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Book review
Confessions of a Policy Wonk
President Bill Clinton's Autobiography "My Life"
By Larry McMurtry
President Bill Clinton, his reflection seen in a glass table top, in the Oval office in March 2000 during a phone call with Ehud Barak, the former Prime Mininster of Israel.
David Scull/The White House

William Jefferson Clinton's "My Life" is, by a generous measure, the richest American presidential autobiography — no other book tells us as vividly or fully what it is like to be president of the United States for eight years. Clinton had the good sense to couple great smarts with a solid education; he arrived in Washington in 1964 and has been the nation's — or perhaps the world's — No. 1 politics junkie ever since. And he can write — as Reagan, Ford, Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, to go no farther back, could not.

In recent days the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant have been raised as a stick to beat Clinton with, and why? Snobbery is why. Some people don't want slick Bill Clinton to have written a book that might be as good as dear, dying General Grant's. In their anxiety lest this somehow happen they have not accurately considered either book.

Grant's is about being a general, in what Lincoln called a big war. Clinton's is about being a president at the end of the 20th century. Grant's is an Iliad, with the gracious Robert E. Lee as Hector and Grant himself the murderous Achilles. Clinton's is a galloping, reckless, political picaresque, a sort of pilgrim's progress, lowercase. There are plenty of stout sticks to beat Clinton with, but Grant's memoirs is not one of them.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton spent most of his childhood in the small town of Hope, Ark., which, culturally, is on the western edge of the South or the eastern edge of the Midwest, depending on which way one happened to be looking. His garrulity, which in the book manifests itself as too unremitting a focus on the minutiae of governance, maybe comes from the South, while his loneliness, his slight out-of-placeness, his seeming inability to get himself to really solid ground, comes from the Midwest, where he would have grown up had his father not rolled a car off the road and drowned in a drainage ditch. He died three months before Bill was born.

Some will object to any suggestion that Bill Clinton might be lonely. Look at what he's done, they might say: Rhodes scholar, Yale Law, five times governor of Arkansas, twice president of the United States, wed and kept a smart wife, sired and raised a decent daughter, gregarious, adaptable to any American occasion, from fish fry to cow-chip throw (a sport that flourishes chiefly in Nebraska). Why, he even plays the saxophone!

All true, but he's lonely, and in the quality of his loneliness lies much of his appeal. And he does have serious appeal. Nothing in this book becomes Clinton so much as his gentle, sympathetic treatment of his alcoholic, sometimes abusive stepfather, Roger Clinton, whose name he took and whom he calls Daddy:

"I was grateful to Daddy for coming to rescue me when I broke my leg. He also came home from work a time or two to try to talk Mother out of spanking me when I did something wrong ... I remember once he even took me on the train to St. Louis to see the Cardinals, then our nearest major-league baseball team. We stayed overnight and came home the next day. I loved it. Sadly, it was the only trip the two of us ever took together. Like the only time we ever went fishing together. The only time we ever went out into the woods to cut our own Christmas tree together. The only time our whole family took an out-of-state vacation together. There were so many things that meant a lot to me but were never to occur again."

Bill Clinton on promotion tour for his autobiography "My Life" in San Francisco
on June 28, 2004. Courtesy AP

Dreiser is the novelist who would best have known what to do with Clinton, although it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that "of all natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one."

Clinton has the vitality, but with it the inwardly angled gaze of a man who sees too clearly the crack in reality, the difference between what is and what might be, a sense born of all those normal things — the Cardinals, fishing, the Christmas tree and the out-of-state vacation — that somehow were never to occur again.

It takes Bill Clinton only 69 pages to work through such disorder and early sorrow as he experienced and get himself to Washington and Georgetown University. In my opinion the crucial decision that ultimately got him where he is was his choice of Georgetown over the University of Arkansas. At the latter he would have been assured of booze, girls and football. At Georgetown he was reading Hegel, Kant, Joseph Schumpeter and others of that ilk; he also quickly found his way to Senator J. W. Fulbright's office, where he was put to work.

Dispatching his youth so quickly leaves very nearly 900 pages for Clinton as Political Man. Not only is politics — local, state, national, international and galactic — the heart of this book, it's also its brain, torso, liver and sweetbreads. Hillary and Chelsea visit often, but this narrative is not about family life or sex, in which area Clinton's failings are acknowledged but not extensively dwelt on.

Clinton holding his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea
Some will want to pick and choose among the scores of mini-portraits of national and world leaders included, like Yasir Arafat and Tony Blair; and others will be equally selective about Congressional dramas and bureaucratic battles. I happen to like long, smart, dense narratives and read "My Life" straight through, happily. I may not know Bill Clinton any better than I did when I started, but I know recent history better, which surely can't hurt.

Once Clinton gets within earshot of serious politics — which occurs as soon as he goes to work for Fulbright — his narrative voice becomes more confident and the story begins to exert its pull. In his second term, particularly, international issues sometimes haunted him. The one negotiation that clearly haunts him still is his failed effort with Arafat and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, not long before Clinton was to leave office. Although bitterly disappointed in Arafat, Clinton makes his report — as is mostly the case — with a great deal of restraint.

When asked to review this big puffy plum cake of an autobiography, I at once agreed, expecting to have the book the next day. After all, we're an A.S.A.P., next-day America now — pretty much everything desirable in the world of goods can be had overnight. But not, as it turned out, Bill Clinton's book. He wasn't finished. He was writing it in longhand. He's still sending in pages to his publisher, I was told.

Sending in pages, in the era of e-mail? Had Clinton become our Balzac, working all night at his office up in Harlem, with haggard gofers bringing in pizza, Chinese, ribs, whatever the Midnight Scribbler wanted? Could there even be a copy boy, making his last appearance in history, waiting to rush these pages down the street to Knopf?

Clinton as a Mid East peace broker
Arafat (right) shakes hands with Rabin at the urging of Clinton on the White House lawn

One of the appealing things about Bill Clinton, at least to literary types like me, is that he frequently reminds me of authors or their characters — for instance, there's Thomas Wolfe, the big ghost from the other side of the South. Bill Clinton looks homeward often, to laud his angel mother, Virginia Kelley.

But why stop there? You can have Clinton as Gulliver, pricked by the Boss Lilliputian, Kenneth Starr; you can have him as Tom Jones, eternally seeking his Dad; you can have him as L'il Abner, wooing his Daisy Mae in the unlikely purlieu of Yale Law School; though to his gnatlike cloud of enemies he will always mainly be the Artful Dodger, the man they're convinced is getting away with something, even if, as is often the case, they can't figure out what.

The one literary figure Clinton does not suggest is Don Juan. From the massive evidence of this book he's still obsessed with politics, as he always has been. Undoubtedly he has occasionally made time for bedroom sports, but not much time. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky may be three of the nicest ladies in America, but their "conquest," however we are to understand that term, does not make Clinton the world's No. 1 ladies' man, or even the No. 1 ladies' man of northwest Washington. From my observation, which has been long and searching, the people who are doing most of the messing around in our lovely capital — les hauts journalistes — are still unable to manage a mature tone when dealing with presidential sex, when there is any.

During the frolicky terms of those serial adulterers J.F.K. and L.B.J., these journalists' lips and eyelids might as well have been sewn shut; by the time their stitches dissolved it was the late 1970's, perhaps not the steamiest time for presidential sex. Jimmy Carter confessed to lust in his heart, which is not where the lustful usually locate it. His wife, Rosalynn Carter, supposedly once told a reporter that if she had had an affair she certainly wouldn't tell him. Clinton quotes the line, in a wistful, wish-I'd-thought-of-that way.

The Reagans — well, let's skip the Reagans. G. H. W. Bush, had he so chosen, could have stepped out without giving a thought to the press, because the press was scared of his wife. Hadn't Richard Nixon paid Barbara Bush a dark Nixonian compliment? Hadn't he said that she really knew how to hate? Certain not-so-subtle sartorial signals at the recent seemingly endless Reagan obsequies — was that a silver jacket she had on? — suggest that she still does.

The reason all the above seems relevant is that the press's much extended pursuit of Clinton — or both the Clintons — is half the story. Perhaps the fact that the press caught Gary Hart with Donna Rice on his lap and immediately chased him back to Colorado emboldened a few reporters — but was that really much of a triumph?

Wilbur Mills, the once-powerful congressman from Arkansas, floundered off into the Tidal Basin with a stripper, but that story didn't really have legs. It was Bill Clinton who had legs — still does — and it's no wonder the press fell upon him with glad cries, which soon turned into yelps of outrage. A yelp or two could be heard just recently, when a select few finally got a look at his book.

Clinton holding Lewinsky
If Bill Clinton had been a prime minister rather than a president this book would have been in two volumes, if not three, and thus not quite such a wrestle. But if he had been a prime minister rather than a president no one would have paid him the reported $10 million for it, however well he wrote.

That somehow a long, dense book by the world's premier policy wonk should be worth that much money is amusing, and brings us back to Clinton's long coyote-and-roadrunner race with the press. The very press that wanted to discredit him and perhaps even run him out of town instead made him a celebrity, a far more expensive thing than a mere president. Clinton's now up there with Madonna, in the highlands that are even above talent. In fact, he and Madonna may, just at the moment, be the only ones way up there, problems having arisen with so many lesser reputations.

And somehow, vaguely, it all has to do with sex — not necessarily sex performed, just sex in the world's head. I doubt myself that Bill Clinton's sex life has been all that different from anybody else's: pastures of plenty, pastures of less than plenty, pastures he should get out of immediately, and not a few acres of scorched earth.

During the silly time when Clinton was pilloried for wanting to debate the meaning of "is," I often wondered why no one pointed out that he was educated by Jesuits, for whom the meaning of "is" is a matter not lightly resolved.

Monica Lewinsky
"My Life" stops but doesn't end. How could it? The Clintons plan to be around for another two or three decades, at least. Before leaving them I might just offer a bit of context. To judge from this book, Clinton has never been able to understand why Kenneth Starr, the special counsel appointed to investigate Whitewater, pursued him so ferociously. The answer is to be found in the soil Kenneth Starr sprang from.

His hometown, Thalia, Tex., lies along what local wits sometimes refer to as the "Floydada Corridor," a bleak stretch of road between Wichita Falls and Lubbock that happens to run through the tiny town of Floydada, Tex. It's a merciless land, mostly, with inhabitants to match. Towns like Crowell, Paducah and Matador lie on this road, and nothing lighter than an elephant gun is likely to have much effect on the residents. Proust readers and fornicating presidents will find no welcome there.

Bill Clinton should check it out. If he makes it to Floydada his understanding of Judge Starr (as he's sometimes called in Texas) will have been substantially increased.

Larry McMurtry is the author of 24 novels, including "Lonesome Dove," winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His forthcoming novel is "Loop Groups."

The above article is from The New York Times.

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