks.
The prose is O.K.; the problem’s the thought behind it. Or, rather, the lack.
In one two-page stretch, chosen by flipping the book open at random, we’re barraged with this: Receipt of a report recommending steps in preparation for biological weapons attack. A speech delivered in Annapolis on that same subject. The signing of a pair of anti-terrorism directives. Richard Clarke’s background and Mr. Clinton’s naming him to lead the White House anti-terrorism effort. Another Starr failure to compel Susan McDougal to testify before a grand jury. A second indictment of Webb Hubbell (this time on tax charges). Indictment of Hubbell’s wife, Suzy. Indicting McDougal on charges of contempt of court and obstruction of justice. McDougal’s unbending bravery in the face of continuing adversity. The contents of a Starr expose in Brill’s Content . Barry Goldwater’s death at 89, and Mr. Clinton’s sadness at his passing. A “busy but fairly normal” month spent lobbying for his legislative program; issuing an executive order prohibiting discrimination against gays by federal contractors; supporting Boris Yeltsin’s new economic reforms; receiving the Emir of Bahrain; addressing the U.N. General Assembly on global drug trafficking; hosting a state visit for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung; holding a National Ocean Conference in Monterey, California; extending a ban on oil drilling off the Golden State coast for an additional 14 years; signing a bill providing funds for the purchase of bullet-proof vests for the 25 percent of cops who didn’t have them; speaking at three university commencements, and campaigning for Democrats in six states. An “unhappy” trip to Springfield, Ore., site of the latest school shooting. Other school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark.; Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky.; and Edinboro, Penn. The decline of the overall juvenile-crime rate. Mr. Clinton’s view that the school shootings were due “at least in part” to “excessive glorification of violence in our culture and the easy availability of deadly weapons to children.” His further view that the perpetrators appeared “enraged, alienated, or in the grip of some dark philosophy of life.” Directing the attorney general and the secretary of education to put together a guide for teachers, parents and students on early danger signs and strategies for coping with them.
It reads like a kid’s letter from camp: “Today we did this, and then we did that.” With the exception of Mr. Starr’s perfidy, which takes up the most space, there’s no particular emphasis on anything. It’s an unsorted bundle of happenings.
Here and there in the pages that precede and follow, one stumbles across some nice moments. Such as Mr. Clinton’s response to Yasir Arafat, who, after the final breakdown of Mideast peace negotiations, compliments him on being a great man: “Mr. Chairman, I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”
It would be even more refreshing to discover that Mr. Clinton has at last jogged his memory about his administration’s role in bringing on the Rwandan genocide. Until now, he’s been telling friends he doesn’t remember that his national security apparatus pressured the U.N. into withdrawing most of its peace-keeping contingent, opening the door to the butchery of 800,000. “How did this happen?” he’s said. “I don’t think I was involved.” The public record is clear, but Mr. Clinton-whose recall few can match-still doesn’t remember. “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 not vital to our national interests,” he writes, “that neither I nor anyone on my foreign policy team adequately focused on sending troops to stop the slaughter.”
The Clinton team was focused, all right-on doing everything on earth not to send troops.
Mr. Clinton’s memory serves him better when it’s time for score-settling. Among his targets are the press (for swallowing whole anything the Special Prosecutor’s office illegally leaked); the U.S. Supreme Court (for ruling Paula Jones’s suit could proceed while he was still in office-“One of the most politically naïve decisions … in a long time,” Mr. Clinton calls it, neglecting to note that his two appointees joined in the unanimous decision); and F.B.I. director Louis Freeh, whom, Mr. Clinton claims, turned on him in order to “please the Republicans” and “get the press off his back” for Ruby Ridge and monkeyshines in the Bureau’s forensic lab.
To judge from his interview with Time , Mr. Clinton has a special loathing for Mr. Freeh, who successfully leaned on him not to pardon Native-American activist Leonard Peltier (who’s doing life for killing two F.B.I. agents), enraging one-time friend and big contributor David Geffen. Mr. Clinton told Time that had he known of Mr. Freeh’s alleged blundering on the anti-terrorism front, he might have fired him. So why didn’t he for the political treason he did know about all too acutely? Mr. Clinton blames-you guessed it-the press: “All of you would have said, ‘Well, he’s doing it because he’s got something to hide.'”
He’s right. And he did.
The press also plays villain in Mr. Clinton’s efforts to combat terrorism, which until Ken Starr and impeachment distracted him his last two years in office, he did vigorously and pretty well-particularly in comparison to George W. Bush. Bill did try to warn him. When Mr. Bush stopped by the White House two days before his inauguration, Mr. Clinton writes, he told him that Osama bin Laden-whom he’d several times tried to ice-would be his leading national-security threat, and that his own failure to catch him was his “biggest disappointment.”
“He listened to what I had to say without much comment,” Mr. Clinton records, “then changed the subject to how I did the job.”
The press gets into the Osama act in August 1998, when Mr. Clinton is planning cruise-missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan, in retaliation for Al Qaeda’s blowing up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Advisors caution that the press will scream he’s restaging Wag the Dog to cool the Monica heat, but Bill-admirably-goes ahead anyway. Osama’s not around when high explosives land on what intelligence said would be his head, and, sure enough, the press flays Mr. Clinton just as forecast. Which goes to show that even paranoids have real enemies.
A press performance that appears to nettle Mr. Clinton even more is the story that, in 1996, Sudan-a member of the State Department’s state-sponsors-of-terrorism list, and host of Osama and his training camps the previous five years-offered to extradite the Al Qaeda leader to the U.S. or any country of its choosing. According to independently reported accounts in The Washington Post , The Wall Street Journal and the London Sunday Times (as well as this reviewer in the June issue of Vanity Fair ), the Clinton administration responded by trying to palm Mr. bin Laden off on his native Saudi Arabia, and when the Saudis predictably demurred, pressured the Sudanese into expelling him, leading to the terrorist chief’s taking up residence in Afghanistan. Mr. Clinton’s national security advisor, Sandy Berger, confirmed the pas de deux with Riyadh, but insisted Sudan (which had already handed over the notorious Carlos the Jackal to the French) never had any intention of extraditing Mr. bin Laden. During a taped appearance before a Long Island businessmen’s group a few months after 9/11, Mr. Clinton himself described the Saudi approach (“They thought it was a hot potato”) and said of bin Laden: “At the time, 1996, he had committed no crime against America, so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America.” (In fact, Mr.Êbin Laden was then suspected of directing the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.).
Richard Clarke subsequently called the bin Laden extradition story “a fable,” and a staff report of the 9/11 commission essentially concurred. Later, after Mr. Clinton’s own closed-door appearance before the commission, Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey reported that, when queried about his Long Island remarks, Mr. Clinton first claimed to have been misquoted, then said he didn’t have a “good recollection” and, finally-after checking-denied the Sudan extradition story altogether.
In My Life , Mr. Clinton presents a fourth version. This time, it’s the U.S., without any prompting from Sudan, that gets Mr. bin Laden expelled to Afghanistan, and there’s no reference to extradition offers, bogus or otherwise. With questions persisting since his writing, however, Mr. Clinton was more expansive with Dan Rather, calling the reports of Sudan offering bin Laden “factually inaccurate.” “As far as I know,” he said, “there is not a shred of evidence to that.”
About deciding “not to bring him here … though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America”? Mr. Clinton had no answer; Dan didn’t ask.
Mr. Clinton’s accomplishments as President were real and many, with what he calls his greatest-abolishing the deficit, slashing interest rates, creating 20 million new jobs-merely the most obvious. He also battled tirelessly to achieve Middle East peace; made black people feel their government noticed in a way it hadn’t since L.B.J.; helped significantly diminish the scourge of crime and violence; brought gays not only into the military but the mainstream; and uncounted other things large and small-none of which are stinted in Mr. Clinton’s account. Of course, there were plenty of failures, too: not reforming Social Security or enacting health care top Mr. Clinton’s domestic list.
The shame of Mr. Clinton’s Presidency, good and bad, is that it was shadowed by a recklessness that all his psychiatric theories don’t explain, and that he himself hasn’t fully acknowledged.
Certainly, these 957 pages show no sign that he has. If anything, the rushed carelessness with which they were slapped together (in his haste, Mr. Clinton even winds up contradicting his own grand jury testimony) only underlines how much recklessness remains.
One comes away from this book with the same feelings one has for its author: so many gifts, so appallingly squandered.
If ever there were a chance for Mr. Clinton’s redemption, My Life was it. Months ago, James Carville called this book “just the biggest thing in his post-Presidency.” Mr. Carville was on the money. So, too, were the friends who urged him to reflect, take greater care, stop wasting critical time introducing a Rolling Stones concert and palling with hangers-on not fit to shine his shoes. Mr. Clinton ignored them, as he did in the White House, and does still.
All that’s left is the “Why?”
That question Bill Clinton’s answered:
“Just because I could.”