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.
on 30 December 2012
I can't help but begin this review with that famous Clinton solipsism: the definition of 'is'. We don't really find out in the end what is 'is', or rather what 'is' was, but what we do know is that Clinton was having an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern. Actually, when I picked-up this book, the whole sex scandal and subsequent impeachment were the last thing on my mind. I wanted to gain some insight into Clinton's background and his climb in politics. I think this autobiography does an excellent job in that respect. I have read a good few political biographies and memoirs now, and judging comparatively, I would say 'My Life' deserves to be seen as one of the greats. Clinton tells us his story, movingly and comprehensively, though his prose lacks the trenchant qualities of a truly great political figure. Clinton was a driven and talented person from a young age, and he used that talent to better himself and along the way better the lives of others, but he was not a paradigmic or transformative political figure along the lines of FDR (liberal) or Reagan (conservative).
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 daemons. 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.
on 1 November 2004
I thought i would tackle this huge book, not just to read about the monica lewinsky affair, but because I thought he was the president of the united states, he must have some stories to tell.
He goes into a lot of detail about his childhood in Arkansas, his abusive father, who wasnt his real father, being bullied, saving his father from hurting his mother. It is an interesting insight into the beginnings of a man who went on to become one of the most powerful men in the world.
The campaining to become governor of Arkansas, and the small town politics is interesting, and can also be compared to the later presidency campaign, and running the country!
Being British, I had no idea how the American voting system worked. I also wasnt very interested in politics. After reading this book however, i am now very interested to see the result of the presidential election.
As previously mentioned, Clinton does blow his own horn a lot, but it makes you appreciate how much he really did do for America.
He does seem to fill a lot of the pages with names, that dont really mean anything, and there are so many, you cant really remember if they have been mentioned before, to have any significance.
Overall this is a very interesting book, about a very interesting man. My opinion of Bill Clinton has certainly changed since reading it. Yours might too. He isnt all about Monica Lewinsky. He had a lot of personal tragedies, and losses throughout his life. He did a lot for the USA, and should be remembered for that too. The book is tough going at times, but well worth it
on 19 March 2005
I don't normally read autobiographies of politicians, but read this and really got into it. Yes, it is long - but don't be put off by other people's comments re: it's length - just settle down and enjoy what is an interesting read.
Had inspired me to pick up other political autobiographies.
In the acknowledgments, former president Clinton thanks his editor, Robert Gottlieb, for helping him make the book half as long and twice as good. That man should get five stars! This book is way too long in its current form and not good enough.
Unless you are a friend or a big fan of Mr. Clinton, you will find this book not worth the effort. Fully half is devoted to descriptions of daily events during his two presidential terms. Almost all of the events you will probably remember from living through those years. Although these events were needed for completeness, there was little added that was new. I found the background descriptions of assisting the negotiations between Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians to be the most interesting part of the presidential section.
The best part of the book comes in the period before his first election in Arkansas. How did a young man from a very troubled home end up on the fast track for early political success? Although you will not be able to totally answer that question from reading this book, you will certainly know a lot more than you did before you started. I was especially impressed by the incredible loyalty that he showed to his stepfather, despite the awful treatment that his mother received. I did not realize that Mr. Clinton had only legally adopted the last name of Clinton after his mother remarried his stepfather.
If you are looking for lots of insights into his personal inclination to cause pain in his marriage through affairs, you won't find anything new. You will find out the day when his wife stopped making him sleep on the sofa in the White House.
Although the book is mostly a diary of what he did and when, there are occasional moments of reflection in the book that make reading it rewarding. Unfortunately, the new reflections only occur about every 50 pages or so. Most of the best reflections are in the first half of the book.
The main ingredient that is missing from the book is the tremendous personal appeal that Mr. Clinton excites in many people. That element of his success is largely hidden in this account. He has a genuine liking for others, a sense of commitment to helping them and an incredible stamina for taking on challenges. It would have been good to combine this book with a CD of reminiscences about peoples' reactions to him at very times.
You also don't get much of a sense of his high intelligence, encyclopedic memory, and grasp of complex situations. I have heard Mr. Clinton go on for hours about difficult policy questions without notes and without knowing what questions would be asked. In fact, he tends to downplay those skills.
The material about his presidency would have been greatly enhanced with advice for future presidents.
The end of the book has an almost whiny tone in complaining about Right Wing conspiracies and recalcitrant Republicans in Congress. That part could have been edited down further. You'll get the idea after the first few pages of this discussion.
Frankly, I would not have finished the book except that many of my friends are in the book, and I found myself looking forward to their appearances in the text and what would be said about them.
For most people, you can read the first half and skip the rest.
If you really want to know about certain parts of his life and want to skip the others, the index can give you a condensed books version of his life.
If you did not find him to be a person who inspired you, I suggest that you skip the book.
Seek to do the best for all!
on 17 August 2004
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.
on 8 August 2004
Well here it is. The history of Bill Clinton, as narrated by Bill Clinton. A rather candid description indeed. What struck me almost immediately is that it is written like a speech rather than 'a book'. His childhood and life right up to 1992 are explained quite thoroughly, although I was amazed how much time he spends on describing his childhood. His years as President read a bit like a diary and again very detailed. I would have preferred somewhat less detail and more of a coherent story. The man is on a mission, but we only catch a glimpse of it now and then.
I like it that he only very briefly deals with the Monika Lewinski affair. Even though there was a lot of fuss about it (in the US) when it happened, in the scheme of things it is only a minor event. Bill Clinton is definitely obsessed with Kenneth Starr, but I think this is a result of Kenneth Starr's obsession with Bill Clinton.
Don't be put off by the book's length. 1,000 odd pages may appear a lot, but it is reasonably short. Politicians' memoirs often have a habit of running into thousands of pages. There also tends to be a common theme of 'how I saved the world and why I did it'. There is some of that in this book. But that's what you would expect.
on 12 January 2006
This is a wonderful account of Bill Clinton's life up to the end of his presidency. The book is so long because of the incredible detail in which Bill describes the major points in his life, including an almost day-by-day account of his time in the White House. He provides a very interesting alternate view to the mountains of negative press he endured, and although it is obviously driven by his version of events, he is still not afraid to hold up his hand when it was deserved - which it seldom was. The greatest impression this read leaves you with is that Bill did a great deal of brilliant work, much of which will sadly not be remembered - hidden in the shadow of one mistake. Fans of "The West Wing" will particularly enjoy the white house stories for most of them have been unapologetically copied as plot lines in the show.
on 15 July 2004
I disagree with the review from Richmond, Surrey. I see it differently about these so-called nostalgia bits in the book. They show how those life stories shaped a growing and burning passion in Clinton for the vision of the founding Fathers of America and how this passion has kept him going in his political life through thick and thin. I enjoyed the political stories about him working for the Senator Fulbright and as a campaigner for George McGovern for President in 1972.I also enjoyed the bits about the political life in America in 1968 Presidential Election Year and about the way in which the Democratic Party then got to where it was-divided, weak and too liberal etc. All these stories helped me see clearer the passion in a man who devoted all his life for politics. I still remember what he said in 1992 Democratic National Convention: ' Jobs, education and health care, these are not just empty words from my lips, these are the work of my life.'
Well at this stage, you may think I'm a supporter of Clinton. I'm not-I'm not even an American or Westerner. For whatever you may think about Clinton as a politican, He is definitely a man with a passion in his heart. This book will help you see more objectively of Bill Clinton, whether you are his fan, hater or neutral.
Here you have an in depth history of Clinton's rise in politics and the tribulations of his presidency. Any autobiography is bound to be biased, especially if it is of a political nature, but if you take this into account this book is immensely enjoyable. It is clear to read, full of interesting stories about the workings of government and an insight into the man behind the newspaper articles and PR.
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