The Kid Who Talked Too Much and Became President

David Simpson

  • My Life by Bill Clinton
    Hutchinson, 957 pp, £25.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 09 179527 3

Let me establish my credentials. On page 320, Bill Clinton recalls a happy time in Montana in 1985 watching ‘marmosets scramble around above the snow line’ (he means marmots). And on page 808 (we’re up to 1998), he identifies the secretary of state for Northern Ireland as Mo Mowlan (for Mowlam). In other words, I have read My Life, all of it, closely enough to catch two slips of somebody’s pen, probably Clinton’s own. For the book does indeed convey his voice, and the completion of this monster of a memoir is not the least among the achievements of a remarkable man. There was a loyal amanuensis, duly thanked, whose task it was to sort through more than twenty handwritten notebooks and to type up and research material, but the end product has the feel of the man himself, for whom telling about himself and his times seems to come very naturally, who lists in his acknowledgements the contributions of about sixty ‘impromptu oral histories’ collected from friends and colleagues, and who at one point confesses that, liking stories as he does, one of his major motivations in running for office was to give people better stories to tell. One feels that the acknowledgements, like the book, could have gone on for ever: only the firm hand of Bob Gottlieb at Knopf apparently kept the book from being twice as long.

As it is, I am guessing that it will not be widely or deeply read. One reviewer has described it as a literary bumper-sticker, something you have around the house to show your loyalty. Many readers will look up Lewinsky in the index and scan those four or five pages in the bookshop. The ‘event’ really happened before publication, with the leaks, the news of the author’s $10 million advance, and the fuss about whether the book would steal the thunder from the Democratic convention in Boston in July. Now that there is nothing to do but read it, the media have been less attentive.

How does one respond to the endless lists, mentions, grateful one-liners and exact accounts of votes cast in rural Arkansas districts in long past elections? Throughout the narrative, grade-school teachers, campaign helpers and persons on the street are listed one by one and (mostly) thanked in a serial homage, especially dense in the early years, that seems itself to instance a functioning democracy in which no one is too humble to be recognised and found valuable. The effect is artless enough to be believable, the sincerity arguably palpable. At the same time, there is more than a hint of the compulsive record-keeper, more evident in the voting tallies than in the personal memories, but threatening to level both down to the same statistical bathos.

Clinton haters will pooh-pooh all of these acknowledgements as the index of a compulsive sociability that knows no limits and upholds no standards, a psychic necessity we should not make into a moral virtue. When Clinton was first campaigning for the White House there was much talk of the handshake that lasted just a little too long, the eye contact that seemed too extended for mere protocol.

But he was and is a charmer who deployed his social needs in the cause of interminable negotiations with a lot of difficult people whom he often seems to have found ways to appreciate. Time and again he reports in lurid detail the efforts of his less scrupulous opponents to destoy him, only to confess that after all he rather liked the guy. The Arkansas senator John McClellan was capable of a ‘kindness’ that few could notice, George H.W. Bush was (and remains) a gentleman and an honourable politician, Bob Dole could be ‘tough and mean in a fight’ but Clinton likes him. He would have liked more downtime with Tom DeLay, but DeLay did not believe in ‘consorting with the enemy’. Even Newt Gingrich comes in for a measure of empathic understanding. Only Kenneth Starr is, quite rightly, portrayed as having no redemptive characteristics, no human warmth that could cut through the hardening divisions of party politics. About the current president Clinton is tactfully silent, except to say that he advised him how the US could be debt free by 2010, and that he gave him his list of foreign policy priorities, with Iraq close to the bottom. The president, we are told, listened ‘without much comment’ and then ‘changed the subject’.

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