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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

By Bill Clinton
Alfred A. Knopf, 957 pages, $35
Bill Clinton's struggle to be good


A good way to frame this summer is to start with the arrival of Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life, in the bookstores June 21 and to end with his thrilling opening night speech July 26 at the Democratic Convention.

The hype preceding the book’s appearance asked whether Clinton’s book would push John Kerry off the front pages and, by reopening discussion of the scandals of the Clinton years, undermine the Democratic Party’s attempt to reclaim the White House.

The New York Times ran a preemptive strike negative review by the merciless Michiko Kakutani on Sunday’s front page the day before the book hit the stands. The Times’ own public editor, its internal critic, questioned the ethics of putting an opinion piece on Page One. Then the Times made amends by running a sympathetic essay by Larry McMurtry in the Sunday Book Review in which he gave the Georgetown Jesuits credit for teaching young Bill to ask what the definition of “is” is.

The Sunday morning TV gasbags could exhale on nothing else, although each show’s commentators usually included at most one person who had read what he was talking about. In time, partly because 957 pages take a long time to read and the labor of writing them calls for some respect, the reception improved.

The book, in its gestation and structure, is not so much a work of art as a product, a commodity delivered for a summer-sale deadline. Based on two oral histories and the president’s early diaries, daily schedules and papers and brought forth with the help of a team of historians, researchers and editors to earn the author $12 million, the result is part encyclopedic historical narrative, part life story, part moral tale.

A typical page includes 20 names of presidents, kings, celebrities, politicians and pals; five cities or countries, where Bill drops in, visits a project, negotiates a peace treaty and helicopters away; and a personal reflection wherein Clinton expresses pride, gratitude, forgiveness, praise, self-justification -- like his angry denial that he stalled air traffic for an hour at the Los Angeles Airport while he got “a $200 haircut from a fancy hairdresser known only by his first name” -- and an occasional regret over a mistake.

-- Reuters/Peter Jones

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton at a book signing in Toronto Aug. 5

The tales from Clinton’s early life include the story of his alcoholic stepfather (“fundamentally a good man”) who abused his mother and him. Clinton and his boyhood friends, the ex-president says, frequented the local whorehouse; before becoming engaged, he and Hillary as law students lived together, causing their parents “concern.”

For the first 47, pre-Ken Starr chapters, there is barely an unkind word for anyone. “I liked them all,” he says. He “liked” and “respected” pro-life Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey, he says; it was Ron Brown who wouldn’t let him speak at the convention. Sometimes he regrets that he took advisers’ bad advice. He thought Janet Reno and the FBI’s proposal to storm the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was too hasty, but he went along with it. More than 80 people died. “After Waco,” he writes, “I resolved to go with my gut.”

Clinton has been described as a rare president “who can write,” but much of his writing, though dotted with some vivid descriptions -- like Sen. J. William Fulbright spontaneously dancing in the street with his wife -- is formulaic, a summary of his day-by-day official schedule, where the paragraph begins with the month or date, names the country he flew to and who met him when he arrived. He reaches often into his bag of clichés: He is “higher than a kite,” his car tires are as “smooth as a baby’s behind,” and 82-year-old Sen. John L. McClellan is “sharp as a tack.”

Traditionally, autobiography as a literary genre is a religious or moral document. Consider the classics -- St. Augustine’s Confessions, Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House and Lincoln Steffens’ Autobiography -- all written to give testimony to the impact of some transcendent values, either God’s grace, progressive reform or socialism. The author offers himself or herself as a model for another generation: Learn from me, profit from my mistakes.

Bill Clinton is no exception. He depicts his life as one man’s struggle to be a good man. However, this struggle does not yet seem to have been realized.

He confronts the Gennifer Flowers accusations during the New Hampshire primary by admitting he “hadn’t lived a perfect life,” as if perfection was the standard by which a public person is to be judged rather than by a pattern of behavior. When he confesses his deception and infidelity with Monica Lewinsky to his daughter, Chelsea, he says that “every child learns that her parents aren’t perfect,” as if Chelsea didn’t know that already and as if mere imperfection was his offense. During the Starr investigations he gratuitously informs the reader that according to DNA tests, Thomas Jefferson had fathered several children with his slave Sally Hemmings -- as if William Jefferson Clinton might be entitled to partake of both the vices and virtues of his namesake.

In the long run, he offers no rational analysis for his admittedly immoral behavior deeper than the one he wrote in a junior year high school essay in which he describes himself as “deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility, yet shirking it; loving the truth but often times giving way to falsity …”

Later he describes this as living “parallel lives” -- a term his critics translate as hypocrisy.

The heart of My Life is in chapters 48-51, the Kenneth Starr investigation and the impeachment. In the March 27, 1998, issue of NCR, I wrote that I thought it would be best for both the country and Clinton’s reputation if he left office quickly and quietly. Because the Constitution makes the president both the chief executive and the symbolic head of state, his position is, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, one of “moral leadership.” Clinton had lost his moral authority to lead.

Clinton answers that he had a moral obligation to stay and fight Kenneth Starr’s and the Republican majority’s abuse of power. His enemies’ vices, Clinton argues, were worse than his.

On “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” a week or so after the publication of My Life, Clinton admitted under questioning that he had deceived Lehrer -- and the public -- in an interview during his crisis because if he had told the truth he feared he would be driven from office. Then the two continued with some of the sharpest analysis of foreign policy available on TV. In the same way, some of the most valuable sections of his book are those on Clinton’s peace efforts in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and the Middle East, and his untiring labor to shore up international alliances. And the “News Hour” viewer sighs, “What a waste! What if …?”

As Walter Isaacson wrote in The Washington Post, the book is like the man: “deeply intelligent, self-indulgent and filled with great promise alternately grasped and squandered.”

The “what if” factor was on view again at the Democratic Convention as the public watched Clinton on the first night and John Kerry on the last. In his convention speech, Clinton told us that he had come before us “as a citizen, a foot soldier in our fight for the future.” In no way had Clinton’s book eclipsed Kerry’s campaign; he had served and written as well as he could. As for becoming a good man -- that remains an unfinished task.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

Clinton through other eyes

I called and e-mailed a short list of writers, intellectuals and political activists for some other thoughts on Clinton’s book, which, since it was still No. 1 on The New York Times Best-Seller list, I was sure everyone was reading.

Not so. Unlike The DaVinci Code, Bill Clinton’s My Life may be one of those books that everyone buys but few take the time to read.

A great Catholic former governor, a leading New Testament scholar, a feminist political activist and the editor of the nation’s best liberal opinion weekly all had other things to write and read. A former senator’s law office phone rang “busy” all day. A Harlem congressman, after I called his office with my question, did not return my call.

I did connect with one pacifist writer familiar to NCR readers, one professional journalist and biographer, and a distinguished historian, who, because of their professions, could not let this book go by.

NCR columnist Colman McCarthy considered the book’s concentration on the president’s role as a negotiator and ranked Clinton as a “failure” as a peacemaker. Throughout his term, Clinton continued the bombing of Iraq. The book describes Clinton’s retaliation against what he imagined were stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons -- weapons we know now did not exist. After the Columbine High School massacre, said McCarthy, Clinton lectured to a local high school on “conflict resolution,” solving disputes without violence. Then he went home to order a bombing raid on Belgrade.

Tom Maier, the prizewinning Newsday investigative reporter and biographer of Si Newhouse, Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Kennedy family, sees My Life as a great story for what it says about America. Clinton is truly part of the great American myth, the character constantly reinventing himself. “More than any recent American president, he proves that anyone can become president. He stood on no one’s shoulders. He made it by sheer will, drive and ambition.”

The first part in particular has the “raw stuff of a great American biography.” Clinton writes it, Maier said, “like a bright kid trying to do a homework assignment in an overnighter.” We would like to know more, said Maier, about the effects of Clinton’s fatherlessness and his subsequent stepfather’s alcoholic household.

Now working on a biography of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Douglas Brinkley is the biographer of Henry Ford and a history professor at the University of New Orleans who helped John Kerry put his war memoirs into shape. Brinkley is sympathetic to Clinton. He considers Clinton’s book one of the better presidential memoirs, useful to historians, especially the story of Clinton’s rise from the dysfunction of his youth to leadership. I asked whether Brinkley saw Clinton emerging as a “good man.”

Clinton is like all of us, said Brinkley, dealing with the tension between his desires and his faith. At least he has acquired the courage to talk about this struggle.

“Above all, Clinton really feels the suffering of the underclass, and that is what makes people connect to him,” Brinkley said.

Finally I re-read Garry Wills’ long review in the New York Review of Books, where Wills concludes, as he and I did in 1998, that Clinton should have resigned. Gore would have had a “honeymoon” to accomplish the Clinton-Gore agenda, and Clinton would have been admired for his sacrifice.

And, I might add, we would not have had this war.

-- Raymond A. Schroth

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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