Grand 'Oprah,' Poor History
By Richard Cohen
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page A25
BOULDER, Colo. -- The good news for Bill Clinton is that his book, "My Life," sold about 100,000 copies at Barnes & Noble stores the first day it was on sale, a record for the chain. The bad news for Bill Clinton is that the book sold about 100,000 copies at Barnes & Noble stores, a record for the chain. The book may make Clinton rich. It will not rehabilitate him.
The pity of it is that Clinton went for the bucks. That's understandable, since he never had much money and left office with a mountain of legal and other debts. But ever since Jerry Ford pioneered the franchising of the presidency -- there was virtually nothing he would not do for the right fee -- huge riches have awaited any former occupant of the White House. Solvency would have come to Clinton, if it has not already, even without his $10 million book advance. Clinton took the money -- and the obligation that came with it: write the sort of book that could be promoted on "Oprah." Clinton more or less did that.
The early reviews have been eviscerating, particularly the one in the New York Times. Its chief reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, somehow managed to read 957 pages in what must have been about a day and pronounced the book a mess -- "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull." Other reviews have reached similar conclusions (although some feel otherwise), but suffice it to say that it is not being universally hailed as a triumph -- a book as brilliant as its author.
My own hurried perusal of the tome leads me to support Kakutani. Although in his acknowledgment Clinton thanks his editor, Robert Gottlieb, for teaching him about "hard cuts," it sometimes seems that nothing has been cut. We get, for instance, an appreciation of the Grand Canyon in late afternoon: "It was amazing the way the rocks, compressed into distinct layers over millions of years, changed colors as the canyon darkened from the bottom up." Nice, but can we move on?
To a large extent, Ulysses S. Grant's presidency was rehabilitated by his memoirs, written as the Civil War general was dying of cancer. Richard Nixon, virtually banished from Washington, wrote book after book from his exurban Elba in New Jersey. Watergate haunted him, as it should have, but slowly we came to realize that he possessed a first-class mind, keenly analytical, occasionally wise. No one could say that Nixon did not have gravitas.
Clinton, too, has a first-class mind -- I have observed him long enough to tell you that -- but this book, and especially the attendant publicity, obscures it. The people who lined up long before dawn to buy a copy were not drooling to find out about health care or the budget. Instead they were seeking a piece of Clinton -- like a souvenir or an autograph. He has emerged as the uber-celebrity of our times, beloved for his good looks, his charm and, paradoxically, the sex scandal that almost doomed his presidency.
I'm not sure Clinton can ever overcome Monica, but once he took that $10 million, he obligated himself to include personal details that would entice the public. He tried to draw a line, as he did in his "60 Minutes" interview with Dan Rather, but the book nonetheless contains fresh details designed to provide news for a voyeuristic public. For instance, he writes that after he confessed the truth to Hillary, he slept on the couch for a while. They devoted one day a week to marital therapy, and he met, as we have always known, with three ministers to restore his soul. You and I may care about this, but history does not.
As a result, the news that initially came out of the book was mostly about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. If there is something dramatically new about the Middle East, I haven't heard about it. If there is something revealing about why health care reform went down in flames, that has not been reported either. Partly that's because the Clinton administration -- and Clinton himself -- was so bad at keeping secrets, but mostly it's because the public's attention is focused on the salacious and personal. A president who makes history is of interest mostly to historians. A president who makes personal mistakes is of interest to us all.
At the Barnes & Noble Bookseller here, a clerk told me that the Clinton book was selling well, suggesting it's not merely a bicoastal phenomenon. If that holds, then there is a good chance Bill Clinton will have succeeded in his financial obligation to his publisher. It is his obligation to himself that remains to be fulfilled.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company