Respond to this Article July/August 2004

Bill of Right

What Clinton really reveals in his new memoir.

By Matthew Cooper

The early reviews of Bill Clinton's long-awaited, lucrative memoir have been consistent: The book is disorganized and chaotic, like the man who wrote it. While there are some interesting Arkansas riffs, the conventional wisdom goes, the presidency is treated as a slapdash schedule dump--we bounce from bill signing to foreign summit with no real coherence. Indeed, there was such bad buzz after The New York Times took the unusual step of trashing the book in a front page review by influential critic Michiko Kakutani that even some diehard Clinton veterans worried that the memoirs might crash and burn. On Monday, June 20, before the book's release but after Kakutani's review and the "60 Minutes" interview with Dan Rather, I was with some former Clinton administration officials who were fretting that the memoir would hurt John Kerry by dredging up Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. "It's a disaster," said an old Democratic hand who had watched the Rather interview. "No one is going to want to read this."

My Life
by Bill Clinton
Knopf, $35.00

Of course, as has so often been the case, the conventional wisdom about Bill Clinton was wrong this time, too. Elites may have scorned the book, but its sales have been extraordinary; early indications are that they may even surpass those for Hillary's memoirs, which themselves wildly exceeded expectations. The whole episode reminds me of Clinton's 1998 State of the Union address, widely chided at the same time by reporters for going on too long, but which surveys later showed was well appreciated by a public whose appetite for detail is often underestimated. Readers who are willing to slog through the nearly 1,000 pages will find things that the critics missed. (They'll see that, yes, the book can be rambling and slapdash, too--which is as much a reflection on Knopf as it is on Clinton, since the publisher insisted the memoir cover his whole life.) The sections on Monica that so dominated the first days stories are brief and uninteresting. Okay, he feels bad. We get it. (Indeed, once it was revealed during the president's impeachment trial that Clinton had taken all the risks of the world's most calamitous affair while refraining from intercourse because he didn't want to go all the way, it was pretty clear that he had, uh, issues.) Clinton's unalloyed hatred of Ken Starr is neither surprising nor especially unjustified when you read, once again, how wildly far the prosecutor went after the former president.

I found other things more interesting. For instance, Clinton keeps coming back to the efforts of Republicans to define Democrats as outside the mainstream of American life, as sissy liberals--not a new point, of course, for this magazine or other politicians. But Clinton recognizes it as the central struggle confronting progressives, and it shapes his life and ideology. As a young man he sees how the politicians he campaigns for are dismissed as wusses even though they include a former bomber pilot (George McGovern) and the son of a coal miner (Joe Duffy, a Connecticut congressional candidate when Clinton was at Yale Law School and later head of the U.S. Information Agency). "Since 1968 conservatives have been very good at convincing middle America that progressive candidates, ideas and policies are alien to their values and threatening to their security," he writes. Clinton has understood throughout his career that getting on the wrong side of values is death for the Democrats, and as he drives his AMC Gremlin around Northwest Arkansas in his first and only race for Congress in 1974 or loses his first reelection bid for governor in 1980, or sees Michael Dukakis get crushed by the Bush machine on issues like the pledge of allegiance, Clinton becomes more sensitive than ever about not being turned into a "space alien"--he uses the phrase a couple of times--by the Republicans. When the first months of his administration get defined in the media by gays in the military, he's enraged at how he fell into the trap he spent a lifetime avoiding. In one of the most trenchant analyses of the 2000 election, Clinton notes the little-commented upon role of the National Rifle Association in flooding blue collar workers with anti-Gore propaganda. In states where unions made a point of fighting back against the NRA--Michigan, Pennsylvania among them--arguing that you might not agree with the Democratic nominee on guns but that he was right on other issues, Gore was able to prevail. In states with weaker union movements--Tennessee, New Hampshire--the NRA was able to garner blue collar votes for Bush.

The book also shows that there is such a thing as Clintonism. On CBS, Clinton told Dan Rather that he hated the term Slick Willie because it dismissed him as a snake-oil salesman who believed in nothing. The book shows that there really are Third Way ideas, and that Clinton came to them naturally, over time, both as part of his own disposition and because he had to win conservative voters. He eschewed the radical Students for a Democratic Society in favor of the more mainstream National Students Union. He was entirely at home in the welfare and school reform movements as governor. He gave the benediction at his high school graduation and as president supported legislation legalizing such religious observances at public events.

With all the Monica attention, there's been relatively little about the other characters who pop up in the book. Virtually everyone Clinton mentions gets tossed a bouquet, but there are still some interesting vignettes. I hadn't known that Clinton drove Hale Boggs, the late House Majority Leader, to the airport on the fateful day that he left for Alaska never to be heard from again. The famously corrupt governor of Arizona, Fife Symington, saved Clinton's life as a young man on a visit to Cape Cod. When Clinton wants to take responsibility for the Waco-Branch Davidian conflagration, George Stephanopoulos persuades him not to until they know more about what happened. By that time Reno had taken the heat, and Clinton ended up looking like a wimp. The maligned Bernard Nussbaum, Clinton's first White House counsel, is prescient in noting that any special counsel will run amok. Much has been made of Yasser Arafat's stubborn refusal to take a good deal in the final push for a comprehensive Middle East peace, and Clinton shows the Palestinian leader to be not only foolish but possibly on the verge of senility. More surprisingly, he shows how Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak blew a potentially historic side deal with Syria that Clinton thinks the late Hafez Assad genuinely wanted.

The book is also a reminder of the insanity of 1990s scandal reporting. Having written some of those stories, I felt embarrassed but also proud of a column I did at The New Republic after the Resolution Trust Company found no wrongdoing by the Clintons in the Whitewater affair. The RTC report, written by Jay Stephens, a conservative Republican, got little notice at the time. It shouldn't have. Kenneth Starr's calamitous crusade unearthed not one relevant detail about Whitewater that Stephens had not dealt with already.

Finally, the book is actually quite funny at times. Readers of The Washington Monthly will notice a slightly dry wit reminiscent of Charlie Peters's "Tilting at Windmills." Describing a campus hangout near Georgetown, Clinton goes on about the proprietors, Don and Rose--him with biceps and tattoos "back when they were a rarity Rose had a big beehive hairdo, a nice face, and a great figure, which she showed off to good effect in tight sweaters, tighter pants and spiked heels. She was a big draw for boys with small budgets and large imaginations and Don's good-natured but vigilant presence guaranteed that all we did was eat. When Rose was at work, we ate slowly enough to ensure good digestion." That's good stuff. And it shows that the guy knows how to write. Clinton is already telling friends that he plans several more books, bearing down on some of the topics that get glossed over in this soup-to-nuts account of his life. Like Rose's sweaters, the tighter the better.

Matthew Cooper, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, covers the White House for Time.


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