Clinton’s Empty ‘Life’

Leaning against a wall near the front of the line, a girl in a fur-trimmed leather jacket looked as if someone had just dragged her from a party. Farther back, a man in a button-down shirt and government security-clearance card looked as if he’d just rushed over from work. A man from Swedish television was asking earnest questions. A bearded man was selling “peace” buttons, or some such thing, but he was an exception: Generally speaking, the people in the line were not hirsute, overtly left-wing or even visibly political.

The “line,” of course, was the line that formed to purchase a copy of “My Life,” Bill Clinton’s memoir, at the Politics and Prose bookshop in Northwest Washington Monday night. The books went on sale at midnight, but those standing proudly in front had been there since early evening. Those of us in back marveled at the length of the line, and exchanged gossip: “I heard you could buy it today on eBay for $350.” Or: “I heard it’s already sold a million copies on Amazon.” A bookshop employee told me that “only for Harry Potter” had he seen anything like this before. By 12:40 a.m. the store had already sold 1,527 books.

If this were any other product — a Michael Moore movie, say, or a Janet Jackson album — such numbers would make this book a grand success. It is less clear that the lines, the sales and the accompanying hype will bring success to Bill Clinton. After all, the former president earns millions from speaking engagements. He didn’t have to do this for the money, and he isn’t running for reelection. The only reason for him to write a book at all was for the “legacy” that he sometimes talks about: This was his chance to shape the way that all of the people waiting in line for his book will remember him.

Given that context, the book itself can only be described as disappointing, even bizarre. It isn’t just that it’s dull, like so many political memoirs, or that the sections on Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky are weirdly abrupt and uninformative; it’s utterly lacking in perspective. Apparently, Clinton dawdled over the book for several years, concentrating on his childhood, and wound up racing to finish the final, presidential chapters this spring. The haste shows. On Page 689, to take a random example, Clinton mentions his veto of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, his veto of the Republican budget, his submission of his own “seven-year balanced budget plan,” a conversation with Shimon Peres about a plan to cede territory to the Palestinians, the agreement to end the Bosnian war, an encounter with Slobodan Milosevic, and Chelsea Clinton’s appearance in the “Nutcracker” — all in five paragraphs.

At the same time, he finds space not only for trivia but for emotional reactions to the trivia. He lists the classes offered in his Arkansas high school (calculus, trigonometry, chemistry, physics, Spanish, French, four years of Latin) the words of the school’s “Trojan yell” (“Hullabloo, Ke-neck, Ke-neck, Hullabloo”) the record of the football team (6-29). He also berates himself for “one of the dumber political moves of my life,” allowing his name to be put up for senior class secretary: “It was a foolish, selfish thing for me to do.” He lost. Clearly, it still rankles.

In fact, other than the personal issues of interest to him — the putting to rest of his “demons,” the healing of his “self-inflicted wounds” — there are no real themes in this book, unless you count his battle with the “forces of reaction and division” that wanted to remove him from office. For all his vaunted interest in policy solutions, it’s hard to glean anything like a “big idea” from the mass of detail. For all his faith that he is on “the right side of history,” he doesn’t engage much with his policy opponents at all, or even acknowledge that they have any arguments worth engaging. The comparison to another former president is impossible to avoid: Maybe Ronald Reagan thought air pollution came from trees, but in the end he stared down the Soviet Union, and that’s what he was remembered for. Clinton, by contrast, has left us with mind-numbing lists of foreign trips, throwaway references to long-forgotten political battles, meetings with the pope, Rabin, Yeltsin, whoever. Because there is no central argument, no clear explanation of what his presidency was about, one is left, in the end, with nothing other than an emotional reaction to the man himself — as always.

That won’t stop people from buying this book. Certainly some bad early reviews didn’t dissuade those who had come to stand in the midnight line. Asked to explain their motivation for being there, some said they were bona fide admirers of the former president, while others said they hoped eventually to get an autograph. In the end, though, I’ll wager that just as many were there because, as one woman put it, “This is a Washington event.” People gather wherever they think history will be made and wherever the gold dust of fame might be sprinkled upon innocent bystanders — however shallow that fame might turn out to be.

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