The Places Beyond A Biographer's Reach
By David Maraniss
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page B01
A skilled biographer, acknowledging the limitations of his craft, once noted that nine-tenths of a human life remains essentially unknowable to an outsider. It is uncharted land, hidden from view, experienced only in the mind of the individual. The truth of that statement is apparent enough when you think about your own daily existence and all the things that run through your consciousness that you never tell anyone, not even those closest to you.
What people do, where they go, whom they see, what they say, what they create, how they are shaped by the world around them and how they reshape that world -- all these parts of a life are known or can be known. The interior life, however, is harder for a biographer to discover, if not altogether impossible. The closest one gets to this subterranean territory is through oral interviews, diaries, letters and memoirs. Even then, navigating this terrain -- where the subject has a self-interest in creating a certain impression -- can be daunting. It was with these ideas in mind that I began reading "My Life," Bill Clinton's autobiography.
Neither the megahype surrounding the book's release nor the early blast of blistering reviews meant much to me. I figured that the book, like most things Clintonian, would offer far less than the publicity machine promised but far more than the harshest critics allowed. As a Clinton biographer, my essential question was whether his 957-page chronicle would provide a road map into his interior life, to the places I could not reach during the three years I researched my book on him. Along with his private thoughts, I knew there was material out of reach to contemporary historians, including leatherbound diaries that he kept for several years and filled front to back, as well as periodic oral interviews he conducted in the White House with his friend Taylor Branch, a first-class historian. I hoped he would draw on all that to take me further into himself and, in so doing, explain his life and political career in ways that I couldn't see before.
I was not reading the book as a reviewer, to see whether it was well written or rushed. I approached it as an archival document, and judged solely on those terms, the book is both frustrating and fascinating. Clinton fails to use his letters, diaries and interviews as much as he might have to paint a vivid account of his inimitable life; too much telling and not enough showing. But the first half of the book especially, covering his days before he became president, deepened my understanding of him, altered some of my long-held assumptions about his interior life and, in so doing, changed how I viewed his time in the White House as well. I began the book thinking of Clinton as an irrepressible optimist fighting against the darker side of his nature, but finished it seeing him more as an instinctive pessimist who had to force himself to think well of himself and the world around him.
It was often said of Clinton during his political years that he tried to be all things to all people. From reading his memoir, and even taking into account that a memoir is by its very nature manipulative, this trait seems less phony, more an inherent part of his personality. "I am a person motivated and influenced by so many diverse forces I sometimes question the sanity of my existence," he wrote as a high school junior in Hot Springs, Ark. In that same autobiographical essay, which he considered important enough to revisit more than four decades later in "My Life," Clinton showed an early self-awareness of his duality: "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 times giving way to falsity . . . I detest selfishness, but see it in the mirror every day . . . I view those [people], some of whom are very dear to me, who have never learned how to live. I desire and struggle to be different from them, but often am almost an exact likeness." While coming-of-age angst is not uncommon, in Clinton's case this long-ago essay seemed to reflect something more, an early articulation of the contradictions he would struggle with throughout his life.
There is a flitting scene from the chapter about his two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar that might seem mundane, almost a throwaway, yet it helped trigger my reconsideration of what I took to be Clinton's essentially optimistic nature. On Page 138 he describes moving into a second-floor cold-water flat in Helen's Court at University College. He associates this memory with a day 33 years later when his daughter, Chelsea, arrives to study at Oxford and he helps her unpack in a dorm within sight of his old rooms. Returning with his daughter to this haunt from his past, he writes, "was one of those priceless moments when the sunshine takes away all life's shadows."
The sunshine I understand completely; but why, in the warmth of that moment, bring up all life's shadows? It seems more than wistfulness, longing or bittersweet regret for the passage of time -- emotions one might expect. There is a melancholy to it that is echoed again near the close of that chapter, when Clinton quotes from the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and says that he is going home to Arkansas, where he hopes he can "take a sad song and make it better."
That Clinton views life as a struggle between sunlight and shadows is a familiar theme. In my research, I had come across a guest lecture Clinton had delivered at the University of Arkansas in which he discussed Willie Stark, the corrupt populist governor of Robert Penn Warren's novel, "All the King's Men," as well as other political characters in literature. All of them, he told the students, were powerful combinations of darkness and light -- the darkness of insecurity, depression, family disorder. In great leaders, he told them, the light overcame the darkness.
But that scene with Chelsea made me think, for the first time, that he considers darkness the rule for himself, and sunshine the exception, which is not an optimist's perspective. One of my favorite explanations for Clinton's amazing survival skills was that he was a naturally optimistic Baptist who awoke every day, forgave himself for his failings and started over. Now I see how facile that answer was. The getting up and forgiving might be more difficult for him than I thought.
One summer night during the 1992 presidential campaign, when I was interviewing Clinton about spiritual questions, he said that what he yearned for most, but had great difficulty achieving, was a feeling of integration of mind, body and spirit. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant. After reading his memoir, I think I have a better idea. At various points in his book, he says during his teenage years, when he was living with his abusive, alcoholic stepfather (Roger Clinton, his mother Virginia's second husband), he began to understand that he was leading parallel lives. His gregarious public life of "friends and fun, learning and doing" hid a secret internal life "full of uncertainty, anger and a dread of ever-looming violence."
This interpretation, a prominent theme in his promotional interviews with Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey, resonated with me. Without using the specific term in my biography, I often cited this duality as the reason he could perform so well on occasions when most people would crumble; for example, how he could deliver a State of the Union address unflappably only a few days after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke. But for the most part, I thought of his parallel lives as a means of helping him keep going during difficult times, and I underestimated the depth of his self-doubt. It was not some Zen-like state of grace that Clinton longed for when he talked about integrating mind, body and spirit. He just wanted to believe that he could be a good person, someone approximating the image he tried to present to the world.
This struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth, which seems so contrary to the "sunny disposition and optimistic outlook" that he presented to the outside world, runs through the book. In his 11th-grade essay, he writes about the "disgust" that "storms my brain." He returns to that theme in his account of the period in 1969 when he was trying to figure out how to handle the military draft. He opposed the war in Vietnam and did not want to serve, but felt guilty about maneuvering to avoid the draft. "My struggles with the draft rekindled my long-standing doubts about whether I was, or could become, a really good person," he writes.
In assessing his parallel lives, he realizes that he could come closest to integrating mind, body and spirit during those occasional periods when he was relatively free from tension and anxiety. He felt that way during his college years at Georgetown University, for instance, after he made peace with his dying stepfather. But when he faced a dilemma, such as the draft, "the old demons of self-doubt and impending destruction reared their ugly heads again," he writes. The last thing he wanted was for the outside world to see those demons, which he says he tried to keep hidden in the "deepest recesses" of his internal life.
"It was dark down there," he tells us, in what I found to be the simplest, most chilling declarative sentence in the book.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company