Books Reviewed

A review of My Life, by Bill Clinton

When a colleague of mine was the last of a lengthy series of speakers at a scholarly forum, he complained of being the victim of "anticipatory plagiarism." So it is with me, writing in 2005 a review of Bill Clinton's autobiography, about which most reviewers had their say at the time of its publication in the summer of 2004. Rolling with the punch, let me point out briefly where earlier commentators are indebted by anticipation, before proceeding to the matter that is most relevant to assessing a former president's White House memoir—whether and in what ways it adds to what is known about his presidency.

Like many of the early reviewers, I am charmed by Clinton's affectionate evocation of his Southern roots. His account of the Arkansas in which he grew up is warm, vivid, and rich in local color. His portraits of the members of his family are lovingly drawn. He takes particular delight in describing such gustatory pleasures as watermelon-eating contests and country meals in which sweet potatoes, cornbread, and collard greens are dished up. Clinton's early chapters on Arkansas have a fluency that disappears as the book proceeds.

I join the early reviewers in being struck by the extent of Clinton's preoccupation with his own psyche. Other presidential memoirs illuminate the personal qualities of their writers, but none with the clinical specificity of Clinton's. As has often been recounted, Clinton grew up in the home of his abusively alcoholic stepfather. Like other children in the families of alcoholics, he learned to compartmentalize his public and private selves. He put it this way in a telling high school composition from which he quotes in chapter seven: "I am a person motivated and influenced by so many diverse forces I sometimes question the sanity of my existence. I am a living paradox—deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my actual beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility yet shirking from it; loving the truth but often times giving way to falsity…. I detest selfishness, but see it in the mirror every day." Clinton is still exploring the topic of his own inner workings in chapter 49, where he writes about what he learned in the couples' therapy he and Hillary entered into following the Monica Lewinsky revelation: "I came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry, or feeling isolated and alone, I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self-destructive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed. The current controversy was the latest casualty of my lifelong effort to lead parallel lives, to wall off my anger and grief and get on with my other life, which I loved and lived well."

I also concur with those who find My Life prolix, disorganized, and far longer than it needed to be for Clinton to tell his story. The book consists of 55 untitled chapters, followed by a three-and-a-half page epilogue. (There is no table of contents and the index is barely adequate.) Whereas previous ex-presidents organized their memoirs thematically, Clinton's narrative is strictly chronological. The readers interested in a matter that unfolded over an extended period must therefore piece an account together from many chapters. The difficulty in mining the book is compounded by the innumerable anecdotes that punctuate its pages. Clinton pauses to remark on each course he took in college and law school, his favorite restaurants and what they served, the names of his grade school teachers, and much else that has little general interest. He also peppers his text with asides, at one point breaking off a discussion of how he fulfilled his responsibilities as commander-in-chief to mention a visit he made to view the pandas at the National Zoo. Making one's way through My Life is like taking a lengthy road trip on a highway studded with traffic humps.

Finally, I agree with the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani, who describes the book as "a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence, and scattered concentration." But how well does My Life mirror events of Clinton's time in the White House?

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Clinton's presidency, it will be remembered, was marked by a cycle of troubled periods, resulting in part from his own lack of discipline, and recoveries made possible by his resiliency, coolness under pressure, and political skill. The first alternation began before he took office. Clinton won praise early in the post-election transition by declaring that he intended to focus on the economy "like a laser beam" and for his display of economic sophistication at a conference he convened on the nation's finances, but the glow was gone by inauguration day.

Clinton staffed his White House with former campaign aides who lacked Washington experience and was slow to name cabinet nominees. His first candidate for attorney general withdrew from consideration after it came out that she had employed a pair of illegal aliens and failed to pay their Social Security taxes. It was not until February 11 that Clinton succeeded in nominating his eventual appointee. Also politically costly was the gays-in-the-military misadventure in which Clinton triggered an onslaught of protest by declaring his intention to open the military to homosexuals and then beat a retreat. By Clinton's 100th day, Congress had defeated his signature economic stimulus bill and there had been a number of additional contretemps. A Gallup poll found Clinton's approval level to have dropped from 58% at the start of his presidency to 38%.

Clinton then displayed his trademark capacity for self-correction. He strengthened his White House staff and took on the Washington-wise veteran Republican White House aide David Gergen as an advisor. By the end of 1993, Clinton had made a stunning presentation of his healthcare proposal to a joint session of Congress, brokered passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and presided over the signing of a peace accord with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. He was back in public favor— for the moment.

The following year was to see new and more severe difficulties. After a barrage of allegations of wrongdoing in connection with the Whitewater real estate venture in which Clinton and his wife had invested, he requested that an independent counsel be appointed to investigate the matter. Before long, the original counsel was replaced by the zealous Kenneth Starr, who was to become Clinton's nemesis in 1998. More damaging at the time was the lingering death of his proposal for sweeping reform of the nation's health care system. The campaign to enact the measure was a casebook instance of political mismanagement. Clinton took the controversial action of entrusting its framing to a task force directed by his wife. The task force drew fire by convening in secret and not revealing the names of its members. It failed to consult with Congress and the affected interests, and it came forth with an intricate, difficult-to-explain bill, which it reported well after a self-imposed deadline, affording time for opposition to mobilize. In late August, the proposal died in committee. By then the proportion of the public expressing approval of Clinton's handling of his responsibilities was down from 58% in January to 39%.

The 1994 election was a disaster for the Clinton Administration. The GOP seized control of Congress, gaining 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. The mastermind of the sweep, Newt Gingrich, had persuaded his fellow House Republicans to commit themselves to a "Contract with America," an extensive list of conservative proposals. When the new Congress convened, Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House. He went on to preside over House passage of all but one of the proposals, celebrating the triumph in a prime-time address. Clinton was reduced to insisting that he had not become politically superfluous, because "the Constitution makes me relevant."

Clinton soon proved to be more than merely relevant. On April 19, there was a terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people. On April 23, Clinton flew to the bombing site and delivered a moving eulogy to the victims. A poll reported in Time shortly thereafter found that his public support had risen from 49% to 60%. Next it was Gingrich's turn to miscalculate. He pushed through sharp spending cuts on the environment, education, and healthcare. Clinton went on to veto the spending legislation in which they were contained, and the federal government was compelled to shut down most of its activities. The public was deprived of the needed services, and Gingrich fell into deep disfavor. Clinton then began to advance such traditionally Republican policies as stiffer criminal sentences and efforts to combat teen pregnancy and put more police officers on the streets. In a final act of repositioning, he signed a sweeping welfare reform act. The culminating event in Clinton's political recovery was his 1996 reelection victory in a three-way contest with Bob Dole and Ross Perot. He launched his second-term with a call for a government that "lives within its means, and does more with less," setting out an extensive list of attractive low-price-tag initiatives. Buoyed by attractive proposals and a booming economy, Clinton's 1997 approval levels were the highest to date of his presidency.

Then came the year of Monica Lewinsky. And impeachment. On December 19, 1998, Clinton became the first elected president to be impeached, but the victory of his opponents proved to be pyrrhic. In the first opinion poll after impeachment, 73% of the public expressed approval of his conduct of the presidency, although polls also indicated that the public viewed his personal comportment with disfavor. By then, the astonishing outcome of the off-year election was known. Democratic strength in the House had increased by five, the first midterm gain by a president's party since 1934. Clinton proposed additional initiatives in 1999, but there was little interest on Capitol Hill in the program of a lame-duck chief executive. Turning to international peacemaking, he came within a hair of brokering a Middle East peace agreement, but at the last minute the negotiations broke down. In his final month in the White House, Clinton went into high gear, short-circuiting the normal review process to issue a spate of pardons and executive orders. The messiness of the end of his presidency echoed that of its beginning.

This is the story as it was known when Clinton's memoir was published. What has My Life added, and can it be taken on face value? The book provides no major revelations. Because it is so lengthy and cluttered, its narrative thread does not stand out, but it can be productively mined for new details. All such works must be read with caution, but memoirs can be instructive for what they exclude, as well as include, and for the insight they furnish into how their writers wish to be remembered. We might find such instruction in two very different examples of Clinton's emphases and omissions—a brief encounter with a journalist that illuminates his administration's troubled relations with the press and the two-year saga of his ambitious effort to guarantee healthcare to all Americans.

On June 13, 1993, Clinton assembled the White House press corps to announce the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. There had been intense speculation about how he proposed to fill a vacancy opened by the retirement of Justice Byron White. All signals pointed to a candidate Clinton did later name to the court—Stephen Breyer. His choice of Ginsburg came as a surprise. Clinton opened with a statement praising Ginsburg and announcing his intention to appoint her. Ginsburg followed, expressing her gratitude to Clinton and the satisfaction she derived at the advances women have made in law in the years since she became an attorney.

When the time came for questions, Clinton recognized Brit Hume, then ABC's White House correspondent. Hume remarked that Clinton had seemed about to nominate Breyer rather than Ginsburg, and he alluded to Clinton's recent withdrawal of his nomination of Lani Guinier to the Justice Department. Could he account for the seeming "zig-zag quality" of his decision-making, Hume asked. Clinton reports his reply in My Life. Taking objection to the question, Clinton deplored the tendency of the press to ignore the substance of actions and focus on the process that produced them. But Clinton makes no mention of what he did next. Grimacing angrily, he turned his back to the audience and stormed away, providing irresistible footage for the evening news. Clinton devotes many pages of his memoir to lamenting the unflattering coverage of his administration by the media, but he fails to dwell on his own complicity in its depiction.

* * *

The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that does not guarantee healthcare to its entire population. In the early months of the Clinton presidency, it was widely held that this historical anomaly was about to be eliminated, whether through Clinton's proposal or some alternative. No alternative proved acceptable to the administration, and Clinton's plan never reached the floor of Congress. Important lessons can be derived from this monumental failure, but not from My Life. To begin with, the strict chronology of the book's narrative makes a systematic account of any topic virtually impossible. Clinton deals with his initiative in two-dozen brief passages scattered across 10 full chapters. Even if the passages added up to an adequate account, few readers would succeed in fitting the story together. In fact, they do not.

Despite his reputation for immersing himself in the detailed content of policies, Clinton says little about the specifics of his proposal, much less of the alternatives that were proposed to it. He makes only cursory reference to the debates among his advisors about how best to advance the proposal and none to his periodic changes of position. He does briefly discuss the debate among the proposal's supporters about whether to include it in the budget reconciliation process or report it as a separate bill, but makes one of his main points in a mind-numbing locution: "To provide universal coverage, we had either to include a provision for backup price controls in the plan, raise taxes and cut other spending even further, or reduce the deficit target, which might adversely affect our strategy to lower interest rates." He does acknowledge that his appointment of Mrs. Clinton to head the effort was controversial. But he does not mention a particularly compelling reason for the criticism—that advisors who had reservations about the direction the reform was taking would be inhibited about taking on the president's wife. All told, Clinton's treatment of this and larger topics compares unfavorably with similar discussions in earlier presidential memoirs.

The final chapters of My Life, much like the final month of the Clinton presidency, are particularly ragged, evidently because Clinton was submitting hand written pages to the end. One winds up asking of the book, as of the presidency, "Why could he not have done better?"