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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 17th, 2004


My Life

by Bill Clinton

Policy Wank

A review by Tom Carson

In hindsight -- which kicked in, so far as I could measure, around mid-afternoon of publication day -- the most remarkable thing about Bill Clinton's My Life was the hullabaloo generated by a book any child could have guessed would be tiresome. Stopping short only of offering the first million customers free kazoos whittled from ex-First Dog Buddy's tibia, the publicity had us half believing we could fork over $35 and come away clutching the Clinton autobiography of our dreams -- a star-spangled, crazily honking, wake-up-little-Souza combination of Baron Munchausen, Casanova's memoirs, The Sound and the Hillary, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But even though the last of these was a clear inspiration for My Life's marketing, from the suspenseful buildup to the chimes-at-midnight rollout, one difference was that J. K. Rowling's fans could be reasonably sure they weren't buying an evasive account of Harry's adventures. Another was that virtually every copy sold of Goblet of Fire was promptly devoured cover to cover, which I feel safe assuming was not the case here -- and not only because Clinton's dense 957 pages make Rowling's 734 look zippy. The blurb missing from the ads is what Laurence Olivier once wickedly said to Alec Guinness: "Marvelous, old cock! I never realized Malvolio could be played as a bore."

Predictably, the shrieker right looked at My Life and saw Kill Bill, Vol. 3. But if clamor-gal Ann Coulter's zeal to play Uma Thurman forced her to slog through every word, all I can say is that Bill has had a modest revenge for Whitewater. For less ideologically goaded readers, it was an act of heroic honesty on Knopf's part -- and just plain heroism, given Clinton's last-minute delivery -- to provide this book with an index. Decades from now, all those fading thumbprints alongside "Flowers, Gennifer" and "Lewinsky, Monica" will be of use in authenticating first editions, and only true sentimentalists will leave a similar smudge next to "Dole, Bob, 1996 election and." In light of all three searches' Sominex-y results, however, the odds are overwhelming that My Life is destined to end up as a prominent but largely pristine totem on liberal America's bookshelves after its brief, proud season as a wrist-spraining fashion statement, with his-and-hers, his-and-his, and hers-and-hers duplications commemorating all the happy marriages begun with shy chat ("Did you get to where he picks Gore yet? Me neither") in the queue for Fahrenheit 9/11. Even though the trees felled to produce it are enough to substantially alter his environmental record, Clinton's book was designed not so much to be read as to be an event's central prop; in more than one sense, we weren't really buying the story of his life. Rather, we were being offered a small chance to play spear carriers in an episode of it.

The tradeoff is that in exchange for a stylized concession to our agenda, which is dirt, we have to put up with his, which is vindication. Not that he cops to either motive, of course: "Would I be known for bringing prosperity? For being a peacemaker? ... I didn't have time to think about such things," he writes, rebuking the journalists we've just glimpsed badgering a busy, devoted chief executive to guess how he'll stack up in the history books. Then he bends to his task once again, sustained by a splendidly brusque reflection: "The legacy would take care of itself ..." Coming on page 875 of a book that reads like nothing so much as one man's mammoth attempt to build a dike around his finger, this at least has the familiar Clinton charm of effrontery.

A reasonable semblance of soul-searching was what Knopf paid him $10 mil for, and it's certainly true that My Life features damp wads of much more intimate pseudo-introspection than, say, Eisenhower's memoirs -- not that I've gone back to check. ("What caused my hostile feelings about German armored divisions? Mamie, years of therapy -- and okay, golf -- helped me face the truth.") But age-of-rehab platitudes are Clinton boilerplate, an idiom he slips into as easily as Jean Harlow into a negligee; long before he switched roles from therapist-in-chief to patient, he always was our first Oprah President. At another level, his already famous flapdoodle about his "parallel lives" -- didn't we use to just call them public and private ones? -- ends up as the most preposterously overscaled rationalization for getting some at the office that your eyes will ever glaze over at. As I'm sure Oprah herself knows, even if -- not unlike New York's junior senator -- she's much too canny to let on, millions of men from happy, well-adjusted backgrounds have cheated on their wives, and plenty from messy ones are models of fidelity. Even granting that the young Clinton's insecure upbringing and alcoholic stepfather probably did teach him to compartmentalize in all the wrong places, his seeming frankness in confronting this only proves he hasn't lost the knack. It's not just that those little-boy-lost early traumas turn out to explain Monica Lewinsky, reassuring us that he, if not she, didn't actually enjoy their trysts. In a brilliant displacement, Monica -- and, by implication, his other marital imbroglios -- is virtually all they explain, distracting us from inconveniently recalling that our narrator's instincts for duplicity, bluff, and untrustworthy trimming didn't surface only in his sex life. They surfaced in his policy.

This artful separation of what was actually perfectly consistent behavior into bogus antipodes is why My Life's therapeutic grid is pure scaffolding, about as meaningful as the little backdrop mantras (for example, "Strong American Communities") that Clinton's White House made a staple of presidential speeches. You can tell that the author has to struggle to remind himself he's tormented; compared with confident, and-the-ship-sails-on Bill, his nineties media cousin O.J. seems racked by Kierkegaardian agonies. Early on, Clinton alerts us to "the deeper, constant anger I kept locked away," showing typical shrewdness in his choice of character failings. Anger, after all, is a rugged sort of flaw -- lots more noble than, say, the itch for self-indulgence of an ex-fat kid eager to make up for lost time. Yet the adolescent Clinton apparently did such a heroic job of suppressing the rage seething inside him that not one incident he describes bears out its existence; a junior high-schooler whose most rebellious recorded act was to surreptitiously donate part of his allowance to Billy Graham's crusade wasn't exactly gearing up to be played by James Dean. Indeed, why this had to be kept secret from his parents, or anyone, isn't clear.

By then young Bill has faced a painful truth: "I was not destined to be liked by everyone, usually for reasons I couldn't figure out." (Um -- because you were Eddie Haskell? Because in eighth grade wanting to be liked by everyone is the sure sign of an operator?) Undaunted, he soldiers -- well, maybe another verb would come in handy here -- civilians on to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and to part-time work for Senator J. William Fulbright, at which point Vietnam rumbles, a Rhodes scholarship beckons, and his draft dilemma looms. Time to amp up those inner demons for a cameo; as "the deepest recesses of my internal life" start bubbling like the La Brea tar pits, Bill peers and shudders: "It was dark down there." Too dark to see much, in fact, which is why -- La Brea having served its purpose -- he breezily forgets all about this theme for the next several hundred pages. As now-it-can-be-told candor goes, it's fair enough for him to conclude that he'll never be sure whether "my aversion to going [to Vietnam] was rooted in conviction or cowardice." But whereas many of his contemporaries who made the same choice now live with the same ambiguity, a surprising number of them are able to explain it without resorting to preliminary voodoo dances about their childhood pathologies.

To make his therapeutic schema stick, Clinton has also had to force his childhood into the familiar dysfunctional-family mold -- a mold that, on inspection, is revealingly leaky. You don't doubt that the loss of his real father before Bill was born left a gap, or that coping with stepdad Roger Clinton's binges was no picnic. But the cat he's unmistakably struggling to keep bagged is that influence-wise, neither Gone Dad nor Fake Dad was a match for that embodiment of the pleasure principle, Virginia (Cassidy, Blythe, Clinton, Dwire) Kelley -- good-time gal, unrepentant gambling addict, and staunch believer in working hard and playing by her own rules. He doesn't want us to look at her too closely, since these qualities sound suspiciously familiar. Besides, admitting that the dominant figure of his early years was a headstrong, sexy dame who gave her supposedly damaged son the confidence of an aircraft carrier would bring his whole parallel-lives house of cards crashing down. Nonetheless, the only passage in My Life with any erotic tingle is Clinton's recollection of watching, entranced, as his mother put on her makeup, brushed her hair, painted on her nonexistent eyebrows. The latter detail makes you wonder irresistibly whether, as President, he ever felt a Freudian frisson around Dick Gephardt.

Despite the pasted-in thesis, the Young Clinton stuff is by miles the most beguiling part of the book. The Boomer Americana is attractive, the rise of the ambitious provincial to the big leagues has a built-in Stendhalian appeal, and the writing's garrulity carries you along -- even if Clinton's best stories are ruined by his insistence on turning every good anecdote into another job qualification. When he vividly describes a little girl named Mitzi who drove him crazy by hollering "Billy sucks a bottle! Billy sucks a bottle!" while swinging "so high on her swing set the poles of the frame would come up out of the ground," we've got to be not only filled in that Mitzi was "developmentally disabled" -- not the term in vogue in 1950s Arkansas, I'd bet -- but also assured that "when I pushed to expand opportunities for the disabled as governor and President," she was often on his mind. I liked her better on the swing, but some of the foreshadowing is fun; we learn, for instance, that young Bill's favorite movie was High Noon.

If only he'd left it at that. A memoir that stopped at Yale Law and his courtship of Hillary -- which is when it starts dawning on My Life's readers that there are 750 pages to go -- would have both charmed the public and been a cinch for a movie sale. (Saluted long before she actually appears, Hillary, by the way, is simply and grandly "Hillary" from the start; the Titania-and-Oberon aspect of this is delightful.) Although he characteristically doesn't realize how funny it is, Clinton even provides the perfect fade-out: "I still remember sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter day as Hillary and I read Vincent Cronin's biography of Napoleon together."

On to Marengo, you crazy kids. Yet once Hillary breaks her feminist classmates' hearts by agreeing to move to Arkansas, and her hubby the young law prof steps onto the public stage (losing a race for Congress, winning one for state attorney general, becoming governor at thirty-two), the saga, instead of gaining momentum, turns first puzzlingly and then punishingly dull. Despite his willingness to recite the nuts and bolts of seemingly every piece of legislation he pushed through, Clinton does dispose of his decade-plus in Little Rock -- have you noticed how the former President loves going back there? -- in a scant 150 pages. Yet it's still a glut of tedium -- too many sentences and even paragraphs in the riveting vein of "By 1987, the number of our school districts had dropped to 329, and 85 percent of the districts had increased their property-tax rates." As you wade through the gubernatorial years, the real reason for your sinking feeling is the suspicion that the White House narrative will be another long march through Bill's desk diary on a much vaster scale. And until Monica's winged chariot comes hurrying -- or flapping -- near, it is.

In between comes the 1992 campaign, raising your hopes briefly; there's no way he can make that great roller-coaster ride uninteresting. Triumphing over the odds again, he does. From Gennifer Flowers and 60 Minutes to Ross Perot playing Rumpelstiltskin and George H.W. Bush fatally glancing at his watch in mid-debate, Election '92 was the kind of campaign political junkies swoon at -- a soap opera with consequences, always their ideal of fun. But perhaps because he shares America's hunch that only a sociopath could have withstood its pressures and he has a vested interest in presenting himself as sane, however drearily, the man who starred in most of its dramas makes golf commentators sound wild-eyed. "With four nights of television coverage, the convention would either strengthen our position or undermine it," he explains, displaying the savvy that only a lifetime on the hustings can give. Pining for Primary Colors from Mr. Blue State's mouth, we settle for small crumbs of malice. Just before New Hampshire the draft-dodger scandal breaks -- and George Stephanopoulos "[is] curled up on the floor, practically in tears. He asked if it wasn't time to think about withdrawing." A few scattered mentions aside, exit Stephanopoulos; that's what you get for writing All Too Human, shortstop. I do agree it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Victory at last. Clearly unaware that his inauguration's vanity frills triggered the first faint "Uh-ohs" among us Bolsheviks, Clinton lingers over its details: the trip to Monticello's magic kingdom, the melted Frost of Maya Angelou's poem, the careful crafting of his forgettable (and forgotten) first inaugural address. Given the ineptitudes that followed -- the Nannygate flap over Attorney General -- designate Zoe Baird, gays in the military, Whitewater's first stirrings, the Mogadishu debacle -- his dawdling is understandable. Tackling the Somalia disaster, he's quick to remind us that the mission there was inherited, and then brings a consoling parallel to mind: "I thought I knew how President Kennedy felt after the Bay of Pigs." Here and elsewhere, delicate Kennedy comparisons are the book's real Harry Potter side; by implication, Clinton is hoping we'll see him as the JFK who lived.

Conscious that My Life is appearing in an election year, Clinton avoids critiquing his own party, though he certainly could. Beyond a generalized lament about his crew's "clumsy violations of the Washington culture," he doesn't address how much his Administration's early struggles were exacerbated by Capitol Hill's Democrats -- then still in power, fond of it, and undisposed to back the outsider who'd demoted them to the Beltway's second most important liberals. It was Democratic defections, after all, that forced more than one vice-presidential tie-breaker vote to get Clinton's budget passed. Since Hillary now occupies Pat Moynihan's seat, it may be no surprise that the way Moynihan's hauteur helped sink the Clintons' overreaching plan for health-care reform doesn't come up. Even Bob Kerrey's grandstanding on the 1993 budget -- widely regarded as an ego trip at the time -- gets a pass. In dramatic terms, and perhaps politically as well, Clinton actually sounds much happier once Newt Gingrich's 1994 Republican revolution puts the opposition in charge at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, transforming him at a stroke into a beleaguered but valiant lone sheriff facing down a mob.

Except for his failure to stop genocide in Rwanda (noted and regretted here, but for less than a full paragraph), the most consequential decision of Clinton's first term was to put deficit reduction first -- a market-placating step that effectively scuttled most of his liberal ambitions, creating the centrist Governor of the United States who won re-election at the cost of alienating his party's progressives. Yet nothing in his account here is remotely as self-castigating as the moment in Bob Woodward's The Agenda when a frustrated Clinton explodes that he and his team have turned into Eisenhower Republicans: "We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?" Although he knows he can't omit the single most craven declaration of a presidency not short on them (it was in the State of the Union address, after all), he turns "The era of big government is over" into the beginning of a longer quotation, conveniently eliding the roar of jubilation from the Republican side of the aisle that brought the speech to a halt. Since legacy maintenance beats partisanship any day, he's also noticeably reluctant to call our attention to just how quickly George W. Bush turned his proudest accomplishment -- a balanced budget -- into quicksand.

As for "the worst presidential decision I ever made," you get one guess: agreeing to appoint a special prosecutor in the Whitewater case, the Pandora's box that gave us Ken Starr, a stained blue dress, and impeachment. But this is where the very dreariness of Clinton's number-crunching, detail-munching, oppressively chronological narrative lets him pull off a hat trick. Aside from a rhetorical nod at La Brea ("I was seething inside. No one can be as angry as I was without doing himself harm"), he doesn't mention his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky at the time they occur. Instead his buildup to the 1995 government shutdown, which was when she started bringing him pizza, blooms with encomiums to -- what do you know? -- Hillary: "I was so proud of her," he writes, soon before his wife leaves on "another trip." For their twentieth wedding anniversary he gives her the engagement ring he couldn't afford in 1975: "Through all our ups and downs," this chapter ends, "we were still very much engaged." It's up to the alert reader to recall who else he was up and down with around then, since "Lewinsky, Monica" appears only when Starr exposes the affair, a hundred pages later. "Finally, after years of dry holes, I had given them something to work with," Clinton bitterly comments -- a sentence his editor, Robert Gottlieb, or perhaps New York's junior senator, might have urged him to rethink.

Of course, though My Life's star will always be the last person to understand this, the Clinton years, with all their alarums and excursions, were basically a comedy. "I judge my presidency primarily in terms of its impact on people's lives," he writes in conclusion, and it's a sentiment not even Monica could disagree with. And yet so little of it has lasted. Under other circumstances it's conceivable he could have been a great President, but he ended up presiding over an interregnum -- our ten-year vacation between the Cold War's end and 9/11. Although you'd never guess it from this book, one of the best things about his two terms was how sheerly entertaining they were. As for the rest, if he ever wonders what his real legacy has been, we don't. Over to you, Titania.

Tom Carson is a columnist for GQ and the author of Gilligan's Wake (2003), a novel.

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