Bill Clinton's My Life IV
Bill Long 11/18/06
Final Reflections on a Political Life
The overwhelming sense I have upon concluding Bill Clinton's 955-page autobiography is that he is among the most remarkable poltical figures of our time but that he governed in a time of poisonous and polarized political realities. His remarkable nature, for me, comes from the fact that he is a man who understands the aspirations of common people because he knew and knows what it was like to grow up in poverty, fear and family dysfunction. This comes out clearly in a speech given to a group of Black ministers during the final year of his presidency. As he tells it, he abandoned his prepared text to say the following to them:
"I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Toni Morrison once said I was the first black President this country ever had. And I would rather have that than a Nobel Prize, and I'll tell you why. Because somewhere, in the deep and lost threads of my own memory, are the roots of understanding of what you have known. Somewhere, there was a deep longing to share the fate of the people who had been left out and left behind, sometimes brutalized, and too often ignored or forgotten" (923).
I say that this common touch is so remarkable because it enabled him to work most effectively with foreign leaders and to articulate the hopes of people all over the world with a sincerity and fervor that makes him akin to an International rock star around the world even to this day. He was able to understand the tugs and pulls on Ehud Barak of Israel, Yasser Arafat of the PLO, Boris Yeltsin of Russia and the cold impassiveness of Slobodan Milosovic of Serbia. But, more than anything, he could identify with and embrace the longing for peace in both Protestant and Catholic Irelanders; embrace the yearning for freedom from fear and for a better future in the former Soviet Union; encourage Israel and the Palestinians to come to the table to talk peace. He truly enjoyed meeting people, figuring out and affirming their aspirations for their people and their common future, building alliances that would last far beyond his time.
All of this comes out of his position in life as having emerged from the bottom or as near to the bottom as one can imagine. He believed in a little town called Hope because it had propelled his dream, and he thought that it could also kindle the dreams of others. One could barely imagine the current President of the US receiving more than a tepid or polite response in almost any country of the world today; one could easily imagine Clinton receiving a hero's welcome in dozens of the world's countries. Striving hard to identify, understand and affirm the aspirations of little people is perhaps the most enduring legacy of Bill Clinton's political life.
There isn't time to narrate all or even a few of the many events that transpired during his Presidency. I found it helpful to have My Life in one hand and the Internet in the other, as it were, so that I could fill in my knowledge of what he was speaking of whenever I wanted, be it the War in Bosnia, the Irish peace process, the Asian debt crisis of 1997-98 or the scandal with Monica Lewinsky. But the book is deficient, I believe, because of its organization. It is a story told strictly chronologically. Often this isn't a bad way to tell a story but because he lived such a necessarily disjointed life as President, his chronological narration often sounds like a "blowup" of notes from his daily planner as he went from week to week in his Presidency. Nothing, therefore, holds the book together except the fact that one event just follows on the previous page's events. Much more helpful would have been a sort of synchronic account along with the diachronic narrative. What this means is that when he got to "big" or "medium big" topics, he would take five pages or so to trace the history of the problem from where he inherited it in 1993, how he dealt with it in his Presidency, to how it stood when he left office early in 2001. This would have required some deeper historical analysis and more synthetic skill, but I think would have been much more valuable for the reader. It is very difficult as a reader to go from Chelsea's volleyball games to state dinners with hundreds of guests, to long-standing difficulties between the Koreas to the ongoing problems in the Middle East. You can't develop a comfortable pace as a reader because of this arrangement of material. When this happens you frankly wish for one of two things: (1) the Lewinsky scandal to return, so that there will be some spice in the narrative; or (2) the end of a chapter.
Writing the Book
But what was also apparent to me as I was reading My Life is that it appears as it does because Knopf had to get it published rather quickly because the ex-President needed to pay some big bills. He tells us in one place that the Paula Jones lawsuit settlement cost him and Hillary 1/2 of their life savings. While not in penurious circumstances, he did have need to make some serious money fairly quickly. He wouldn't have been the first President to do this. Indeed, we owe the most sophisticated and eloquent Presidential memoir, written by US Grant, to family need. A financial house which Grant had financed with his son and another man had gone belly up in 1884. Then he contracted a throat cancer that would claim his life. In order to provide for his wife and family after his death, Grant wrote his memoirs, sometimes in excruciating and unremitting pain. So, the ex-President needed money, and this book provided him and his family a comfortable post-Presidency income.
But the final thought I have is of Bill Clinton in 2006, not in 2001, when his second term ended, or in 2004, when the book came out. And ultimately it is a very sad thought. I think his two terms as President, in the midst of vitriolic and poisonous relationships with Republicans, actually weakened him and may kill him prematurely. He is only 60 years-old now, but he has aged at least a decade since he left the White House 5 1/2 years ago. His serious heart condition may only be a temporary setback, but then again it may sap him of his remaining energy. If so, he would have given his life to the American people in a time when the radical Right was in the ascendancy but before they (temporarily) triumphed. In my judgment, however, Bill Clinton made many of the Republicans who now stomp on his memory rich. He helped them realize their dreams of financial independence. Maybe, ultimately, that is why they can never forgive him.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long