Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Spent the last couple weeks working my way through Bill Clinton's "My Life". First off, it's bloody long, nearly 1,000 pages, and since it was a library book I had a deadline to meet to finish it off before returning it.
Is it worth your time? Yes and no. I mean, I'm a big Bill Clinton fan, but even I got a little sick of hearing from him by page 800 or so.
The book is a lot like the man -- fascinating, sprawling, undisciplined, intelligent and trying to do a million things at once. It starts off very well, and the first half of it or so is great reading. Clinton is relaxed, folksy, and thoughtful about his upbringing in rural Arkansas.
Whether or not you like the man, you have to admire his pluck at basically coming from a broken home, with a dead father and alcoholic stepfather, and the determination to make something of himself. Clinton does justice to these early years, with an astounding recall of detail and evocation of place. Clinton shows an insight into his own nature that's surprisingly unguarded, such as in this passage talking about confronting his drunken stepdad:
"…Because of the way Daddy behaved when he was angry and drunk, I associated anger with being out of control and I was determined not to lose control. Doing so could unleash the constant anger I kept locked away because I didn't know where it came from."
I thought, "Wow," when I read that passage -- it seemed pretty amazingly self-aware, not the kind of talk you picture coming from a President. Unfortunately, too much of "My Life" fails to reach that peak. Right up until he's elected President, it's great reading for anyone who's interested in presidential history and politics. I particularly liked his detailed tales of running for governor in Arkansas, the small-town politicking, gladhanding and meet-and-greets one has to do. The first half of the book, left alone, might've been a classic.
But much like his first few years as President, Clinton tries to do too much too fast. There's no reason "My Life" had to be a 950-page behemoth detailing his every action of the past 57 years or so. There were lots of tales of Clinton writing feverishly to make the publisher's deadline this spring, and it really shows in the second half of the book, which is a much less personal, stiffer piece of work than the first half.
As an editor myself, I would've told Clinton to make it two books -- the first his early years, and then, giving myself time to reflect and edit, a cohesive survey of his presidency. The second half of "My Life" reads like it was transcribed from Clinton's datebook from 1993-2001. Endless names, faces, dates and places slide by, with flashes of interest. I admit to skimming vast portions that went into solid, but digressive, detail about Bosnia, Israel, et cetera. Admittedly, the President leads a very busy life. It's as if Clinton feels he has to catalogue every moment of his presidency, rather than offering highlights. It just feels indulgent and unfocused.
Those looking for the so-called "good stuff" vis-รก-vis Lewinsky, etc., will be disappointed, as that doesn't turn up 'til page 740 or so. Frankly, as a Clinton-hugger I agree with his defense that much of the political hay made while he was in office -- Whitewater, $200 haircuts, travel office, etc. -- was misrepresented, a waste of taxpayer money to investigate and horribly covered by the Beltway media. In my humble mind it pales when compared to the far more devastating misconduct of our current President.
But when it comes to the stuff Clinton did do, such as his affair with Lewinsky, he skirts the issues, turning vague and admitting to "behaving inappropriately." He unleashes a lot of anger, justifiably so, at Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and the attempted Republican coup of impeachment. Die-hard conservatives won't dig "My Life," but that goes without saying, doesn't it?
"My Life" isn't a bad book, and I'd recommend it if you've got a few weeks to spare. But it's a top-heavy one, divided and failing to meet the potential of the early pages. I'll leave it to you to decide if that could also be said of Clinton himself or not.

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