Former Bush speechwriter David Frum was a sworn enemy of the Clinton presidency. But now that the man is out of power, and maturing fast, there may be reason to rethinkby David Frum / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Reviewers have almost unanimously dismissed Bill Clinton’s mammoth memoir as dull. It is easy to see why: much of it is an undigested mass of diary entries, apparently re-dictated without reflection. Old speeches seem to have been pasted in randomly in the same manner.
And yet, if you gird yourself to read the book through, you keep stumbling across odd moments of revelation. Like this one: in the summer of 1971, young Bill Clinton had just been appointed co-ordinator of southern states for George McGovern’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The trouble was that Clinton’s new girlfriend, Hillary Rodham, had got a summer job at a law firm in Oakland, California. So Clinton quit the campaign and headed west. “During the day when Hillary was at work,” he writes, “I read books in the parks and coffee shops.”
Here was Bill Clinton’s first major political responsibility and he shrugged it off to chase a girl and spend his summer in coffee shops. History sometimes really does repeat itself.
The book suffers, too, from Clinton’s habit of reverting to lawyerly language for purposes of concealment. Here, for example, is his version of the episode in 1998 when a former White House aide, Kathleen Willey, accused him of having kissed and fondled her: “She claimed I had made an unwanted advance toward her while she was working in the White House. It wasn’t true.” Any reader who knows anything about Clinton knows enough to ask what, exactly, “wasn’t true.”
Yet My Life can surprise you, often agreeably. When he wishes, Clinton can be both frank and lucid, and his stories often ring with more truth than presidential autobiographers usually permit. Here is his account of how he persuaded one Arthur Barbieri, the Democratic boss of New Haven, Connecticut, to endorse George McGovern in the 1972 primary: “When I walked into his office and introduced myself, Barbieri was cordial but businesslike. He told me that… he had already lined up his poll workers and a number of his cars to take his people to the polls. He said he had dedicated $50,000 to the effort, a huge sum in those days for a town the size of New Haven. I replied that I didn’t have much money, but I did have 800 volunteers who would knock on the doors of every house in his stronghold, telling all the Italian mothers that Barbieri wanted to keep sending their sons to die in Vietnam. ‘You don’t need that grief,’ I said. ‘Why do you care who wins this nomination? Endorse McGovern. He was a war hero in World War II. He can make peace, and you can keep control of New Haven.'” Barbieri was won over.
Boring and revealing, disingenuous and candid: such contradictions are as typical of the memoir as they are of the man. It has been four years since he left office, and we still do not quite know what to make of him. There is the charm that comes through even these dry pages – until it is pierced by mawkish self-pity or a sinister insinuation about a political opponent. There is the sprawl and the mess that spoil much of My Life as they are said to have hampered Clinton’s presidency – and yet within the sloppiness are virtues that never wholly go into eclipse.
My Life is, in brief, the story of a man endowed with a great gift for making other people like him. Towards those otherwise predisposed, Clinton adopts the attitude that he adopted towards his future father-in-law, who also did not like him at first: “I decided I’d work on him.”
In his political life, Clinton’s gift for working on people took him all the way from Arkansas to the White House. There, however, the gift lost its power. It had done for him all it could do: not enough to make him a great or even a merely effective president.
Once in office, Clinton careered from crisis to crisis, unguided by any fixed purpose. He knew he disliked the racial segregation of the old south – but segregation had vanished long ago, and the cause of civil rights needed no further help from him. He knew he wanted to make sweeping changes in American life – but he was never quite sure what those changes might be, let alone how to bring them about.
At the beginning, of course, there were many who saw a higher purpose in Clinton’s ascendancy to the presidency. They saw him as the man who would realise the blasted dreams of the generation of the 1960s. There were many who feared exactly the same outcome. Both turned out to be wrong. The record of his presidency, laid out in tedious detail in this book, shows him to have been, instead, the sort of man Groucho Marx might have been thinking of when he quipped, “Gentlemen, I have my principles. And if you don’t like them, I have other principles.”
In one way, though, Clinton did achieve an unequivocal success as president. He came to Washington to have a good time – and what a time it was: “I took every opportunity I could to bring all kinds of musicians to the White House. Over the years, we had Earth, Wind, and Fire, Yo-Yo Ma, Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, and many other classical, jazz, blues, Broadway and gospel musicians. For the entertainment, we usually had room to invite more guests than could be accommodated at the dinner. Afterward, anyone who wanted to stay returned to the foyer of the White House for dancing.”
The photograph section of the book resembles a hyperactive teenager’s camp bulletin: Bill Clinton with the White House valets. Bill Clinton with his secret service detail. Bill Clinton surrounded by adoring Ghanaians.
At the conclusion of My Life, Clinton waxes magniloquent: “I wrote this book to tell my story and to tell the story of America in the last half of the 20th century; to describe as fairly as I could the forces competing for the country’s heart and mind; to explain the challenges of the new world in which we live.” Clinton the writer indulges in a great deal of this kind of high-flown hokum, just as he did when president. Whether or not he himself believes it, he wants his readers to believe that he was doing something more in the White House than spending his days gabbing with the kitchen staff or eyeing the breasts of the Italian prime minister’s second wife.
In fact, Clinton was given one of the easiest rides of any president in history. He arrived in office after other men had ended the cold war and after other policies had propelled the US into one of the greatest booms in its history; he left before his neglect of fundamental problems, from terrorism to social security, would exact its toll. Dreading decisions, he flinched from them again and again in his first term, then he wasted his second term because he could not discipline his appetites or honestly confront his own actions. No one since Warren Harding has brought more derision and disrespect upon the presidency.
But, as always, there is yet another interesting complication. The Bill Clinton story is not over. The same outstanding personal qualities that brought Clinton to the presidency have become relevant again now that he has left it, while the personal deficiencies that hobbled him in office have ceased to matter quite so much now that the nation no longer looks to him to lead it.
Since exiting the presidency, Clinton has generally conducted himself with surprising grace and tact. He has been an effective spokesman for the US when he travels abroad, while conspicuously refraining from criticising his successor. Naturally, he has supported candidates of his party, but he has largely avoided partisan politics.
In My Life, Clinton often talks about the process of maturation. Like many members of his generation, he has been late to reach full adulthood – not even being elected president quite got him there. Now, at 60, he may have arrived. And who knows? There may still be important work yet for this gifted man to do, especially if ways can be found to deploy his persuasiveness in the service of his country on the world stage. If that were to come about, the day might yet dawn when Americans of all political points of view would be ready to give the contradictory teller of this contradictory tale the affection and respect he has craved above everything else in life.
This review first appeared in “Commentary”