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My Life

Right, then. I'd been meaning to say something about this book. I think it's best to really think of it as two books rolled into one. The first one, about Clinton's days as a rising politico in Arkansas are quite good. The main limitation here is that it's a book about Arkansas politics in the 1970s and 1980s which is not the most inherently fascinating topic in the world. Still, I'm interested in the question of where politicians who aren't just leaping into the family business come from and how they get ahead, so I found this interesting. You get a lot of good memoirish stuff here about Clinton's relationship with his sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries within Arkansas progressive politics -- William Fulbright, Dale Bumpers, Dave Pryor, Jim Guy Tucker, etc. -- along with things about his adversaries on the other side, and the friends and allies he made in other states.

The second book, about his presidency, is rather more disappointing. The Starr stuff is fine, as far as it goes, but if you want to read about this you should really read The Hunting of the President and if you've read Hunting you really don't need to hear what Clinton has to say about it. The parts that deal with substantive policy and politics, on the other hand, are really quite disappointing. The trouble is that nothing gets explained, instead you just kind of have this blow-by-blow account of federal government related stuff that happened in the nineties. If you don't know what stuff happened, you might learn a thing or two. Or else you might just get confused, I couldn't really say. But if you're looking to really learn anything about what Clinton thought -- hoping to get an inside look at the process -- which would seem to be the merits of a Clinton-authored memoir, you don't get it. It's just sort of "John said X, Jane said Y, so I did (X or Y) because (John or Jane) was right." There's no real account of what happened, arguments aren't really put forward, etc. The fundamental flaw here is that whenever Clinton is talking about people who are still influential in left-of-center politics he wants to be uniformly nice about them.

One assumes that this is motivated by a desire to consolidate his position as an "elder statesman" in the Democratic Party and to avoid harming his wife's political career. Those are both reasonable priorities, but the right way to deal with them would have been by not writing the memoir until such time as he felt ready to really tell us what he thinks. Instead everyone is his "close friend and frequent golfing partner" no on turns out to have been an idiot, an asshole, or just really brilliant at X but totally lacking understanding of Y. There's no bitching and no moaning, which means that there's no real praise of anyone either, because no one can stand out in the sea of banal niceties.

I would imagine that most presidential memoirs are like this, though I haven't read any, but it makes for pretty disappointing reading. So far, then, Joe Klein's The Natural is the best book about the Clinton years of which I'm aware, which is unfortunate, because I think a better, longer, more thorough book is needed. Maybe someday....

June 30, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 6, 2005 6:58:04 PM


A agree that bitching and moaning are intrinsically good things, regardless of any further purpose they may serve.

Well, you didn't say that exactly, but I'm sure that you now realize that it's true.

Posted by: Zizka | Jun 30, 2004 8:08:34 PM

Have you read Jimmy Carter's Keeping Faith? If so, how does My Life compare?

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Jun 30, 2004 9:20:38 PM

I think Charles Pierce possibly said it best about Clinton:

'[S]ir, with all due respect, you are that most dangerous of people -- someone who can't write who thinks he can.  Find a ghost you can live with.  It's OK.'

The section I read -- the one that interested me -- was the brief description of Clinton's time in Oxford. Just a bit too much 'Fodor's England' and not enough Clinton. 'Flat' is the word, alas.

The 'nice' review in the NYTimes noted that, had Clinton been a prime minister, he'd have had the luxury of writing a two- or three-volume memoir. It's a pity that he didn't have that opportunity.

Posted by: nick | Jun 30, 2004 9:52:55 PM

"Joe Klein's The Natural is the best book about the Clinton years of which I'm aware"

Bob Woodward's The Agenda is very, very good. While it's scope is limited, it shows a lot of what is admirable about Clinton.


Posted by: Petey | Jun 30, 2004 9:57:45 PM

I'm not going to read the book. I paged through it and it's such a bohemoth...not to mention the pages I read didn't especially draw me in.

I've opted for the abridged "book on tape" version that Clinton reads himself. The reviews on this tome are better..perhaps due to Clinton actually giving a literal voice to his words.

I'm holding off for the tape until I go to Europe in a few weeks. Hopefully it will be a good way to ease the flight time.

Posted by: Carla | Jun 30, 2004 9:58:30 PM

I found Haynes Johnson's "The Best of Times, The Worst of Times" pretty good.

Posted by: Jaquandor | Jun 30, 2004 10:05:15 PM

OF COURSE Clinton's memoirs are going to be dull; What did you expect, hot info on where they kept the Rose law firm records that were under subpoeana, while waiting for the statute of limitations to expire? Maybe exerpts from the blackmail files he accumulated during Filegate, and utilized during the impeachment battle?

It was a very interesting Presidency, after all, but he doesn't want to spend his retirement in prison.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jul 1, 2004 7:30:51 AM

Brett, the doctor called. Your meds are in.

Posted by: Barry | Jul 1, 2004 9:59:14 AM

Yeah, Clinton's got to hide that mountain of criminal evidence. It's lucky for him that nobody, like, looked for it before or spent any time or money trying to dig it up, or else they definitely would have found something.

Posted by: JP | Jul 1, 2004 10:02:01 AM

Don't confuse luck with planning, and having the foresight to appoint a corrupt AG. Clinton got away with plenty, but you've got to give him credit, it wasn't by accident.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jul 1, 2004 10:37:07 AM

Matt's comments reflect those of Walter Isaacson in the Wash. Post; I. says Clinton needs to rewrite the 2d half 10 years later. While Hillary's pursuing a career, Bill probably can't afford to be candid -- assuming, of course, that he even has that ability.

It's a shame. If anyone seems smart enough to write the first great presidential memoir (Grant's book, of course, is a military memoir), really giving us a feel for how the presidency happens, it would be Bill Clinton. Coming clean, alas, goes against nearly every bone in his body.

Posted by: Andy | Jul 1, 2004 11:37:09 AM

Nurse! Nurse! Brett's not taking his meds again!

Posted by: nick | Jul 1, 2004 12:18:37 PM

Thanks for the laugh

Posted by: rose | Jan 2, 2005 6:38:33 PM

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