Jed Bartlet, the fictional US President in TV's The West Wing, is a political hero of mine, so it's perhaps not surprising that I find myself instinctively warming to Bill Clinton. The Bartlet character is, in part, a reflection of Clinton - a deeply religious, hard working, liberal internationalist, driven by the desire to serve community and country. A self-styled 'New Democrat', Clinton first came to national prominence as Governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. Architect of the once-fashionable 'Third Way', Clinton modernised the progressive message by co-opting core ideas from the conservative agenda (fiscal hawkishness, family values, work not welfare) and infusing them with a strong belief in social justice and opportunity for all. Along the way, he revitalised a factious Democratic Party, forced the Republicans to the wilderness of the radical right and blazed a trail for his soulmate Tony Blair to follow in Britain after 1994.
I approached this autobiography with some trepidation - as well as a dictionary of American idioms and an atlas. Though a keen student of politics, I am a novice with regard to American government; its systems, structures and procedures seem arcane and baffling. Another potential obstacle for the British reader is the vernacular of American politics, a problem compounded by the folksy, conversational style of Clinton's writing. Hence, I'm still not au fait with the politics of campaign finance reform, 'soft money' and the rest and Clinton's confession that, during preparations for the 1996 Presidential TV debates, George Mitchell "cleaned my clock" just mystified me!
Aside from the Bartlet parallels, it is evident that the Clinton presidency has proved a rich seam of storylines and subplots for The West Wing - as well as helping this reader negotiate his way through the White House labyrinth. Thus, I was suitably prepared for the bizarre tradition of pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving; meanwhile, issues as diverse as brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, America's refusal to sign an anti-landmines treaty and backstairs haggling with Congressional movers and shakers all have a familiar feel.
'My Life' is really two books spliced together - the one more enjoyable than the other. The weaker 'Book 2' covers the years of Clinton's presidency. Written as a breathless narrative, this diary of events is a whistle-stop tour of domestic and (especially) international politics - a handy primer, perhaps, for first-year politics undergraduates - with everything from trade relations with South America to climate change negotiations meriting a paragraph or so. A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton's overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional - and brief - pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next. Even opportunities for mourning - whether for family (his mother), close friends and colleagues (Vince Foster) or political leaders (Yitzhak Rabin) - are sharply curtailed in the maelstrom of activity, and Clinton himself questions the extent to which he was truly master of ceremonies.
Less welcome is the overwhelming sense that everyone - but everyone - merits a line; My Life reads in places like a roll-call of thanks, of debts acknowledged and repaid. Yet, we are told that the final draft omitted "countless" numbers of people along the way! Central to Clinton's survival and success in the cut-throat world of American politics was his remarkable ability, from a young age, to stockpile friendships (the so-called FOB - 'Friends Of Bill') and build up networks of powerful acquaintances across the social spectrum who could be mobilised when required to campaign tirelessly on his behalf. This is a major thread running through 'Book 1' - the years before 1993. At times, the young Clinton comes across as almost too earnest: the reader comes to expect each paragraph to end with a lesson gleaned from each experience or happenstance of life. Nevertheless, it's an appealing story of an intelligent and thoughtful young man raised in a poverty-stricken southern state struggling to come to terms with trends in postwar society, through university (including two years at Oxford) under the shadow of Vietnam and ultimately to a career in politics.
Some readers will buy this book to read about the scandals that bedevilled his time in office. It is, of course, Clinton's opportunity to present his own version of events but there is enough soul-searching and self-criticism throughout the book to convince me of his basic integrity, humanity and overwhelming commitment to public service. If his version of the 'Whitewater' story is one-sided then it is arguably a welcome corrective after incessant mudslinging by a largely hostile and partisan media, happy to accept financial backing from implacable opponents of Clinton and to weigh in with presumptions of guilt. Revealingly, Clinton refers to 'Whitewater World'. He is implying, in effect, that the obsessives who lived the story year-on-year were 'on another planet' but it also suggests a psychological need to 'box off' Whitewater in his own mind in order to get on with the day-to-day job of governing.
The absence of prurient detail is welcome but his sexual shenanigans did have a major impact on his life story: they put his marriage under intense strain, almost cost him the Democratic nomination in 1992 and led to an impeachment trial. Yet, the first reference to his adultery only comes during his account of the Gennifer Flowers furore at the time of the New Hampshire primary in early-1992. Politicians are, of course, entitled to a private life that is private but this politician has written his autobiography - 'My life' not 'My Political Life' - and one is left in this case with a sense of a lack of full disclosure.