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My Life Hardcover – 21 Jun 2004
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An exhaustive, soul-searching memoir, Bill Clinton's My Life is a refreshingly candid look at the former president as a son, brother, teacher, father, husband and public figure. Clinton painstakingly outlines the history behind his greatest successes and failures, including his dedication to educational and economic reform, his war against a "vast right-wing operation" determined to destroy him, and the "morally indefensible" acts for which he was nearly impeached. My Life is autobiography as therapy--a personal history written by a man trying to face and banish his private demons.
Clinton approaches the story of his youth with gusto, sharing tales of giant watermelons, nine-pound tumours, a charging ram, famous mobsters and jazz musicians and a BB gun standoff. He offers an equally energetic portrait of American history, pop culture and the evolving political landscape, covering the historical events that shaped his early years (namely the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and JFK) and the events that shaped his presidency (Waco, Bosnia, Somalia). What makes My Life remarkable as a political memoir is how thoroughly it is infused with Clinton's unassuming, charmingly pithy voice:
I learned a lot from the stories my uncle, aunts, and grandparents told me: that no one is perfect but most people are good; that people can't be judged only by their worst or weakest moments; that harsh judgments can make hypocrites of us all; that a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain.
However, that same voice might tire readers as Clinton applies his penchant for minute details to a distractible laundry list of events, from his youth through the years of his presidency. Not wanting to forget a single detail that might help account for his actions, Clinton overdoes it--do we really need to know the name of his childhood barber? But when Clinton sticks to the meat of his story--recollections about his mother, his abusive stepfather, Hillary, the campaign trail and Kenneth Starr--the veracity of emotion and revelations about "what it is like to be President" make My Life impossible to put down.
To Clinton, "politics is a contact sport" and while he claims that My Life is not intended to make excuses or assign blame, it does portray him as a fighter whose strategy is to "take the first hit, then counterpunch as hard as I could". While My Life is primarily a stroll through Clinton's memories, it is also a scathing rebuke--a retaliation against his detractors, including Kenneth Starr, whose "mindless search for scandal" protected the guilty while "persecuting the innocent" and distracted his administration from pressing international matters (including strikes on al Qaeda). Counterpunch indeed.
At its core, My Life is a charming and intriguing if flawed book by an intriguing and flawed man who had his worst failures and humiliations made public. Ultimately, the man who left office in the shadow of scandal offers an honest and open account of his life, allowing readers to witness his struggle to "drain the most out of every moment" while maintaining the character with which he was raised. It is a remarkably intimate, persuasive look at the boy he was, the president he became and the man he is today. --Daphne Durham, Amazon.com
President Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe IV on August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas, three months after his father died in a traffic accident. When he was four years old, his mother wed Roger Clinton, of Hot Springs, Arkansas. In high school, he took the family name. As a delegate to Boys Nation while in high school, he met President John Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden. The encounter led him to enter a life of public service. Clinton was graduated from Georgetown University and in 1968 won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. He received a law degree from Yale University in 1973, and entered politics in Arkansas. He was defeated in his campaign for Congress in Arkansas's Third District in 1974. The next year he married Hillary Rodham and in 1980 and Chelsea, their only child, was born. Clinton and his running mate, Tennessee's Senator Albert Gore Jr., then 44, represented a new generation in American political leadership. For the first time in 12 years both the White House and Congress were held by the same party. But that political edge was brief; the Republicans won both houses of Congress in 1994.In 1998, as a result of issues surrounding personal indiscretions with a young woman White House intern, Clinton was the second U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. He was tried in the Senate and found not guilty of the charges brought against him. He apologized to the nation for his actions and continued to have unprecedented popular approval ratings for his job as president.
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Inevitably, we must turn to the Lewinsky scandal. It's covered here and Clinton - to his credit - does not seek to absolve himself in any way. There are no lacquered platitudes either. In fact, in the relevant passages on, respectively, Whitewater, Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr and the impeachment and Senate trial, Clinton coldly and painfully identifies his mistakes and weaknesses and he is honest in that respect, though he also cannot help falling into apotropaic and conspiratorial attacks on his critics. In the end my view is that he should have taken hemlock: that would have created a legacy infinitely more consequential than the transient popularity he obsessively courted. By not doing so, by clinging to office despite these personal indiscretions, Clinton set a bad example and arguably reflected, even contributed to, the moral degeneration in society. Clinton never really addresses this problem directly, namely how he can expect to call himself a leader and a man of example when he cannot even take proper responsibility for his own actions. Nevertheless, I cannot help also feeling sympathy for him, given the identified faults were more of the personal and private kind. Only the most hard-hearted person would want to condemn a public figure too vigorously in such circumstances, though as President he should have realised that his private affairs were - temporarily at least - also public and if he was not morally fit for the office, he should not have assumed the office.
One further impression I gained from this book about (or, rather, that this book confirmed about) Clinton is this kind of vagueness that he has. It's difficult to pin down, but there is a similarity here with Blair. On the one hand he is a thoughtful and intelligent man, but on the other hand he doesn't really give the impression of someone who has any kind of anchoring narrative about him. Whereas Blair was morally certain but politically vague (adopting a missionary zeal in office that cost many their lives), I think Clinton was morally hazy but did at least attempt to develop a consistent and coherent political philosophy for the Democratic Party that moved it away somewhat from New Dealism but which retained the Party's progressive instincts. One of the many greatly useful things about this book is the way that Clinton explains much of his thinking within the context of that kind of middle-class-friendly political philosophy, and by extension, the way he critiques Reagan-Bush economic policy. He purports to do so with rigour and certainty, but for me it's too much of a reminder of the Continental-style, CSD-type of social-democratic thinking that began on the British Left during the late 1970s in response to Bolshevism and the New Right, only with a distinctly American character (i.e. 'progressive' rather than 'social democratic'). Really, deep-down Clinton doesn't know what he thinks, but he'll think it anyway as long as it'll gain votes.
I like the format of the book. Refreshingly, Clinton eschews the modern trend towards thematic writing and just tells us his story chronologically. It's well-written, entertaining and meaningful, with very varied judgements about the characters met along the way. Predictably, it's also a very self-absorbed prose in which Clinton is at the centre of events. This ego-centric outlook reaches its zenith in the latter chapters in which Clinton tells us his story as President and becomes an increasingly sad figure, obsessed with his own political legacy. Apropos, perhaps it would have been better for America if they had elected as president someone less self-absorbed than Clinton while sharing some of his generous political instincts. Clinton had many of the qualities that would make a fine president - he had an overarching vision, he evinced optimism and he had inside him a genuinely good heart and a generous spirit - but he lacked the courage of his own convictions; was if anything too keen to gain office; was too much a creature of transient public sentiment rather than being a leader of public opinion; was too preoccupied with the feelings and whims of 'soccer moms' in focus groups; too much in awe of rich men; too ready to engage in moral grandstanding rather than adopt firm, permanent principles; too easily led by politically-correct thinking on racial issues; and - above all else - too reliant on professional political strategists and their eccentric trajections, when he should have decided what he really stood for, stood for it and stood by it.
In the end, I think Clinton was a very important president, but only because of what he presided-over, not because he did anything of significance: he was essentially a marionette who achieved nothing of note in his own right. Of course you could argue that a wise president will, under certain circumstances, choose to do essentially nothing and just preside, but Clinton set out to be an activist president and so in that respect he failed abjectly. I think history will most likely remember him as one of those hazy but charismatic managerial figures that electoral politics pivots into office from time-to-time and who is sensitive to the Zeitgeist. His various deeds and doings, such that they were, amounted to mere epiphenomena, the result of and a reflection of wider social, cultural and financial movements in American society. If anything, an apt analogy for the Clinton presidency would be the 'Cohabitation' period of the French presidency of François Mitterrand (during 1986 to 1988). This book shows that even at the height of the impeachment controversy, Clinton was unquestionably adept in the art of ministerial 'cohabitation', somehow keeping the peace and maintaining a bipartisan relationship with Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress. This feat required not just considerable skill but also a nuanced understanding of the constitutional locus of the presidency. So, Clinton was no dilettante and to be fair he was much more than just a vacillator or the compromising figure of the 'triangulation' strategy. He was a man of substance and ideals and in a sense his lack of any substantive legacy is deeply tragic and contradictory. He had it in him to be great. This is a man who could have been better, could have been stronger, could have stood for more, if only, at the relevant time, he had found the will and the courage and overcome his personal demons. I think this book is really the story of that sad, bitter failure. It's essential reading if you are interested in politics and government.
As a Brit I wanted to get a more summarised view without having a three week read. This I got expertly by listening to the 6 hour abridged CD version.
With the CD version you get all the main parts, the growing up, the family life that shaped his, the running for election, the white house, and a review of things that followed.
Im sure its a bit biased and you have to read other books to get a clear picture, but it does give an incredibly interesting insight to Bil Clinton, what makes him tick, and the american political environment in which he had to work in.
Fully absorbing and to hear it read by the president himself adds a much more personal encounter.
A must listen too audiocd.
and it will be interesting if she manage to become president don't think she would let the US down