Jewish World Review June 24, 2004/ 5 Tamuz, 5764
Of wonkery and women
That is the admonition that Bill Clinton should have got from his editors at Alfred A. Knopf. And he would have done well to listen. The juice about what really went on with the dozens of unofficial women in his official life is what everyone, scribes and pharisees most of all, wanted.
Mark Steyn, the deliciously acerbic JWR columnist who writes from the wilds of New Hampshire, describes the ex-president as "a cheesy Vegas lounge act acknowledging the applause of the crowd before launching into his opening number, 'I Get a Kick Out of Me.' " Tina Brown, a somewhat more admiring pundit, insists that Clinton's "glamour is undersung," describing him as "a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room. He is vividly in the present tense and dares you to join him there." So we were prepared to join him in the present tense, waiting to be blown away.
Instead, we get a lot of past tense, a self-pitying account of growing up in Arkansas, plenty of psychological argle-bargle, and loads of wonkery. Only a smidgen of Gennifer Flowers, a little bit of Monica and a lot of excuse-making disguised as repentant confessional. In sum, a lot more of the Bill Clinton we know so well, with no surprises. If writing his autobiography has taught him anything about himself, he has hidden it well.
"My Life," by William Jefferson Clinton, is meant to be the literary sensation of the summer, moved up from September as a sop to John Kerry, who actually wanted it to come out after the election. The Kerry camp is famously terrified that if Bill "sucks all the oxygen out of the room" there won't be any left for John and the Democratic campaign. Democratic voters will be so bored with their new man that they'll sleep through Election Day. Nobody ever slept with Bill Clinton, if you'll excuse the mangling of a metaphor.
His editors could have used the extra weeks to pare the book to a more reasonable length. The early reviewers are brutal, as only jilted book reviewers can be. "The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull," writes Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, in arguably the most important review of all. It is "the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history."
The Associated Press reviewer similarly complains: " 'My Life' is relentlessly chronological, especially the second half of the book, which is devoted to his presidency. Almost every paragraph describes another meeting with a foreign leader or the signing of another bill or delivery of another speech. The effect is mind-numbing. It's like being locked in a small room with a very gregarious man who insists on reading his entire appointment book, day by day, beginning in 1946." It's as if he was tutored by those two diary-keeping Bobs of the U.S. Senate, Packwood and Graham, famous for keeping tedious accounts of dull lives.
Bill Clinton hardly has the excuse of a dull life. Telling all is the work of an exhibitionist, but so is the writing of an autobiography. Bill Clinton was done in by his weakness for women - any woman, all women - and this was his opportunity to try to tell us why. Instead we get Psychology 101, a description of his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky as "immoral and foolish," which we already knew, a dalliance that he says he undertook for the worst of all reasons, "because I could." Any cad could have told us that. Monica, like the other women he doesn't want to talk about, was just part of his "parallel life."
Clinton is naturally reticent about some of his women, beginning with Juanita Broderick, who accused him, credibly, of raping her when he was Arkansas attorney general. Then there's Paula Jones, whom he finally paid a lot of money to go away, and the newly widowed Kathleen Willey, whom he harassed when she called to seek a job. The ex-president tells Dan Rather that he doesn't consider his impeachment a "stain" on his reputation - a particularly inept metaphor considering Monica's famous little cocktail dress - even if the rest of us do.
Bad reviews will not bother him, of course. He can laugh all the way to the bank. Bill Clinton's improbable life is the classic American success story writ large: the poor boy born into modest poverty, pulling himself out of the backwoods and rising to the presidency of the United States, who is then brought low by smarmy and undisciplined sexual urges. Hollywood couldn't have written a better story - but the ex-prez could have. Pity he didn't.
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