Clinton's Life as an Open Book

Don't expect a dry memoir from the former President, who promises an autobiography that's self-serving and interesting

By Hardy Green

You'd expect to find some George Bush partisans among the nation's booksellers. After all, the President is indirectly responsible for four of the current New York Times hardcover best-sellers (and several previous ones), including former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke's account of Administration failures, Against All Enemies, and former diplomat Joseph Wilson's scathing exposé, The Politics of Truth.

But few Bush/Cheney buttons were in sight during Bill Clinton's keynote address at BookExpo, the book-publishing industry's annual trade show. Instead, the 2,700 attendees in the grand ballroom at Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center -- and those milling outside who had to settle for an audio feed -- seemed to long for the good old days of the '90s, giving the ex-President a one-minute introductory standing ovation and punctuating his hour-long talk with several bursts of applause.


  Of course, Clinton was here to plug his 900-page memoir, My Life, due out from publisher Alfred A. Knopf on June 22. (The volume is under tight wraps until that time: No prepublication galleys, and the press will get the book on the same day as it appears in stores.) Knopf President and Editor-in-Chief Sonny Mehta introduced Clinton, telling the booksellers: "You're going to have the time of your life selling this book."

Mehta also predicted that the book's 1.5 million print run would prove "not nearly enough" to satisfy demand. Chalk at least some of that optimism up to the $10 million Knopf advanced Clinton.

Clinton said unlike other politicians' memoirs, which tend to be dry and self-serving, his book was "interesting and self-serving." Said the former White House resident: "It's not a serious policy book, but an attempt to tell the story as it happened to me. I wanted to let readers see what it's like to be President."


  A history buff, Clinton said he had written the book to show how one little story -- that of his life -- fit into the larger American story. According to Clinton, My Life falls into two sections. The first covers the period from his Arkansas boyhood up to his 1992 elevation to the White House. He said one of his goals was to explain what happened to the nation in the 1960s, a time of political polarization. The second part is a diary of the Clinton Presidency.

"I don't spare myself," he said, promising a measure of self-criticism. "And I don't try to settle a lot of scores," he observed twice, noting his personal liking for both George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.

Indeed, in comparison to former Vice-President Al Gore's recent attacks on the current President Bush and Administration, Clinton's remarks seemed tame. Even his criticism of the Patriot Act -- a law that's highly unpopular with this crowd because it allows the feds to obtain information about citizens' book-borrowing and -buying habits -- was somewhat mild and philosophical. Nevertheless, these remarks drew the loudest cheers of the evening.


  Clinton's greatest pleasure in writing the book seems to stem from recounting his youth. He reminisced about childhood hours spent in the public library, where he liked to read about famous Indian chiefs, and noted that "after about an hour" of dwelling on any other period of his life, "I was there again," reliving such experiences as how his stepfather once discharged a shotgun inside the house.

Clinton also reminded the audience how, in those pre-TV days, much of the family's entertainment centered on the storytelling that took place over meals. He described how his Uncle Buddy, who survived cancer surgery and lived to age 91, in his later years acknowledged a liking for older ladies since they seemed "a little more settled."

The former President also recommended that anyone over age 50 should try to write his or her own memoirs, in part for the benefit of younger generations who "don't want to be uprooted from their past." Sonny Mehta, get the checkbook ready.

Green is BusinessWeek's Books editor

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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