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Clinton's Focus on Personal May Have a Cost

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page A01

For a dozen years, Bill Clinton and his aides have been urging people to get over the obsession with his personal side and pay more attention to his policies. Clinton complained regularly that his achievements got too little notice and the partisan wars being waged against him too much. His aides lectured reporters about playing amateur psychologists, forever analyzing what made him tick.

The publication of "My Life," his memoir, and the unprecedented publicity rollout it has received put the old complaints in an odd new light. This time, Clinton himself enthusiastically has put the spotlight on his inner life and what he describes as his psychological ordeals. In a publicity campaign carefully orchestrated by the former president and his publisher -- and, by several accounts, in the book that goes on sale tomorrow -- the official side of his presidency frequently has been reduced to a supporting role.

In a "60 Minutes" interview with Dan Rather, former president Bill Clinton discussed his marital counseling but also accused independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr of a "political operation designed to bring down the presidency." (CBC via Reuters)

The Post's Ceci Connolly discusses former President Bill Clinton's "60 Minutes" interview with Dan Rather.

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The memoir and promotional campaign have revived an issue that Clinton and his aides often confronted while he was president: How much should Clinton give vent to his personal grievances and feed the insatiable public curiosity about his private life? As president, Clinton usually -- though not always -- decided that doing so was against his political interest. As author, he and his publisher have decided that their interests lie in revelations about adultery, marital crisis and coping with the adult consequences of childhood dysfunction.

But this focus has come at a potential cost. Some Clinton aides who read advance copies of the book concluded that the half about his youth and pre-presidency was told with more flair and evocative detail than the half about his presidency, which was written this spring under the pressure of an approaching deadline.

A book that runs for 957 pages has room for both personal drama and policy, and aides who have read the book as well as news accounts based on leaked copies say the former president deals in detail with such topics as his efforts against Osama bin Laden and his decision to sign a major overhaul of welfare in 1996. But a New York Times writer called the book "a hodgepodge of jottings" that puts an emphasis on "pscyhobabble mea culpas."

Several aides close to Clinton said they hoped that readers drawn to the book by the gossipy appeal of reading what the former president says about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky or the ups and downs of his marriage to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will stick around to read Clinton's argument for the larger significance of his presidency. But they acknowledged there is a tension between historical argument and personal soap opera.

Interviews conducted as part of the publicity campaign have leaned emphatically toward the latter, with Clinton showing little self-consciousness about being on the psychologist's couch. He talked with Time magazine about his lifelong habit of living "parallel lives," one of public accomplishment and the other of private shame, about his "struggle with my old demons." He attributes his affair with Lewinsky to his "unresolved anger" that made him do "non-rational destructive things." Last night on CBS's "60 Minutes," Clinton talked about his marital counseling and also accused former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his staff of unscrupulously waging a "big political operation designed to bring down the presidency."

"They indicted innocent people because they wouldn't lie," he said. "And they exonerated people who committed crimes because they would lie."

Although the book represents Clinton's most extensive effort to date to explain and defend his life and presidency, he has given similar tours of his emotional landscape many times. After his 1998 admission that he had misled the country about Lewinsky, Clinton stood before ministers at a White House annual prayer breakfast and said he had reached "rock-bottom truth" about his moral failings and announced that he was starting regular spiritual counseling.

That same week, he had a meeting with Cabinet members, widely reported at the time, in which he told them that beneath his genial surface he had harbored deep anger during much of his presidency, and that this had led to his lapse with Lewinsky.

Of his anger, Clinton remarked to Time, "I hid it pretty good, didn't I?"

Not that well. His August 1998 speech to the nation admitting that he had an improper relationship with Lewinsky also contained a blast at Starr, despite unanimous urgings from his political advisers that this was not the right time or venue. He challenged Starr then to "stop the pursuit of personal destruction and prying into private lives."

Nor did Clinton disguise his real feelings about former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, another person who takes a drubbing in Clinton's memoir. In 1999, when a reporter asked him about a campaign fundraising controversy, the president shot back, "Yeah, the FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco."

Even the environment of family dysfunction, marked by an alcoholic and sometimes violent stepfather, has been given prominent attention by Clinton before. In the 1992 campaign video, "The Man From Hope," Clinton described a fateful showdown with his stepfather and speculated that growing up in an alcoholic household made him eager to please.

Hillary Clinton, in a 1999 interview with now-defunct Talk magazine, suggested her husband's childhood -- including having a mother and grandmother who tussled jealously over the young boy -- may have led to his sexual indiscretions.

Still, people who have read "My Life" say Clinton deals with more depth and self-awareness about his upbringing than he ever has previously.

Clinton will tape an interview today with talk show host Oprah Winfrey about the book.

His spokesman, Jim Kennedy, said Clinton is eager to talk candidly about his personal background and feelings but asserted that the spine of Clinton's story is about public issues.

"It's not surprising that the media chooses to focus on some things early on," Kennedy said, adding that the "vast majority of the book is squarely focused on matters of substance and history and politics and policy."

He said Clinton's aim was to write a book of "substantial historical and political and literary value that will stand the test of time."

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