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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 12th, 2004


My Life

by Bill Clinton

Home with the catfish

A review by Michael O'Brien

Bill Clinton has written two books: a beguiling memoir of growing up in the South and becoming a young Arkansas politician, and a tedious account of being President of the United States. The Southern coming-of-age autobiography is a genre, self-evidently intended by Clinton, who admires Willie Morris's North Toward Home (1967) and Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again (1940). In such books, a young Southern boy grows up in an old house with an unkempt yard, is formed by a strong homely mother or (more rarely) father, goes fishing with friends, has eccentric relatives with startling stories, is influenced by imaginative teachers, and is scarred by Evangelical religion. Eventually the boy becomes a man by dint of reading, talking, having sex under worrying circumstances, and going to college. For such men, literature becomes a meditation on the irreconcilability of what was lost and what gained in the movement between what Clinton calls here, "big impersonal cities and small towns".

It is usual to counterpoint the stable child with the disordered adult, but Clinton implausibly offers a reversal. His youth is portrayed as painfully mobile, but maturity as evenly accomplished, apart from mysterious lapses. ("Mystery" is one of his favourite words.) It is hard to quarrel with the first part. Before he was born as William Jefferson Blythe III in 1946, a freak road accident killed his father, who turned out to have had four wives and assorted children, all carefully concealed. Virginia Cassidy Blythe (later Clinton, later Dwire, finally Kelley) was a doting mother but a working woman, who liked rouge, race tracks, booze and men. His stepfather Roger Clinton was a car salesman, violent and drunk. Bill Clinton, as the younger Blythe became, went to live in Hot Springs, not a typical Southern small town but a resort crowded with bathhouses, gangsters, invalids and bookmakers. Such facts push Clinton towards Southern Gothic, but others pull in a different direction. There was a kindly grandfather, affectionate black servants, the local movie house, the high-school band, and helpful teachers who encouraged a gauche, overweight outsider of a boy.

Faced with this tension, Clinton follows the Willie Morris path of affectionate elegy, and turns away from the extreme South of a Flannery O'Connor. He claims that this choice was the choice of his childhood, when he repressed the private pain of witnessing abuse, beneath a display of public normality. He became used to keeping secrets and offers now a defence of the habit. All of us, he says, are "entitled" to secrets: "They make our lives more interesting, and when we decide to share them, our relationships become more meaningful". The secret world is a haven and a respite, but also a burden and a shame: "the allure of our secrets can be too strong, strong enough to make us feel we can't live without them, that we wouldn't even be who we are without them". By this, the reader is primed for a meaningful relationship. But, after Daddy has had his last drunken binge, not another secret emerges, though Clinton coyly hints at hidden things and promisingly speaks of himself as sinful, but evades specificity. Even when we know he has been sinful, and he knows we know, he is disappointingly prim, and admits only to being "inappropriate", which is not the sort of adjective for a Southern Baptist to use. No sinner should stand up in a back-country pew and exclaim, "Lord! Lord! I have been inappropriate!". Still, the memoir bounces along nicely for several hundred pages, as Clinton goes to college, serves as a junior aide for J. William Fulbright's Senate office, takes up his Rhodes Scholarship, and works towards becoming Governor of Arkansas in 1979. Indeed, if these pages had been published as a separate book, many would think that Clinton has contributed a classic of Southern political memoir.

A Southern politician is supposed to be a good storyteller. Here Clinton is good-humoured, pleasingly sardonic, and quotes those funnier than himself. I particularly liked the story about an exchange between the ancient Mike Mansfield and the fairly ancient Fulbright: when Mansfield "asked Fulbright his age and Fulbright said he was eighty-seven. Mansfield replied, 'Oh, to be eighty-seven again'". Then there is a saying used to "describe someone you really don't like", heard in the Arkansas hills when Clinton was running for Congress in 1974: "I wouldn't piss in his ear if his brain was on fire". Indeed, a good thing about My Life is that no one has edited Clinton's Arkansas idiom, so the text is scattered with phrases like "along toward the end", "funny as all get-out" and "behaving as I'd been raised to do".

Arkansas is physically large, but it has few people, so its politicians require stamina. David Pryor's rule was, "If you don't like catfish don't run for office". Clinton quickly grasped that, to win elections, one must be indefatigably willing to visit every town, venture into every diner, pray in every church, and shake every hand. This played to his strength, even his need. Running away from the secrets of his childhood seems to have led him to run towards everyone else, at least for five minutes at a time.

But his political success had other roots. He was the modern politician par excellence; media savvy, poll conscious, cold-blooded, tactical. He was also the most traditional of Southern politicians, in the back room with the boys, playing a musical instrument to amuse the voters, electrocuting criminals, and calling down the blessing of the Almighty. In Little Rock the latter persona needed to predominate, in Washington the former, but there was never a moment when both were not present. In Arkansas, the political has been personal for a long time, and illogicality is cheerfully tolerated. This is a state, after all, in which a municipal judge once reproved an overly informed lawyer, "Young man, that may be the law of the state of Arkansas but it is not the law in my courtroom". In the same particularist spirit, the town of Sherrill in the early 1980s dispensed with local elections, on the grounds that nobody was much interested in running against the city officials, who had been hard enough to find in the first place. The mayor explained, "It's not the way it's supposed to go, but it's the way we do it".

Certainly, a floozie or two or three was not a problem. When I lived in Fayetteville in the 1980s, it was devoutly believed that the boy wonder had bedded every other woman in the state. One never actually met one of his lovers, but somebody knew somebody else who knew something about a political rally and a motel and a married woman. None of these titillating rumours made any difference to his political prospects. Indeed, they helped to overcome the early prejudice that a politician with long hair and a wife who refused to adopt her husband's surname was, probably, unmanly. Arkansans came to know that Clinton had the political gift, had improved their state, and was deeply flawed, mostly by being indecisive, disorganized, self-serving, too willing to please, and prone to getting things right, but only eventually. They held their breath when he ran for President, because they knew that the Americans would rapidly discern the gift and experience the flaws, and no one knew how that twin discovery would turn out.

Important to Clinton's politics has been his religion, which explains him as much as it does George W. Bush. This is easy to lose sight of, because Clinton supported abortion and gay rights, hung out with Hollywood stars, and was loathed by many Evangelicals. One of the shrewder suggestions, in a book disappointingly thin on analysis, is that "the New Right Republicans . . . hated me because I was an apostate, a white southern Protestant, who could appeal to the very people they had always taken for granted".

But, in fact, Southern Baptists are so de-centralized and diverse that they do not have apostates, only those for whom one needs to pray. Clinton's faith is real enough: it started in his childhood, was confirmed by singing in church choirs and attending bible camps, and was carried into a White House where he and Al Gore, at their weekly lunches, took turns in saying grace. To be sure, Clinton is a modern, urban Baptist, the kind who has lost touch with a savage insistence on guilt and original sin, on abjuring dancing, card playing and the devil's music. Clinton plays cards incessantly, likes to dance, listens to Oscar Peterson, and thinks in country-music lyrics, though he did not touch alcohol until the age of twenty-two. His religion, rather, expresses itself in a stress on community and family, a cloying sentimentality, an insistence on good works, a fear of mortality, and a theme of forgiveness. This last quality is most striking. In politics, there is rancour and, as Clinton has had every reason to know, the partisan bitterness has deepened in his lifetime. But there is scarcely an enemy, with the exception of Kenneth Starr, whom Clinton does not wish to forgive or be forgiven by. In the moments after the news of Kennedy's assassination reached his high school, for example, he heard "an attractive girl who was in the band with me say that maybe it was a good thing for the country that he was gone" and he became angry. (There are frequent references to being angry.) In 1992, she came to a political rally in Las Vegas, was then "a social worker and a Democrat", and "I treasured our reunion and the chance it gave me to heal an old wound". Likewise, he is generous to the elder George Bush, Bob Dole and even Newt Gingrich.

One consequence of this religious instinct is some indifference to history and a curious blindness to cultural difference, surprising in a Southerner and a President associated with multiculturalism, but fairly normal for a Baptist. Only very occasionally does Clinton reach for a historical context. He sees himself, for example, as standing for the New South against the Old, as the heir of the civil rights movement, and as someone charged with healing the wounds of the 1960s. But, for the most part, little that came his way seems to require a historical analysis. He thinks in social problems, rapidly understood and solved by a policy decision. "Our job is to live as well and as long as we can, and to help others do the same", he writes in his last pages, by way of a summary sentiment. "What happens after that and how we are viewed by others is beyond our control. The river of time carries us all away. All we have is the moment." This is not how Thomas Wolfe, let alone William Faulkner, saw time and the river. So Clinton is not a man haunted by what happened at Gettysburg, in the moment before Pickett's Charge. Southern history does not seem to be a burden at all. This casualness extends to Arkansan political history -- he does not mention Jefferson Davis, Hattie Caraway, Joseph T. Robinson, or Sid McMath --and even to his family. The kinsfolk he met, he talks about, but not the family of the more remote past.

Instead, when recounting numerous people and places, he observes individuals, with particular qualities. Sometimes he offers engaging and discerning sketches (as with John McClellan and Boris Yeltsin), sometimes only a lazy adjective, but he rarely reaches beyond the individual to culture. When he is talking about his youth in a fairly homogeneous place, this mode matters less. But, for later global times, it leads to a flatness of vision, which seems intrinsic to Clinton's public optimism. (Privately, he shows signs of pessimism.) If everyone is basically the same, and most people are good, then little is intractable and there is no reason not to gather together at the river. However, in this same flatness may be the root of Clinton's racial tolerance. These memoirs show no especial knowledge of African American culture, apart from his liking jazz and admiring Martin Luther King Jr. In My Life, names like W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison are absent. Clinton treats blacks like everyone else, as individuals worth knowing. In American culture, that undifferentiation constituted something remarkable.

Despite this lacuna, Clinton is better-read than any President since Woodrow Wilson. The evidence is richly scattered through the book: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandburg and E. H. Carr, Edmund Wilson and Hugh Thomas, William Styron and John Locke. Literature seems to work for cultural escape in Clinton's sensibility. He does not refer to Arkansan writers like John Gould Fletcher, Vance Randolph, Harry Ashmore, or Shirley Abbott of his own Hot Springs. However, authors get mentioned by Clinton more than they get discussed, and so the residue of his literary consumption is unclear. The early part of My Life may be the better, as memoir, because Clinton has read many good writers. But the later part casts grave doubt on that theory.

It is hard to understand how the ineptness of the last 500 pages was allowed to pass to the printers, since its hopeless structure ought to have been simple enough to fix. Almost no chapter has a theme. Clinton proceeds week by week, month by month, year by year, and merely recites what happened. Sometimes five or six subjects are covered in a single paragraph. No doubt, surviving a miscellaneous procession of events is the experience of being President, but telling the story as one thing after another destroys reflectiveness. So My Life degenerates into a medieval chronicle, in which there is war in the Levant, malevolent conspirators, a beautiful maiden, friends willing to perish for the sake of the kingdom, and a deluge somewhere in the land (usually Florida). Here and there, as with the Lewinsky scandal, the impeachment, or the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, he fashions something recognizable as a narrative, but then he is off again, appointing someone to a minor office, speaking unimportantly in Utah, declaring a national park, and having dinner in Warsaw. It seems his publishers tried to call a halt, for the acknowledgements speak chillingly of Clinton's editor persuading him to omit "countless names" from the manuscript. Myriads remain. It is as though the prose is running for office and every name mentioned is logged as another vote.

Yet the literary habit of recording minutiae probably runs deeper. Two explanations present themselves, one psychological, the other political. It may be that the events, which culminated in the humiliation of the impeachment, were so damaging that Clinton cannot bear to step back and focus on a larger pattern. Certainly, he invites the reader, as he invited the voters, to indulge a cheap psychology. He is the President, after all, who in late January 1993 held a retreat at Camp David for his Cabinet and senior White House staff, "in which we were supposed to bond by sitting in a group, taking turns telling something about ourselves the others didn't know". Lloyd Bentsen sensibly declined this offer and, as Clinton remembers it, observed that "if there was something about him the rest of us didn't know, it was intentional".

A political explanation for Clinton's taste for minutiae is easier to demonstrate. It is well to remember that, with nearly twelve years' service, he was a state Governor far longer than any President in American history. For the sixteen others who reached the White House, their average gubernatorial tenure lasted a little over three years.

Hence, as a politician, Clinton was unusually formed by the experience of being a Governor. As it happened, Arkansan politics did not encourage an ambitious clarity of purpose, something Clinton tried in his first term and which led to his defeat in 1980. Rather, the state encouraged a politics progressive in tone and disposed towards the incremental improvement of social services, as long as change did not offend the state's traditional social values and its few but dominant businessmen, the so-called Good Suit Club of Sam Walton, Don Tyson, Jackson T. Stephens, and others. As Diane Blair, who wrote so well in Arkansas Politics and Government (1988), then explained, in Arkansas partisanship was yet of little importance. Usually Republican voters were few in state elections, it was wise for Arkansas Democrats to complain about more liberal Democrats elsewhere, and political party meant almost nothing in gubernatorial-legislative relationships. Policy mattered less than manner, because the Governor appointed few important state officials, had little power to effect policy, but had many opportunities to entertain. Almost above all, personal friendships were crucial.

Being Governor taught Clinton to deal in small policies and medium-sized rhetoric, though he never ceased to pine for big policies and sweeping rhetoric, which usually got him into trouble. Later, Bill Clinton's critics, seeing the same pattern in Washington, would joke about his offering the American people a "Nouvelle Deal". The President himself, naturally, preferred phrases like New Democracy and the Third Way, but these just denoted a negation or modification of ideologies that lingered from more ambitious times and places. Still, paying attention to many intelligent, small policies added up to a respectable presidency, which left the United States a more humane place. Unfortunately, a preoccupation with small things when writing an autobiography has less to be said for it.

Michael O'Brien is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and the author most recently of Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2004).

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