My Life

by Bill Clinton
ISBN: 0375414576

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: My Life
by Joan Givner

At the launch of his own autobiography Ronald Reagan quipped that he fully intended to read it some day. He was not the exception but the norm among public figures whose life stories are written and researched by a team functioning more as ghost-writers than editors. Bill Clinton's autobiography, in contrast, is characterized by its authenticity. It is a story told by the man himself in words that are sometimes clumsy, sometimes colourful but always his own.
In describing his undergraduate years at Georgetown University, he recalls his English professor's comments on his papers ("awk," "ugh," "rather dull, pathetic") and dreads the thought of Dr. Irving reading this book. His dread was apparently not strong enough for him to permit a copy-editor to make the routine changes into formal English of such phrases as "I was lousy at taxation," "the concert went fine," and "he was an army brat who had grown up all over." Thus the immediacy of Clinton's speaking voice is maintained throughout.
Clinton was a notoriously hands-on president, known for his phenomenal memory and his obsession with detail. He worked on his own speeches, and when the teleprompter failed at the beginning of one state of the union address, he went on unfazed to deliver it from memory. His informal work habits-all-night brainstorming sessions among pizza boxes, and meetings rambling on with no regard for protocol or scheduling-brought charges of lack of discipline. David Gergen reported that Clinton participated in one discussion all the while completing the New York Times crossword puzzle IN INK. New advisors and chiefs of staff were often brought on board in an effort to impose order and restraint on the supposedly unruly process.
The autobiography runs true to Clintonian form-a sprawling, all-inclusive, capacious work, replete with detail, sometimes absurd but always good-humoured, and delivered with the yarning insistence characteristic of Southern story-telling. With its colloquial style, and unapologetic tendency to digression and repetition, it bears more than a little resemblance to the old epics-those long oral narratives extolling the deeds of the legendary hero. One feature of the classical epic-the catalogue or enumeration of names-is much in evidence as Clinton includes endless lists of friends, acquaintances, and teachers, the obscure as well as the famous, for he really did walk with kings without losing the common touch, or valuing them over his old friends. He describes all the family houses and apartments, social events, and has total recall for food eaten-the fried pies of his childhood, the peach pie ("it didn't last long") Hillary baked when they were law students, the mango ice cream his campaign team enjoyed at the Menger hotel in San Antonio.
Thus, the education of Bill Clinton is built up through an incremental series of incidents, each one turned into a parable by his almost ludicrous habit of rounding it off with a moral conclusion about the lesson learned. An altercation over a grade in a high school calculus class teaches him a larger lesson in problem-solving; a quarrel overheard in a New York restaurant makes him more sensitive; a visit to Pompeii leaves him more aware of the fragile and fleeting.
The book has been derided for its excessive length and abundance of trivial detail, yet it is in the inconsequential details that clues to character are hidden, and few details here are gratuitous for anyone trying to understand Clinton's character. It also seems to me pointless to fault the book for a defensive, self-serving stance that is inherent in the genre itself (Clinton commented that while most autobiographies were dull and self-serving, he wanted his to be interesting and self-serving). However, the really weak passages are those in which excessive detail coincides with an exculpatory purpose. Chief among these passages is not the anticipated account of the Lewinsky affair (it is skated over fairly rapidly) but the prolonged account of the rationalization, agonizing, ambivalence, connivance, and guilt involved in his avoidance of the draft for Viet Nam.
Much of the new and personal material is in the early pages which reveal a home life ruined by an alcoholic and violent stepfather, and describe the education that fostered Clinton's intellectual ability. It included four years of Latin, endless memorization of passages of Latin prose and English verse, and many years of musical training, including summers spent at music camps. Surprisingly, for such a social being, he was in his twenties and on his way to England as a Rhodes Scholar before he tried his first alcoholic beverage; but then as the son of an alcoholic step-father, alcohol never held any charms for him.
The later parts of the book posed more problems for the author since they deal with recent history and have provided the substance of books by others. All the same, Clinton's detailed memories of familiar incidents often make compelling and entertaining reading. Readers will remember the 1988 democratic convention in which Clinton, as Governor of Arkansas, made a spectacularly dull and windy speech introducing Michael Dukakis. As one commentator said, Jesse Jackson electrified the crowd and Clinton calcified it. After thirty-five minutes of total disaster, his words "in closing" drew enthusiastic applause. The full account is very funny as Clinton describes his humiliation at finding himself a laughing-stock, quotes the journalists who ridiculed it, and tells how he redeemed the disaster with a successful appearance on the Johnny Carson show. The whole is summed up, as usual, with the obligatory lesson learned-"the ordeal taught me" etc
Some familiar incidents are rendered more vivid by details of behind-the-scenes maneuvering. One of the memorable televisual moments of the century was the famous handshake between Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. We learn of the problem posed by Rabin's agreeing to the handshake but rejecting the embrace that is part of the formal Arab greeting. "No kiss," he insisted. Clinton solution was to shake Arafat's hand himself first and to forestall the kiss by placing a restraining hand on his arm. The ruse was successful, justifying the many rehearsals of the handshake and the placing of the restraining hand that Clinton practiced with his aides.
One riveting passage describes a phone call from White House official Roger Porter (whom he considered a friend) as Clinton struggled to decide whether or not to run for president. The official tells Clinton that "they" have reviewed all the potential candidates who might run against Bush. "They" felt that Clinton had such a strong record in economics, crime, and education that he was more of a threat than the other candidates. Clinton's account of the call is chilling; it has an unmistakable resonance and deserves quoting at length:

So if I ran, they would have to destroy me personally. "Here's how Washington works," he said. "The press has to have somebody in every election, and we're going to give them you." He went on to say that the press were elitists who would believe any tales they were told about backwater Arkansas. "We'll spend whatever we have to spend to get whoever we have to get to say whatever they have to say to take you out. And we'll do it early."
I tried to stay calm, but I was mad. I told Roger that what he had just said showed what was wrong with the administration. They had been in power so long they thought they were entitled to it. I said, "You think those parking spaces off the West Wing are yours, but they belong to the American people, and you have to earn the right to use them." I told Roger that what he had just said made me more likely to run. Roger said that was a nice sentiment, but he was calling as my friend to give me fair warning. If I waited until 1996, I could win the presidency. If I ran in 1992, they would destroy me, and my political career would be over.

Many accounts of Clinton's presidential style gain from comparison with that of his successor. A case in point is the preparation for Clinton's first budget, a process that involved much give and take with a variety of people, ranging from Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, members of his cabinet, to George Mitchell, Dick Gephardt, Lloyd Benson, Robert Byrd and Patrick Moynihan. How different from the account in Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty of Paul O' Neill's experience as Treasury Secretary in presenting his budget to an incurious and unquestioning Bush!
At the end of his presidency Clinton made a strenuous effort to end the Middle East conflict; the tragic events that resulted from the failure of those efforts make his version of the Camp David meeting between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat one of the most noteworthy passages of the book. Clinton expresses a great deal of admiration for both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations who knew each other well ("the chemistry between the two groups was quite good") and seemed genuinely to want peace. He describes the efforts to create an informal atmosphere and bridge the culture gap between the two sides. A large contingent of chefs and other help came from the White House to ensure that meals were enjoyable; Chelsea Clinton was on hand to help; Madeleine Albright took Arafat out to her farm, and conducted Barak on a tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg. None of it helped, and Clinton lays the blame squarely on Arafat. He told Arafat that he could get, among other concessions, 91 percent of the West Bank, but Arafat turned it down. Arab leaders, called on for support, held back for fear of undercutting Arafat. And so, all the efforts ended in failure.
This book may not win any literary prizes or provide exemplary models of elegant writing. Presumably, that was not the intention. Its value lies not in its excellence as a literary work, but in the fact that it offers the most complete and revealing self-portrait to date of any American president.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us