MY LIFE. By Bill Clinton. Knopf. 957 pages. $30.
Whatever you think about it, there has never been a presidential memoir like this before. Presidents normally recount the political and diplomatic histories of their administrations, with a little canned biography thrown in.
Bill Clinton does all that too - sometimes in mind-numbing, rigidly chronological detail. However, he also attempts to explain himself, in pop-psychological terms familiar to those who read self-help books, to his readers and perhaps himself:
"My struggles with the draft rekindled my long-standing doubts about whether I was, or could become, a really good person. Apparently, a lot of people who grow up in difficult circumstances subconsciously blame themselves and feel unworthy of a better fate. I think this problem arises from leading parallel lives, an external life that takes its natural course and an internal life where the secrets are hidden."
When he screwed up, mostly with women, we are given to understand that it was because "beneath my new and exciting external life, the old demons of self-doubt and impending destruction reared their ugly heads again."
Well, OK, if that gets you through the day. President Clinton has adopted this as a mantra, or formula, to explain all his personal failings; one suspects he picked up this terminology as part of the year of family therapy he endured.
During the six-month attempt to deny that he had "inappropriate encounters" with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the former president tells us "I was back to my parallel lives with a vengeance." Though he repeats, as he was no doubt taught to, that his sins were "no one's fault but my own," he follows in the very next sentence by saying he felt he had to engage in the doomed cover-up in order to prevent "letting the reactionaries prevail."
Whatever you make of all that, the tragedy of this book is that it is far better written than most presidential memoirs, and could have been a classic - had a brilliant editor been allowed to do his job, and shape this massive train wreck of data into a book.
Actually, what this needed to be is two books. Bill Clinton needed to write one volume on his amazing personal life story - voyage, if you will - and another volume on the history of his administration. They ought to have been packaged and sold together.
What is baffling is that he had a superb editor, Robert Gottlieb, formerly of the New Yorker, who ought to have known better. Clinton in fact praises him, saying that "without his judgment and feel, this book might have been twice as long."
Horrors. One suspects that Gottlieb wasn't allowed to do his job as completely as he might have, perhaps because of pressures to rush this book into print for Knopf to recoup its investment. However, My Life is not a total loss, though for most of us it is a book best suited for taking small swims in, rather than plowing through.
You can even imagine reading this book for fun, which certainly wasn't the case with almost any other presidential memoir (Jimmy Carter's or Richard Nixon's, say) that I can remember. The best parts are definitely not the sex stuff, which is carefully crafted for self-help, family, and legal needs, but the story of his early life.
For, love him or hate him, the fact is that Bill Clinton is still an amazing human being who accomplished far more in life than anyone could have anticipated, given his origins and his deeply dysfunctional childhood. Frankly, he has never gotten enough credit for his personal successes. Had he come along decades earlier, we might never have heard of his personal failings, certainly not while he was president.
Normally, the first half of the autobiography of a public man is far more revealing than the sections that deal with his public life, because the author is less guarded and that part of his story less rigidly processed. This is true here too - but in fact, Clinton is far more revealing and entertaining than most in describing the events of his presidency.
What may be surprising is how charitably Clinton treats his elected enemies, Newt Gingrich in particular, a man who in many ways, from his brilliance to lack of discipline, is almost a mirror image of himself. Clinton's feelings about Kenneth Starr are very different, and despite self-pity, he does make a persuasive case that the independent prosecutor was hardly fair, barely legal, and a sort of creepy ideologue.
We forget now, in the shadow of Sept. 11 and the present Iraq quagmire,howmomentous the Clinton years were. Elected partly because of a promise to provide universal health care, the new president failed so spectacularly that Democrats lost both houses of Congress. Yet he rallied, and presided over eight years of incredible economic boom and what nobody foresaw, the coming of the Age of the Internet.
Clinton enacted welfare reform, produced the first balanced budgets in decades, and left us thinking we had reached an age of eternal peace and prosperity, except for some vague little pest called Osama something, who we still haven't caught.
Anyone who manages to complete the whole book will be, as most of the nation was after eight years of Bill Clinton, mentally and physically exhausted. But not, however, bored. Whatever else he is, Clinton is one of us, as completely a part of the national fabric of our times as Oprah or race relations or terrorism.
"I've had an improbable life, and a wonderful one . . . as I said it's a good story, and I've had a good time telling it." When the last election was over, I asked a shrewd Republican what would have happened if Clinton had been able to run again. "We would have gone nuts. We would have raised billions, it would have been the nastiest and bitterest campaign in history, and Clinton would have won again."
That can't happen. But whether you think My Life is a classic or a clinker, odds are we haven't seen the last of William Jefferson Clinton yet.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman. Contact him at: OMBLADE@aol.com.