I'm Okay, You're Okay
Bill Clinton's Memoir Reflects the Tenor of His Times
Reviewed by Walter Isaacson
Monday, June 28, 2004; 5:41 AM
Editor's Note: This review will appear in the print edition of The Washington Post's Book World on July 4, 2004.
By Bill Clinton
Knopf. 957 pp. $35.00
If each era gets the leaders it deserves, then it is also true that each gets the memoirs it deserves. Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton, avatar of the 1990s and of the aging baby boom, has written one suited for the Age of Oprah.
Like a boomer's version of Pilgrim's Progress, it has a hero who wanders through the wilderness of the Vietnam-to-9/11 world filled with earnest idealism jostling with unabashed ambition, while confronting trials that produce a conflicting mix of self-righteousness and self-awareness. Faith in psychotherapy joins with religious faith in a quest for sensitive personal insights suitable for sharing. As a result, Clinton's 957-page My Life captures and conveys, in ways that are sometimes brilliant and at other times unintentional, the essence of his personality and presidency: fascinating, undisciplined, deeply intelligent, self-indulgent and filled with great promise alternately grasped and squandered.
It is those qualities, too, that make his book a reflection of his day and generation. The Indulgent Nineties, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers, were disciplined neither by a Cold War nor a war on terrorism. It was a time of optimism unleavened by sacrifice. Digitally-driven exuberance produced an economic boom and a psychological bubble. Although Clinton portrays this period as one filled with Herculean struggles by progressive forces to beat back the regressive right, which was occasionally the case, more often the fights were so bitter because the stakes were so small.
Clinton's psychological introspection, rendered in lingo from personal therapy and couples' counseling, is another reason his memoir reads like a period piece. In that regard, it contrasts with the most underrated modern presidential memoir, Richard Nixon's RN, the product of a more emotionally inhibited generation. Nixon's crisp opening sentence -- "I was born in a house my father built" -- stands starkly without further reflection. Clinton's opening sentence likewise describes his birth, but it's clogged with fact-filled clauses and followed by pages of analysis about how both his father and stepfather helped to instill his drives and demons.
Perhaps the best presidential autobiography, or so we were informed repeatedly in the walkup to the Clinton launch, is Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs, which wins this month's Alexis de Tocqueville award for being the book most often cited by people who have not actually read it. Its opening sentence is likewise revealing of the tenor of its times: "My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral." The critic Edmund Wilson called it "a unique expression of the national character." It was helped by having a great editor -- Mark Twain -- who relentlessly pushed Grant to write it, then edited it into shape and promoted it brilliantly. In a blurb that would have dazzled even today's promotion-savvy publishers, Twain called the memoir "the best of any general's since Caesar's."
Which brings up one additional way, alas, that Clinton's tome reflects our times. It is the product of an age of hyper-marketed blockbusters that are rushed into print and hurled into promotional orbit. Clinton was inexplicably pushed by the normally stately House of Knopf to meet an arbitrary deadline, and guessing whether he would meet it became a public pastime. The result is as messy as certain months of his presidency. His beguiling recollection of his childhood is stapled together with a hastily-disgorged data dump on the day-by-day chronology of his presidency that features stretches of unrelated paragraphs beginning with such phrases as, "Also that week . . . "
Despite all of this, Clinton's finished product evokes another quote from Twain: like Wagner's music, it's not as bad as it sounds. His life is too fascinating, his mind too brilliant, his desire to charm too strong to permit him to produce a boring book. The combination of analytic and emotional intelligence that made him a great politician now makes him a compelling raconteur.
Clinton's ruminations on his complex childhood are even more richly layered than Jimmy Carter's delightful childhood memoir, An Hour Before Daylight. Particularly striking is how revealing Clinton is about his insecurities. Back in high school, he recalls, he wrote an essay that still rings eerily accurate:
"I am a living paradox -- deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility yet shirking it; loving the truth but often giving way to falsity. . . . I detest selfishness, but see it in the mirror every day."
His teacher gave him a 100 on the essay and said it was a "beautiful and honest attempt" to fulfill the classical injunction to "know thyself." Indeed, what makes Clinton's book so engaging, sometimes in a rubbernecking sort of way, is his fealty to Socrates' maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. He examines with gusto every aspect of his life. It is, quite obviously, a subject that interests him.
His great insight is how, during his childhood, he developed the character traits that led him to cause, but then also survive, the scandals that dogged his presidency. His stepfather -- "a handsome, hell-raising, twice-divorced man from Hot Springs" -- was a mean drunk who abused Clinton's beloved mother. Clinton recalls one fight when his stepfather shot off a gun, and another when Clinton stood up to him as he was "beating on her" by brandishing a golf club. "Something more poisonous than alcohol drove him to that level of debasement," Clinton writes. "It would be a long time before I could understand such forces in others or in myself."
As a result, Clinton learned how to have a public life in conflict with his hidden private one, how to revel in the world of secrets. "We all have them and I think we're entitled to them," he declares. In a revealing passage, he describes the spiritual crisis this caused when he was 13:
"I now know this struggle is at least partly the result of growing up in an alcoholic home and the mechanisms I developed to cope with it. It took me a long time just to figure that out. It was even harder to learn which secrets to keep, which to let go of, which to avoid in the first place. I am still not sure I understand that completely. It looks as if it's going to be a lifetime project."
One cannot quite imagine Nixon or Reagan, and certainly not Ulysses S. Grant, making such a confession.
Clinton's intense devotion to his spunky mother is the other main theme of his childhood. She told him how her father cried one Easter because he could not afford the dollar to buy her a new dress, so every Easter she dressed little Bill in a new outfit. "I remember one Easter in the 1950s, when I was fat and self-conscious," he recalls. "I went to church in a light-colored short-sleeved shirt, white linen pants, pink and black Hush Puppies, and a matching pink suede belt."
In her own sassy memoir, Leading With My Heart, Clinton's mother wrote about her son's promiscuous appetite for affection. If he walked into a room of 100 people, she said, and 99 of them liked him, he would head for the lone holdout and try to charm him. (This trait is evident in his book, where he treats folks such as prodigal pollster Dick Morris and political doppelganger Newt Gingrich with notable gentility.) She was the opposite, Clinton recalls. "Unlike me, she actually enjoyed making some of these people mad. I tended to make enemies effortlessly, just by being me, or, after I got into politics, because of the positions I took and the changes I tried to make."
The imprints from his childhood both helped and hounded him throughout his life. After giving a detailed and somewhat tortured explanation about how he did not really, truly, or maybe at least not intentionally, wiggle disingenuously out of the draft in 1968, he goes into another riff on his inner life. "My struggles with the draft rekindled my long-standing doubts about whether I was, or could become, a really good person," he writes. "I think this problem arises from leading parallel lives, an external life that takes its natural course and an internal life where the secrets are hidden."
Not surprisingly, these strands all come together, either neatly or messily depending on your disposition, as an explanation -- but not, he takes care to insist, an excuse -- for his less than Scout-like honesty and discipline in Gennifer-Paula-Monica matters. But he makes a forceful case that Kenneth Starr and his other pursuers far exceeded the bounds of legality and propriety. Their tactics, he says, helped him win back Hillary and escape his banishment to the couch.
Somehow or another (the logic doesn't fully track) the whole mess ends up being redemptive with the help of Jesus' famous maxim in John 8:7 so beloved by saved sinners: "I had had a lot of stones cast at me," Clinton writes, "and through my own self-inflicted wounds I had been exposed to the whole world. In some ways it was liberating; I had nothing more to hide. And as I tried to understand why I had made my own mistakes, I also attempted to figure out why my adversaries were so consumed with hatred, and so willing to say and do things inconsistent with their professed moral convictions. . . . My sense of my own mortality and human frailty and the unconditional love I'd had as a child had spared me the compulsion to judge and condemn others. And I believed my personal flaws, no matter how deep, were far less threatening to our democratic government than the power lust of my accusers."
Clinton juxtaposes his personal turmoil with a grander theme, the political turmoil that also grew up in the '60s. The year 1968, he says, "broke open the nation and shattered the Democratic Party" by causing conservative populism to replace progressive populism. "The middle-class backlash would shape and distort American politics for the rest of the century." Clinton saw his mission as preserving the advances that came out of the '60s while preventing Republicans from convincing the public that "Democrats were weak on family, work, welfare, crime, and defense" and unable to "draw distinctions between right and wrong."
Both through his policies and his defeat of the "right-wing coup" attempt, Clinton argues, he was able to hold back the forces of reaction. And by triangulating between the old Democratic left and the Republican right to find "common ground" on such issues as affirmative action, school prayer and welfare reform, he helped to save the Democratic Party.
There is a lot to be said in Clinton's favor on these issues, and though nobody is likely to criticize his book for being too short, he actually could have said more about them. But in his rush to meet his publication deadline, Clinton seems to have sacrificed a more thoughtful historical analysis in favor of pouring every meeting, meal and travelogue into print.
Those of us who someday may struggle to put Clinton's presidency in perspective, indeed those who will struggle to do so a century from now, are likely to be as flummoxed, and as divided, as we are today about the place he deserves in history's pantheon. His book will help if only by reminding us how messy and mesmerizing he and his era were.
But if historians are lucky, Clinton will do what he sometimes does on the golf course and take a mulligan or do-over on the second half of his book. Five or 10 years from now, when passions have cooled and some perspective is possible, he might write a more studied and reflective account of his presidency, not rushing against a deadline. That book would have the potential of being truly enlightening, rather than merely a fascinating reflection of the tenor of our times.
Walter Isaacson is the president of the Aspen Institute and author of "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company