Policy Wank

Bill Clinton's sodden memoir goes into all the wrong detail
  • My Life

    By Bill Clinton
    Alfred A. Knopf

In hindsight—which kicked in, so far as I could measure, around mid-afternoon of publication day—the most remarkable thing about Bill Clinton's My Life was the hullabaloo generated by a book any child could have guessed would be tiresome. Stopping short only of offering the first million customers free kazoos whittled from ex-First Dog Buddy's tibia, the publicity had us half believing we could fork over $35 and come away clutching the Clinton autobiography of our dreams—a star-spangled, crazily honking, wake-up-little-Souza combination of Baron Munchausen, Casanova's memoirs, The Sound and the Hillary, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But even though the last of these was a clear inspiration for My Life's marketing, from the suspenseful buildup to the chimes-at-midnight rollout, one difference was that J. K. Rowling's fans could be reasonably sure they weren't buying an evasive account of Harry's adventures. Another was that virtually every copy sold of Goblet of Fire was promptly devoured cover to cover, which I feel safe assuming was not the case here—and not only because Clinton's dense 957 pages make Rowling's 734 look zippy. The blurb missing from the ads is what Laurence Olivier once wickedly said to Alec Guinness: "Marvelous, old cock! I never realized Malvolio could be played as a bore."

Predictably, the shrieker right looked at My Life and saw Kill Bill, Vol. 3. But if clamor-gal Ann Coulter's zeal to play Uma Thurman forced her to slog through every word, all I can say is that Bill has had a modest revenge for Whitewater. For less ideologically goaded readers, it was an act of heroic honesty on Knopf's part—and just plain heroism, given Clinton's last-minute delivery—to provide this book with an index. Decades from now, all those fading thumbprints alongside "Flowers, Gennifer" and "Lewinsky, Monica" will be of use in authenticating first editions, and only true sentimentalists will leave a similar smudge next to "Dole, Bob, 1996 election and." In light of all three searches' Sominex-y results, however, the odds are overwhelming that My Life is destined to end up as a prominent but largely pristine totem on liberal America's bookshelves after its brief, proud season as a wrist-spraining fashion statement, with his-and-hers, his-and-his, and hers-and-hers duplications commemorating all the happy marriages begun with shy chat ("Did you get to where he picks Gore yet? Me neither") in the queue for Fahrenheit 9/11. Even though the trees felled to produce it are enough to substantially alter his environmental record, Clinton's book was designed not so much to be read as to be an event's central prop; in more than one sense, we weren't really buying the story of his life. Rather, we were being offered a small chance to play spear carriers in an episode of it.

The tradeoff is that in exchange for a stylized concession to our agenda, which is dirt, we have to put up with his, which is vindication. Not that he cops to either motive, of course: "Would I be known for bringing prosperity? For being a peacemaker? … I didn't have time to think about such things," he writes, rebuking the journalists we've just glimpsed badgering a busy, devoted chief executive to guess how he'll stack up in the history books. Then he bends to his task once again, sustained by a splendidly brusque reflection: "The legacy would take care of itself …" Coming on page 875 of a book that reads like nothing so much as one man's mammoth attempt to build a dike around his finger, this at least has the familiar Clinton charm of effrontery.

A reasonable semblance of soul-searching was what Knopf paid him $10 mil for, and it's certainly true that My Life features damp wads of much more intimate pseudo-introspection than, say, Eisenhower's memoirs—not that I've gone back to check. ("What caused my hostile feelings about German armored divisions? Mamie, years of therapy—and okay, golf—helped me face the truth.") But age-of-rehab platitudes are Clinton boilerplate, an idiom he slips into as easily as Jean Harlow into a negligee; long before he switched roles from therapist-in-chief to patient, he always was our first Oprah President. At another level, his already famous flapdoodle about his "parallel lives"—didn't we use to just call them public and private ones?—ends up as the most preposterously overscaled rationalization for getting some at the office that your eyes will ever glaze over at. As I'm sure Oprah herself knows, even if—not unlike New York's junior senator—she's much too canny to let on, millions of men from happy, well-adjusted backgrounds have cheated on their wives, and plenty from messy ones are models of fidelity. Even granting that the young Clinton's insecure upbringing and alcoholic stepfather probably did teach him to compartmentalize in all the wrong places, his seeming frankness in confronting this only proves he hasn't lost the knack. It's not just that those little-boy-lost early traumas turn out to explain Monica Lewinsky, reassuring us that he, if not she, didn't actually enjoy their trysts. In a brilliant displacement, Monica—and, by implication, his other marital imbroglios—is virtually all they explain, distracting us from inconveniently recalling that our narrator's instincts for duplicity, bluff, and untrustworthy trimming didn't surface only in his sex life. They surfaced in his policy.

This artful separation of what was actually perfectly consistent behavior into bogus antipodes is why My Life's therapeutic grid is pure scaffolding, about as meaningful as the little backdrop mantras (for example, "Strong American Communities") that Clinton's White House made a staple of presidential speeches. You can tell that the author has to struggle to remind himself he's tormented; compared with confident, and-the-ship-sails-on Bill, his nineties media cousin O.J. seems racked by Kierkegaardian agonies. Early on, Clinton alerts us to "the deeper, constant anger I kept locked away," showing typical shrewdness in his choice of character failings. Anger, after all, is a rugged sort of flaw—lots more noble than, say, the itch for self-indulgence of an ex-fat kid eager to make up for lost time. Yet the adolescent Clinton apparently did such a heroic job of suppressing the rage seething inside him that not one incident he describes bears out its existence; a junior high-schooler whose most rebellious recorded act was to surreptitiously donate part of his allowance to Billy Graham's crusade wasn't exactly gearing up to be played by James Dean. Indeed, why this had to be kept secret from his parents, or anyone, isn't clear.

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Tom Carson is a columnist for GQ and the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel.

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