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’.

There was, in other words, little conversation at the handing over in January 2001, and it is that above all which signals the new America whose coming into being is chronicled between the lines of the last half of this book, so that it is hard not to feel a little nostalgia for Clinton’s self-ascribed ‘glad-handing manner’ and his efforts to ‘bring people together’. This was a president who claims to have enjoyed the White House staff retreat, where everyone got to join in a bonding session by ‘telling something about ourselves the others didn’t know’. There was a coercive edge to this sociophilia, duly detailed here when the 15-year-old Clinton talks the trumpeter Al Hirt into allowing him to attend his concert, or when the lovestruck young man persuades a janitor to allow him and Hillary into a museum that had closed for the day. But there is also and much more often a genuine love of interpersonal exchange for its own sake (brilliantly caught in John Travolta’s portrayal of the Clinton figure in the movie Primary Colors), a reluctance to break contact, a faith that there is good to be found everywhere and in everyone. The Arkansas years that take up about half the book are bathed in a warmth of recollection and detail. This was a world where Clinton knew almost everyone, it seems, a place of Homeric individualism and memorable idiosyncrasy where he feels that he did some real and lasting good. These were his people. In Washington, the climate is chillier. Here for the first time Clinton would meet people who mattered but who did not want to talk.

Talk, more grandly nominated as dialogue or conversation, was of course (and the past tense is appropriate) the ruling ethos of the Third Way politics that Clinton did so much to develop and publicise. There is one glorious moment when the redoubtable Jesse Helms is persuaded by Bono’s ‘personal outreach’ to support the Third World debt-relief initiative, but otherwise the message from Washington is that there was and is very little real conversation. Political opponents don’t go fishing together or play softball. The communitarian harmony that underpins Clinton’s middle of the road doctrine as well as his personality was all the rage among liberal democrats in the 1990s, and has been massively popular as a proposed code of conduct for an international civil society, but it does not feature here as the modus operandi of daily political life in the capital of the free world. Clinton recalls convivial consensus-building with the likes of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Lionel Jospin and Henrique Cardoso over how to run the world in the coming century, but nothing like this happens in Washington, where business is done largely by squeezing out or suppressing votes by visibly ignoble ways and means.

The more intransigent foreign policy crises also proved beyond the reach of mere dialogue. Towards the end of his second administration, Clinton reports his sense that an Israel-Palestine agreement was practically signed and sealed, thanks to endless hours of face to face negotiation between Barak and Arafat, personally facilitated by the president himself. Barak proved a poor listener – ‘he had a hard time listening to people who didn’t see things the way he did’ – and had already dropped the ball (in Clinton’s view) in ruling out a deal with Syria. (Avi Shlaim, reviewing Yossi Beilin’s account of this, has written more bluntly of a ‘complete absence of interpersonal skills’ on Barak’s part.) His Palestinian opponents were the ones who wanted ‘trust-building courtesies and conversations’. But it’s Arafat who is blamed here for pulling out because of a dispute over the meaning of ‘sovereignty’ and the right of return. In fact, the 14 days of talks involved very little talk, with Barak refusing to meet for long periods, and seem to have come to nothing largely because Barak insisted on a final agreement there and then, with no further negotiation allowed.

Barak, then, seems to have breached the dialogic contract much more obviously than Arafat, but Arafat has taken the blame, and Clinton leads the charge. Why so? I suspect that, not for the first time, the president’s instincts and even his moral convictions proved vulnerable to the considerations of political success and the survival of the party. (Only George W. Bush is proving less critical of Israel than Clinton was.) Told by one of his early mentors that ‘God will never forgive you if you don’t stand by Israel,’ Clinton could only have found in Washington a deafening, if more secular echo of the same warning. His own interpersonal antennae sensed that Barak was a problem, and he admits this; but his public judgment is given wholly on the other side. Clinton deserves respect for at least having the honesty to register some retrospective complexity, even if his inability to follow his nose and tell a more balanced story is regrettable. But of course anyone who did that would probably never have become president of the world’s most powerful set of vested interests.

Clinton repeatedly reports having to back away from issues he felt strongly about because he could not create a political consensus, and indeed the Democratic Party has a poor history of loyalty to anyone who threatens to stand up for strong positions (the Republicans seem much more comfortable with their own extremists). Perhaps there is no pragmatic alternative to insisting on consensus and the best working of the system even in the face of those who clearly have no interest in meeting anyone halfway. But there is in Clinton’s story a willingness to admire political efficiency as a virtue in itself. The ten-year-old boy who claims to have been transfixed by TV coverage of the party conventions seems to have remained in awe of the effective pitch even when founded on dishonesty and ruthlessness. Thus Netanyahu proved himself a ‘better politician’ than Peres by hiring a Republican media adviser; and George W. Bush proved an ‘adept politician’ in hiding a radical conservative platform under the banner of ‘compassionate conservatism’. Some might call this telling lies. Much is forgiven, it seems, if one wins.

Being a gifted and compulsive talker can perhaps be a temptation to settle for compromise as a good thing in itself, even if the issues at stake are not in a state of balance and reconciliation. Clinton describes himself as a ‘political animal’ capable of ‘bad politics’ even when in pursuit of ‘good policies’. More and more, as the book progresses, politics comes to look like crisis management, short-term adaptations of longer-term goals and priorities. The narrative is chronological and heavily dependent on notes and diary entries that the author seems to have kept from the very start of his career. This means that, especially during the presidential years, issues of major historical significance are narrated in a day by day and piecemeal fashion, with five or six things going on at the same time and none of them available for full attention. That is surely how President Clinton lived his life, and he could have had little choice. But in his telling of that life, I found myself wishing for more synthetic and sustained coverage of the major policy issues and legislative ambitions. Some presidents might not be capable of such an account; this one, with his well-known command of detail and argument, clearly is.

As things stand, the enormously controversial (and bipartisan) Welfare Reform Act of 1996, a keystone of Third Way thinking and an important paradigm for like-minded foreign leaders, is never addressed head on, as the historic transformation of welfare policy that it was. The official statistics produced in the book render its basic ‘welfare to work’ emphasis a success, but many questions remain, and to be prompted to ask them we are owed a more careful and considered account than is offered here. Figures recently released (on 26 August) report a third year of increases in the numbers of those below the poverty line and without health insurance. While it might seem satisfying to blame Bush for this, and while Bush (and the recession) can hardly have helped, can we be sure that nothing here is the result of the Welfare Act, whose most punitive clauses only came into force between three and five years after its passage? And can we even trust the figures when one of the provisions of that act was to kick people off the roll after three years with no job? This was bipartisan legislation, and Clinton argued against some of its harsher possibilities (for example, the denial of benefits to legal immigrants); but he did settle for it, and the left has not forgiven him. For many of his critics this was good politics in the cause of bad policies.

There are some topics to which Clinton’s narrative returns regularly and in an incremental way, as if to structure his life story around them. There is an abiding empathy with black Americans, and for the working poor and middle-class families whose lives he sought to improve by reforming education and healthcare, and by such initiatives as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Earned Income Tax Credit. We are regularly reminded that he was on the job in responding to and anticipating terrorism in general and bin Laden in particular. There is considerable pride in the fact that as the leader of a party historically tarred with the brush of big government, he sponsored a 300,000 reduction in the federal workforce and left in place the smallest government since 1960, at the same time creating 8.4 million new jobs in his first three years in office. Then there are the federal budget and the national debt, which return more often than any other items in this story, which is marked by regular interim bulletins about how rosy things are looking. Since Clinton made debt reduction the major priority of his first months in office he has good reason to tell this part of the story over and over again. In 1992 the debt was $4 trillion; in 2000 he was predicting its total elimination by 2010. Talk is cheap, but he did end his presidency with a $200 billion surplus along with historically low unemployment and welfare rates (as officially registered). The $70 billion budget surplus of 1998 was the first in 29 years.

At the time there was considerable and understandable discontent over a Democratic administration that made fiscal restraint its major policy objective. Now that we have a Republican president spending madly on controversial and dangerous causes, history may well be kinder to Clinton. History is unlikely, however, to look more kindly on Kenneth Starr and the people who kept him going, or on the other members of the much touted right-wing conspiracy that devoted huge amounts of time and money to trying to bring about the president’s resignation. Clinton is uncharacteristically blunt about the ‘self-righteous, condemning, Absolute Truth-claiming dark side of white Southern conservatism’, and he may be right that they hated him because he was an apostate, a ‘white Southern Protestant who could appeal to the very people they had always taken for granted’. But ‘they’ are not just in the South, and among his detractors were many left-of-centre Democrats who found him simply too firmly in the middle of the road. They did not fund expensive witchhunts, but they did not like his politics or his undoubted charisma.

This book cannot be expected to set straight the historical record on the Clinton presidency, and it doesn’t claim to. But it is well worth reading, and worth pondering. I found myself ending as I began, by looking at the pictures in search of some clue, some point of contact, some immediate identification, some way of seeing this life – still a life in progress – as, in Larkin’s memorable words, ‘smaller and clearer as the years go by’. As always, those photographs of the childhood years and of now dead parents and relatives are the most affecting because they offer glimpses of a point when things could have been different and better, even as they have been on the whole very good – for Clinton, for those close to him and, many would say, for America. Certainly the kid who liked spelling competitions and talked too much and became president has had a life worth telling about. We would not expect transparent honesty and absolute integrity in any person’s telling of his or her own story, especially when the stakes were as high as they are here. No one knows his or her own story, and every moderately intelligent and reflective person knows that much is unknown.

It is appealing, then, to read Clinton at his moments of confusion and uncertainty, and to find some redeeming value in those evasions and circumlocutions that his enemies sought to present as both absolute moral sins and treasonable crimes of state. The story of the Gennifer Flowers relationship takes a few pages to get round to admitting that, yes, there was an affair in the 1970s, but not the 12-year affair of which he was accused. And the written recollection of the draft registration issue, on the clarification of which depends a decision about whether Clinton was or was not a ‘resister’, is obscure and tortured enough to register convincingly the disquiet of a young man who was himself unsure whether he was acting out of ‘conviction or cowardice’. One supposes that anyone not blessed with simple self-righteousness or sheer disdain would have asked himself the same question, and would have gone on asking it for the rest of his life. Clinton clearly still talks to himself about this, probably to God, and to anyone who gets this far in his book. Even such an ordinary measure of moral self-doubt seems now to belong to another world.