If You Don't Know Me By Now
In the spring of 1993, a friend and I set off on a drive across the country, from Ohio to Texas and then back through the Deep South. Somewhere on the third or fourth day of the trip, having stopped for the night in Memphis, we decided to make a push to find Hope, Ark. The following morning, we crossed the Mississippi River early and began our trek. Hope, as we discovered, lies across the state, a bit off the freeway in an unremarkable patch of land near the Texas-Arkansas border.
Bill Clinton, as hard it might be for anyone to believe now, was still a bit of an unknown then. His bolt-from-the-blue quest for the presidency had just paid off, and he had been in office for little more than a month. And while the larger sketch of the man had been drawn (poor upbringing, Southern moderate, ambitious wife, Baby Boomer, draft dodger, etc.), all the smaller details hadn’t been entirely filled in.
We wanted to see the humble starting point for ourselves, to separate honest experience from media-generated cliché. Hope, indeed, lived up to its billing. A modest, impoverished place. We had our pictures taken beneath the train station site made famous in the short film aired at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and moved on to Texas and less esoteric things.
We were there for the same reason Clinton’s life fascinated so many. The apparent clash of contradictions, the gulf between the Serious Wonk and Slick Willie. The overarching question was basic: How did someone with such common origins end up at Yale and Oxford, get elected governor, and reach the presidency in such an uncommonly short time?
Well, after 957 pages, I know. Boy, do I know. And know. And know. And know.
Bill Clinton, as he writes in the foreword, has a good story to tell. He tells it, unfortunately, in excruciating fashion, substituting detail for soul, and spreading the events of his compelling life over a canvas so thin that the power of the work is almost irreparably diluted.
Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like. Bill Clinton never met a man whose name, home town, favorite musical instrument, and the near-fatal medical condition of his mama he couldn’t recite off the top of his head. Reading My Life isn’t like drinking from a fire hydrant-there, the water ultimately tapers off. It takes longer.
It’s closer to being forced to endure a 12-day campaign speech standing up. At times, pushing through the book becomes such an exhausting and immersing experience that Clinton’s voice may linger in your mind like an alter ego: While, say, purchasing fish at the market, you could find yourself musing (in a down-home drawl) about the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act.
Which is a shame, because the traffic jam narrative is at odds with the essence of the modern version of the man, as anyone who witnessed Clinton’s commanding performance at the Democratic National Convention last week could tell you. That Clinton is the one who left the White House with a higher approval rating than when he started—a rare feat in American politics—and with a seemingly endless reservoir of wit, charm, and intelligence only occasionally obstructed by a few sandbags of cold, hard facts.
The Clinton who left office, and who then hunkered down in Chappaqua, N.Y., and began handwriting his memoirs, wasn’t the Clinton of 1988, whose Democratic National Convention keynote speech, crammed with minutiae, was branded a political disaster and a possible career-ender. (Barack Obama, he wasn’t.) Last week, he was a more relaxed, confident leader who no longer needed to apologize for his backwoods background by trying to prove his intelligence every six minutes.
Unfortunately, returning to his Arkansas roots in prose seems to have brought out the worst in him. Throughout his career, Clinton has been criticized for being too eager to please, too hands-on, and too unable to sit back and concentrate on the big picture. Those faults pervade My Life, in which Clinton becomes so concerned with informing the reader of every generous friend who aided his political career while at the same time establishing almost a month-by-month record of his eight years as president that much of the overall message gets lost. Not coincidentally, a similar problem dogged much of his first term in the White House.
Many times in the autobiography, the past and the present are sandwiched together in a sort of unholy fusion of summertime back porch reminiscence and a lunchtime program at the Brookings Institution. In a passage about the birth of his daughter, Chelsea, after describing how he lovingly “talked to her and sang to her,” he writes:
I thought about those first months with Chelsea in February 1993, when I signed my first bill into law as President, the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it?
That is Clinton, naturally, the policy wonk with the heart of gold. But sometimes, his nonlinear tendencies get the best of him. Never is this clearer than when the book tiptoes into its most delicate waters: the rumors of infidelity that hounded Clinton throughout his political career.
For instance, Gennifer Flowers, the former TV reporter who charged during Clinton’s first campaign for president that the pair had a long-running affair, is introduced by Clinton in the book only when the allegations surface before the New Hampshire primary in 1992. Clinton spends pages discussing his counterattack to the charges, which culminated in his famous interview on 60 Minutes. Only after that, and in the context of an under-oath deposition that Clinton was forced to give in 1998 in the Paula Jones case, does he admit to having a relationship with her, one that existed “back in the 1970s.” In Clinton’s earlier passage on the seventies, Flowers and the affair are never mentioned.
The same thing happens with Monica Lewinsky. She’s nowhere to be found during the federal government shutdown of 1995, when Clinton and congressional Republicans squared off over the budget, and when the two allegedly began their brief tryst. Again, Clinton instead mentions her for the first time in the course of detailing his 1998 deposition. It’s almost as if we, the readers, have to place him under oath to get him to tell the entire truth, and it’s an unsettling experience. In fiction, Clinton would be labeled an “unreliable narrator.”
Perhaps this can indeed be blamed on the same thing that Clinton blames it on: his “parallel lives.” Throughout the book, there are references, in clear therapy-speak-Bill and Hillary went into counseling post-Monica-to the fact that Clinton, as the adopted child of an alcoholic father, learned to separate his public persona from his private self in order to shield his pain and embarrassment from others. Of his high school days in Arkansas, Clinton writes, “I didn’t need to join a secret fraternity. I had secrets of my own.” (It’s here, and only here, that Clinton truly embraces his inner Faulkner.)
It’s clear that he considered, both at the time and now, the Whitewater scandal, the Lewinsky affair, and Kenneth Starr’s corresponding dogged investigation as existing in that separate, internal world, something that was part of a larger, never-ended continuum of imperfection, family strife, and shameful secret-keeping.
Starr, the independent counsel who relentlessly pursued Clinton, takes the form of an arch nemesis whose presence is telegraphed in the memoir’s early pages, but who finally comes onstage, full force, in the book’s final acts. Until then, the journey tracing Clinton’s early, troubled life in Arkansas, his maturation at Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford, and then his political career as attorney general and governor of Arkansas reads more like a colorful travelogue—with almost moment-to-moment details of planes, trains, and automobiles. And his 1992 presidential campaign, as well as the early days of his presidency, already have been well-documented.
But when Starr’s expansive investigation gets rolling, Clinton rolls with it, becoming his least equivocal and most evocative. Clinton details, at length, a list of alleged prosecutorial abuses by Starr and delights when the prosecutor is upended by courts and juries, as in the cases involving Susan MacDougal and Julie Hiatt Steele.
Clinton seems particularly regretful about what could have been done to halt Starr and alter the climate of suspicion that enveloped Washington then. He levels repeated, if somewhat veiled, criticism at three gatekeepers: Arkansas federal Judge Susan Webber Wright, who oversaw Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit (and to whom law professor Clinton gave disappointing grades while Wright was in law school); federal appeals court Judge David Sentelle; and, more indirectly, then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
Wright was the judge who gave Jones’ lawyers free rein to delve broadly and deeply into Clinton’s sex life, including his actions while in the White House. Sentelle, whom Clinton lambastes as a right-wing protégé of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), was chief judge on the panel that replaced a more moderate independent counsel, Robert Fiske, with Starr. Reno, Clinton says, continually caved in to political pressure by appointing first Fiske and then a series of independent prosecutors who investigated other Clinton administration officials.
Oddly enough, compared with his harsh criticism of Starr and his actions, Clinton’s account of his 1999 impeachment trial in the Senate seems almost anticlimactic. It may be that he, like much of the country, then felt a pervasive sense of exhaustion at that point, weary of the pitched ridiculousness of it all. More striking is the official business that Clinton attempts to conduct alongside the forced drama of the Lewinsky affair. It may be, in part, self-serving for Clinton to note that he was in the midst of pursuing peace initiatives in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, as well as dealing with the atrocities in the Balkans, all while Starr and House Republicans were parsing the definition of “sexual relations,” but the contrast in gravitas is nonetheless effective. It’s even more so now given the present state of the world.
There is also little doubt that Clinton relished it all, even his presidency’s darkest hour—particularly, of course, because he prevailed. To that extent, the book’s length does it justice. At the close of My Life, one has the sense that Clinton views his life as one entire exercise in surprising critics and converting skeptics, from hardscrabble Hope to the floor of the Senate.
In that sense, as an account of personal tenacity in the face of poverty and politics, the work succeeds, almost in spite of itself. But then, Bill Clinton is no stranger to rising above his weaknesses.