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A view from the inside...
on 26 June 2004
I must confess I am a fan of political autobiographies. The first one I ever read was the Nixon autobiography; I've since read the various presidential and prime ministerial works past and present. Against these various tomes, Bill Clinton's memoirs, 'My Life', stacks up well. There is nothing earth-shattering and revealing here; there are some different nuances and a little more candour involved, but not a lot. After all, Clinton is still a relatively young man, and could have other political aspirations (he wouldn't be the first president to also serve in the Congress after the presidency), and of course, his wife has an active political life of her own, which I am certain was a major consideration in the tone and content of this volume.
I was fortunate to get advance reading material of this before the day of release, and got the local bookseller to permit me a purchase after midnight last night. Of course, like many people, I turned first to the part about Monica Lewinsky, who, for better or worse, will be a defining image of Clinton's presidency for the foreseeable future - history will likely be kinder to Clinton (as it ended up being for Nixon, and others who have stumbled in office), but for the present, this image holds true. There is a typical Clinton-esque mixture of self-reproach and blaming of others. Clinton's greatest ire is saved for Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, who Clinton characterises as being the tip of the spear of a vast right-wing conspiracy including conservative white southerners who never worked for civil rights.
He discusses the icy situation with his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea after the revelations, and how he slept on the sofa in different rooms for a significant period after the revelations. He also writes of his own self-examination and self-therapy (how does one do therapy with a president? Actually, there is some insight here, with his marriage counseling going on for a year after the incident). From visits with preachers (Clinton was never a traditionally religious man) to his own readings of self-help books and spiritual classics (one such, 'Imitation of Christ', by Thomas a Kempis, is a superb and well-known text, but not one I would have ever guessed useful for a president in this situation).
He gives some insights into the campaign trails, his early Arkansas experiences prior to national politics, and the two presidential elections, the first against the elder Bush, and the second against Bob Dole. He also takes good account of his childhood - the stories of his mother and various male figures in his early life are quite interesting, and beyond what was public during his presidential days. Even the derivation of his name - William Jefferson Blythe Clinton, has a story behind it worth reading.
One of the key points of interest of any political autobiography is the commentary and speculation the author makes on present and future situations, and Clinton's is no exception. He mentions his own assessment of the danger Iraq posed (he would have rated it no higher than number six on his list of priorities), and claims to have been more forceful in warning the incoming Bush administration about the dangers of Osama Bin Ladin. He also gives interesting perspectives on allies and other foreign leaders (John Major and Tony Blair, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Yasir Arafat, Ehud Barak, etc.).
In all, Clinton takes some of the blame for the troubles of his presidency, but shifts quite a bit of it to others, too. He also takes credit where credit is due for some of the successes in his presidency, but on the whole, as is typically true in such writings, casts the best of possible lights on most of his actions and the outcomes. Being an extrovert with a penchant for introspection, it is a wonder that this book could be contained in a mere 1000 or so pages.
Love him or hate him (and it is amazing how few people have neutral feelings about him, as he experienced and wrote about in his book), Clinton is a figure politicians must deal with for some time to come, and historians will likely rarely tire of debating and analysing.