By Thane Peterson Bill Clinton's best-selling new memoir My Life is a lot like his Presidency. A potentially great President lurked somewhere inside Bill Clinton, but he kept getting waylaid by his own lack of discipline, ethical corner-cutting, and the self-destructive recklessness that led to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. As a result, Clinton never lived up to his promise, and pretty much the same thing can be said about this self-indulgent 957-page tome.
My Life (Alfred A. Knopf, $35) is like a hybrid of a tawdry TV talk-show confessional, a stultifying boring diplomatic memoir, and a position paper aimed at paving the way for Bill and Hillary to play a major role in U.S. politics for years to come. I suspect it's no accident that the book is coming out -- over protests from some Democratic leaders -- a year late and only a month before the Democratic National Convention, just in time to steal some of John Kerry's thunder.
CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR. I also suspect that rather than actually reading the book, most people will end up looking up such key words as "Lewinsky" and "Arafat" in the index and reading only those sections. I can understand the temptation. It took me 25 hours to get through the entire thing. Clinton isn't even inaugurated until page 471 and it's hard slogging. That's a shame because the book has lots of good stuff -- enough for, say, a really nice 450-page memoir.
First things first, though: The dish on the juicy sections. Mainly Clinton admits what there's no point in denying: that he had affairs with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky. (He denies sexually harassing Paula Jones.) But he doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. For instance, he repeats court testimony in which he admitted that "back in the 1970s, I had a relationship with [Flowers] that I should not have had," while assuring us that "there was no 12-year-affair" between the two, as Flowers contends. Hmm. Now that really clears thing up.
His description of the Lewinsky affair is just as elliptical (and he doesn't get to it until page 773). Here's the crux:
"During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come and work in the White House?'d had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so on other occasions between November and April, when she left the White House for the Pentagon.... In February 1997, I met with her alone again for about 15 minutes. I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring, when I saw her again, I told her it was wrong..."
HIS MOTHER'S SON.?The former President argues convincingly that revelations about the affair were part of a vicious, politically motivated campaign to drive him out of office by conservative Republicans and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. What isn't quite as convincing is his explanation for the affair itself and other equally self-destructive acts. As anyone who caught Clinton's recent appearances on Oprah or 60 Minutes knows, he attributes his failings to the lingering effects of his difficult childhood and a tendency to suppress anger, so it comes out in inappropriate ways. And it just doesn't wash to explain things away by admitting he's an "imperfect" human being.
Surely these explanations won't satisfy Clinton's toughest critics, who contend that he's a serial adulterer who routinely lies about his indiscretions because Hillary will tolerate them as long as he keeps them quiet. Personally, I think the inner workings of their marriage are between the Clintons. Ultimately, Clinton will have to do more to answer such critics, who are right in saying that his infidelities impaired his effectiveness as President. And the political fallout could hurt Hillary if, as many people expect, she one day runs for higher office. For all his apologies, nowhere in this book does Clinton simply say that he has resolved to be true to his wife.
By far the best sections are about his early life. The story of his difficult childhood in Arkansas -- the death of his father before he was born, the poverty and uncertainty of his early years, the drunken violence of his stepfather -- is vividly told. And his portrait of his brassy, confident, fun-loving mother, Virginia Kelley, which runs throughout the book, is genuinely tender, a true tribute.
NAME GAMES. Clinton also shows himself to be a gifted politician and a shrewd judge of character. He gives this savvy assessment of Ehud Barak, the Israeli leader across the table from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David: "He had a hard time listening to people who didn't see things the way he did.... Barak wanted others to wait until he decided the time was right, then, when he made his best offer, he expected it to be accepted as self-evidently a good deal. His [Arab] negotiating partners wanted trust-building courtesies and conversations and lots of bargaining."
The trouble with the book is that the pearls are buried in an incredible amount of dross. It is said that Clinton is a master of the politician's art of remembering the name and a few key facts about thousands of people he has met over the years -- and he doesn't leave many of them out of his book. My guess is that, all told, at least 10,000 people are mentioned (the index mentions nearly 1,000). Do we really need thumbnail sketches of every campaign aide and college roommate he ever had (as well as many of their children), of the unnamed homeless man he met at a McDonald's one day? How about all those lengthy recaps of long-ago University of Arkansas and Georgetown University sporting events Clinton attended?
Incredibly, in his acknowledgements Clinton credits his editor Robert Gottlieb (a brilliant former editor of the New Yorker) with forcing him to cut the book down. "Bob taught me about magic moments and hard cuts," Clinton writes, seemingly without irony. "Without his judgement and feel, this book might have been twice as long and half as good." Arrgh! Thank goodness for Bob Gottlieb, I say. But, clearly, like so many before him, Gottlieb was unable to reign in Bill Clinton. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online