Unimpeachably unreadable

  • My Life by Bill Clinton, Vintage Books, 2005, 969pp.

It is rare, in a conventional book review, for the reviewer to begin by describing her purchase of the book in question, but in this case it really is part of the story. For I bought My Life, Bill Clinton’s memoir, in the very early hours of the morning at a Washington bookshop which had announced it would put the book on sale at the stroke of midnight, when the embargo ended.
Imagining no one else would be mad enough to buy a book in the middle of the night, I arrived at 11.45 pm to discover a queue snaking down the street and around the corner. A bookshop employee told me he’d never seen anything like this before – “only for Harry Potter”. By 12.40 am, the store had already sold 1,527 books.
If this were any other mass culture product – a Michael Moore movie, say, or a Janet Jackson album – those kinds of numbers for the first 40 minutes of sales would make this book a grand success. Indeed, I have no doubt that in some New York restaurant, publishing executives are already toasting one another with vintage champagne.
What is less clear is whether the queues, and the sales, and the television hype, will ultimately mean the same kind of grand success for 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 re-election either.
The only reason for him to write a book was for the “legacy” which he sometimes talks about. This, after all, was his chance to shape the way that all of those people standing in queues will remember the eight years of his presidency.
Given that context, the book itself can only be described as bizarre. It isn’t just that it’s badly written, as so many political memoirs are, or that the sections on Hillary and Monica are weirdly abrupt and uninformative, particularly in contrast to how carefully and lovingly crafted is Clinton’s story about the time his stepfather shot a pistol at his mother. But since there aren’t many gory details of the Lewinsky saga that we didn’t already know, one probably shouldn’t blame the former president for breezing rapidly through the whole sordid episode.
No, the real problem with this book lies in the fact that it is utterly lacking in perspective. Having spent most of the last few years absorbed in writing a description of his childhood, Clinton was apparently racing to finish the final, presidential, chapters this spring, even while the early sections were already being prepared for publication.
It 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 turn over Gaza, Jericho and 450 West Bank villages to the Palestinians, the agreement to end the Bosnian war, an encounter with Slobodan Milosevic, and Chelsea’s appearance in the Nutcracker – all in five paragraphs.
At the same time, he finds space not only for trivia, but also for deep 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 that interest the former president – the putting to rest of his “demons”, the healing of his “self-inflicted wounds” – there are no real themes in this book at all, unless you count his battle with the “forces of reaction and division” that wanted to impeach him.
For all Clinton’s vaunted interest in policy solutions, it is 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 much engage, intellectually, with his political opponents at all, or even acknowledge that they have any arguments worth engaging with.
Because there is no central argument in the book, one is left in the end with nothing other than an emotional reaction to the man himself – as always.
There is an interesting comparison to be made with President Reagan, who was also a president many people laughed at, or made jokes about. Yet when he died, they remembered not just the jokes, but one or two big ideas. Maybe Ronald Reagan was the president who thought air pollution came from trees, but in the end he faced down the Soviet Union, and that’s what people remembered.
My Life is not just hard to read, it’s unreadable. The mind-numbing lists of foreign trips, the throw-away references to long-forgotten political battles, the meetings with the Pope, Rabin, Yeltsin – none of it is dealt with in any systematic manner, as a result of which it all blurs together. Clinton has missed his chance to elaborate upon a theme – the economy, free trade, any one of his accomplishments – and has instead left us with something that reads like a railway timetable.
Not that that will prevent anyone from buying it. Certainly early, unfavourable reviews didn’t dissuade those who had come to stand in the midnight queue. Pressed to explain their presence, some said they were bona fide admirers of the former president. 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, wherever celebrities will pass by, wherever the gold dust of fame might be sprinkled upon innocent bystanders – however shallow that fame might turn out to be.