Top positive review
What Is 'Is', Is
on 7 July 2017
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 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.