- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

MY LIFE

By Bill Clinton

Knopf, $35, 957 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL P. RICCARDS

Presidential memoirs are publications to be avoided. Except for Richard Nixon’s revealing “RN” and Ulysses S. Grant’s remembrance of the Civil War, there is really very little of interest for either readers or historians in these sorts of volumes.

In this case, Bill Clinton has determined that if he cannot write a great book, he will at least write an interesting story, and at times he has surely succeeded. The first section of Mr. Clinton’s memoir is in fact two stories: the Horatio Alger tale of a poor Southern boy made good in a harsh world and a discursive analysis of the postwar America in which he grew up.

For 957 pages, Mr. Clinton seems to tell us about all the people he ever met as a boy or a young man and the idiosyncratic events surrounding them. Surely they are a great cast of characters who populate small-town Arkansas: wise, wily, corrupt at times, but not pedestrian.

Mr. Clinton grew up not knowing who his natural father was, so he was to a large extent raised in a supportive female environment, which consisted of his grandmother, his aunts and his mother. Yet this book is lovingly dedicated in part to his maternal grandfather.

His mother, knowing all too well the perils of widowhood and showing a propensity for wayward males, was married five times to four different men. BillClinton moved around frequently, and the only anchor he seemed to have was his own intellect, which by all accounts is most impressive.

Later he lived, in his own words, parallel lives — one normal and successful in the greater world and the other highly dysfunctional in the family. He was the stepson of an abusive alcoholic, and together he and his mother hid that fact.

In this respect, there are similarities to the early years of Ronald Reagan. But in Mr. Clinton’s case, the pattern of deception became a much larger part of his character.

As Roger Morris has shown, the cultures of Hot Springs and Little Rock were saturated with a sense of permissiveness — sexual and economic — and this has left its mark. Mr. Clinton’s upbringing was remarkably different from the strict Republican, suburban environment outlined in his wife’s memoir. Hillary Clinton’s early life was one more tempered by limits, rules, and good behavior, as she herself notes.

Mr. Clinton wanted and needed, and still needs, approval. He got it by being a superb, conscientious student. His path is well known — he became a scholarship student, the recipient of other people’s generosity at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law School.

At each institution he proved a fine student — almost in spite of himself, for he was often undisciplined. But he was impressively bright and got by easily.

This part of the story is almost a Mark Twain tale of growing up in a world of characters and cut ups, in which the hero just manages to escape the forces waiting in the bushes to attack him.

In that sense, it seems almost a precursor of Mr. Clinton’s presidency. He puts himself in danger in a reckless way time and again. The man is the child writ large.

Mr. Clinton’s two terms in office were a time of harsh partisanship, with his supporters learning to play the game as roughly as his legions of detractors. Clearly, he wants to know why he was so detested, since that hatred was out of balance with the original disputes.

His own answer is an interesting one — times of accelerated change, of abrupt transition, of new political paradigms, he writes, lead to great disequilibrium and thus fierce partisanship. It happened in 1800 with the charges of corruption and sexual peccadilloes leveled against his namesake, Thomas Jefferson.

The same is true for the presidencies of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and FDR. Agents of change are more fascinating to history, but they pay a personal price.

It’s a rather original reinterpretation of the Clinton controversies; of course, it does take some of the sound and fury out of his years in the White House. In this respect, Sidney Blumenthal’s score-settling history, “The Clinton Wars,” is a livelier and more faithful rendition.

Yes, Mr. Clinton does mention Monica Lewinsky. If a reader really wants the salacious version, however, he should stick with the Starr Report. Mr. Clinton lamely concludes that he did what he did because he could …

His account, then, is more of a sad footnote than an explanation. But what more can he say? (Indeed, Mr. Clinton expresses intense dislike for only a few of his old foes — chiefly Kenneth Starr.) It is unfortunate that the TV interviews with the former president stress this sexual episode, and neglect any serious discussion of his presidency and its public policies.

Remarkably, Mr. Clinton himself insists that he is proud of his role in the impeachment process, for he met the enemy and once again defeated them, thus saving the presidency from harm.

Yet that “victory” was not so much due to his advisers’ grand strategy or the fairness of the media as it was to the common sense of the American people, who seemed unwilling to confuse private venality with high crimes and misdemeanors. In the end, the Senate represented public opinion.

Mr. Clinton is remarkably positive in his treatment of the Bushes, Bob Dole, and even Newt Gingrich — for they are bit actors in his high melodrama. And he insists he heeded the advice of Nelson Mandela: One must not allow one’s enemies to control the future of their victim. Thus in these memoirs, at least, Bill Clinton is not a very good hater.

Overall, “My Life” is in desperate need of an unyielding, discriminating editor. At times the prose gets deadening, and the narrative bogs down in details. Mr. Clinton gives us a near-diary account of the flow of events over eight years, and occasionally he actually tends to shortchange himself. He is the only Democrat since FDR to serve two full terms. He is one of the few Democrats to reconstitute the ideological thrust of that party. In the judgments of his advocates, he gave this nation eight years of prosperity, and nearly gave the world peace in the Middle East.

His day-by-day approach sometimes loses the themes that emerge in his own presidency, so we will have to wait for topical historians who will study Mr. Clinton’s involvement with Bosnia, Sudan, Yasser Arafat, the terrorist threat, welfare reform, and educational and work force initiatives.

In the end, this volume is an interesting period piece. It reminds us of the time when Elvis was truly alive; when the 1960s seemed to inaugurate a better world; when Americans were willing to pay any price and bear any burden to ensure the triumph of liberty. Because he was the first postwar president and because he was one of the youngest in and out of that august office, Bill Clinton will remain in a strange way forever young — similar to, but also very different from, his hero John F. Kennedy. And in both cases we part company with a melancholy sense of what might have been — if only things had been different.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of a history of the American presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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