Tuesday, June 22, 2004; 2:00 PM
In his 957 page memoir President Clinton attempts to both explain and defend his life and presidency. The book, "My Life" went on sale today, with many stores opening at midnight to assist eager readers
Washington Post staff writer John Harris took your questions on Clinton's memoir, the promotion of the book and the ex-President's discussion of his policies.
The transcript follows.
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You know Bill Clinton better than most. Given his track record, why should we consider anything in his memoirs to be truthful?
John Harris: His book honestly reflects his view of the world, and what happened to him in the presidency. You want to know what he thinks in private conversations--you can read it here. This the authentic Clinton.
I think that people who are not inclined to accept his version of events or his judgments are going to be very busy picking apart lots that he's written, if they are so inclined.
I always appreciated your insightful coverage of the Clinton Administration, and I am looking forward to your book on President Clinton. The former President's book is close to 1,000 pages long and just recently became available to reporters and others. Can you honestly say that you've read every page? And do you believe that all these so-called Clinton experts appearing on cable news shows in recent days have really read the book?
John Harris: I have not given the book anything like the sustained reading that I will once I have more time. And I'll certainly be reading it carefully to reconcile the research from my own book with what he has written.
On deadline, the best one can do is what I did--skim through the book as attentively as possible given the limited time, and read more carefully the passages that look newsworthy.
I'm sure these experts, real and alleged, you mention were to some degree winging it.
Do you think President Clinton's memoir is going to be
successful in how future generations will remember him?
In other words, is he trying to improve his legacy?
John Harris: He's trying to make his case for the historic significance of his presidency, as most presidents do if they are alive and in good health for their post-presidential years.
What I think is worth remembering is that historical judgments are never final--they are fluid. Presidential reputations rise and fall, and are seen through the prism of current events. We've already seen a compressed version of this phenomenon in the four years Clinton has been out of office. The presidential pardon controversy looked at the time that it might mar his legacy in significant and permanent ways. I'm not suggesting that this is not still an important controversy for some people, but it has receded quite a lot in popular memory, it seems to me.
The very different policies of the Bush administration, both domestically and overseas, have put the Clinton years in sharper relief for many people--and at least Democrats look back on his presidency with real yearning.
I just started another Clinton book-- Sidney Blumenthal's book, "Clinton Wars." It, too, is very long (and HE was never elected). Even so, I think it's good-- more historic (i.e., connecting Clinton to other political trends, comparing presedencies) than I had thought. Your thoughts?
John Harris: I, too, enjoyed Sidney Blumenthal's book, though I found its arguments a bit tendentious in places.
Clinton's book has the same point of view as Sidney--they both believe the right acted in illegitimate and even scandalous ways to undermine his presidency. Sidney's book is more analytical--and, I must say, more coherent in its argument--in the description of the political and historical forces at work in what he calls "The Clinton Wars."
I suppose this isn't surprising. He's an experienced author, while former President Clinton is not--he's really just telling his story in a more conversational style.
Forget this Monica stuff. What does Clinton say about the first World Trade Center bombing? The African embassy bombings and USS Cole? Does he talk about VP Gore's role in the NSC meetings? Was Gore more of a hawk or a dove?
John Harris: Clinton deals with all these questions, though not (at least on first reading) with revelations that significantly expand our understanding. We knew his essential view--that he recognized the threat of Osama bin Laden, and was deeply frustrated that the missile stikes he launched in retaliation failed to kill him. On the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, he says "we all thought it was the work" of bin Laden and al Quadea, "but we couldn't be sure" in time to retaliate in any way that was likely to be effective before he left office a few months later.
Gore is consistently hawkish on most questions of use of force, including in the two Balkans episodes--Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999.
Thank you for taking my question.
As I have been hearing all of the hype that has be been going on about this book, both right and left sides seem to be very decisive about this book. What is it about Bill Clinton that makes enable people to have such a passionate view (either good or bad) about him?
John Harris: This is one of the lasting questions about Clinton, and I've never answered it to my satisfaction. After all, his policies were--at least from 1995 onward--very centrist, in ways that should not have excited such ideological fervor.
People seem to respond to him personally, as you suggest.
I think his admirers see someone with great humanity and authentic concern for average people and how they are affected by government. They also see someone who never gives up in the face of adversity, which surely is a laudable trait.
I think he drives his critics to such distraction for two reasons, apart from his policies. They seem his as representative of a shift in culture and morals from the 1960s that they did not like at all. And, they also see him as a phony--who does not reliably tell the truth, or take responsibility for his words or actions.
He always was, and clearly remains, a Rohrschack test.
Mt. Prospect, Ill.:
My book is on its way from Amazon. What does Clinton say about Gore? I'm wondering if Gore boycotted the portrait unveiling because he saw or heard that he does not come off very well in Clinton's book.
John Harris: He speaks very favorably of Vice President Gore's abilities and contribution to the administration, as I have always known him to do in public and private settings. He very genuinely wanted Gore to win in 2000, and was hugely frustrated by what he thought was the ineffective way Gore made the case for himself.
The book is disappointing, at least to me, in that Clinton does not address in more than a glancing way the complexity of his relationship with Gore, and what in his view led to a clear estrangement between the two men in 1999 and 2000.
While I haven't read the book so mine is a very uninformed opinion...but don't some of the reviews strike you as being a bit harsh and condescending. Has Clinton received any praise for actually, you know, writing his own autobiography? It's my understanding that he wrote it out in longhand on legal pads -- a bit more effort I would imagine that George W. Bush put out while "writing" his autobiography "A Charge to Keep" which was actually written by Karen Hughes.
John Harris: As a first-time author myself, I am quite sympathetic to your comment. Clinton deserves credit for writing his story, and doing it clearly in his own words. This is not an "as told to" book.
That said, I was frustrated by some of the same things some reviewers have noted: He covers so much ground, and bounces from topic to topic in such a haphazard fashion, that the analysis and perspective I hoped for sometimes suffers.
Clinton said he fashioned his narrative, which reads almost like a daily diary in places, so that readers would get a sense of the demands of the presidency--on any given day, it's not one problem, it's a half-dozen problems, all landing simultaneously. I think he does succeed in conveying that.
What difference do memoirs make? All this commotion, but I don't hear anyone going around using the Edmund Morris book to assess pro or con about Reagan's legacy... nor do I hear anyone mention "Keeping Faith" when assessing the Carter presidency.
I mean it is Clinton's perception of the situation....
John Harris: I think presidential memoirs are important. They put facts and recollections on record. In Clinton's case, there are not blockbuster revelations, but there is his version of events, and that is very important for historians to have.
Of course no memoir, nor any other book is the last word. "History is an argument without end," said Pieter Geyl, a Dutch historian.
On the Reagan presidency, my former Post collegue Lou Cannon is probably still regarded as the authoritative voice. The Morris book was marred by controversy over his story-telling style, which included fictional inventions.
Is the book well-written? Are there lots of inside stories about world leaders and events?
John Harris: The section on his Arkansas youth is well-told, in my view, and gives you a sense of what it was like growing up when and where he did.
The best sections, to my mind, in the section on the presidency do tend to be his observations on diplomacy. His stories about the Camp David negotiations, which as Clinton tells it came close to an accord but then collapsed in the face of Yasser Arafat's intransigence, are compelling.
Clinton claims the fighting terrorism was ?his highest priority' yet so many facts show that even if this was true, he failed miserably. Does Clinton address any of the communication problems on Air Force One on 9-11? Surely, if Clinton was telling the truth about his priorities, making sure Air Force One could communicate freely with the White House bunker would be important. Or did Clinton think the terrorist would only strike when Clinton was at home in the White House and it was not necessary to fix the phones on the Presidential plane?
John Harris: He does not address the Air Force One question, unless I missed it.
While he writes a lot about terrorism and what he did about it, he does not address what I think is the central question. Given how clearly he perceived the terror threat--and he was giving speeches about it starting from early in his presidency--why did he not succeed in getting the vast apparatus of government beneath him, including the FBI and CIA, to share his urgency and organize themselves accordingly?
One of the media reports indicate that Clinton was ?harsh on his Chief of Staffs' can you give us historical background of who Clinton had for COS for what years and were the reasons for them leaving the job? Were there public reasons like ?spend more time with my family' and political and personal reasons behind the scenes? It is hard to remember eight years later?
What are Clinton's criticism of his Chief of Staff?
John Harris: Clinton had four chiefs of staff, and writes quite favorably of all of them.
He said his first, Arkansas friend Mack McLarty, ran into trouble early for the same reason he did--they were new to Washington and did not understand the political culture here. But he believes McLarty was more effective and did more good than he gets credit for.
Leon Panetta replaced McLarty, and served to the end of the first term, a logical jumping-off point.
Erskine Bowles was by his own admission never a real Washington creature, and was quite disheartened by the 1998 scandal, but Clinton gives him a lot of credit--as did most reporters at the time--for helping push through the 1997 budget agreement, one of the rare bipartisan deals of the Clinton years.
The final chief of staff, John Podesta, is a skilled political operative, much more partisan than Bowles, and he carried Clinton through impeachment and to the end of his term.
Does Clinton discuss the genocide in Rwanda in his memoir? This was one of the most horrific slaughters in modern human history and I am curious as to the President's reflection.
John Harris: He does discuss it, to say that not intervening was one of his biggest regrets as president. Like most who have studied this, he observes that the failed Somalia initiative the year before limited political support for doing more there.
He does not explore his decision or non-decision at length, and does not offer detail about the precise circumstances he faced and why the administration chose not to confront the 1994 genocide.
Those seeking to understand this should read "A Problem from Hell" by Samantha Powers, as well as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's recent memoirs. In addition, go on the web and find an excellent site that the documentary show "Frontline" did on this.
Why is it that Clinton spends about half his book on his difficult childhood and then blames his Lewinsky affair on his deceased step-father's (Roger Clinton) alcoholism? Hasn't Roger Clinton been blamed enough already for stuff that happened when he was alive?
Why not blame the White House staff for not looking out after the president's well-being and for allowing their boss to become overworked and under-rested?
John Harris: I think to be fair to what Clinton has written and said in interviews, he is not casting blame on others for his actions with Lewinksy, but has gone through counseling to understand the origins what he calls his "personal demons."
While president (though not that I read in the book), he did blame his staff for overscheduling him...but then he was always the one to later insist on adding more events and appearances to the day.
William Jefferson Clinton, was the product of a broken home, worked his way into Yale and Georgetown Law, rose to become a state attorney general and governor, and later became the President of the United States.
Regardless of his sex scandal, why did the right hate him so much? He lived the American success story.
John Harris: I agree he's had a remarkable life story, and he is clearly an American original.
I think it's also clear the country is going to be arguing about Clinton, and his wife, for years to come.
Thanks for the good questions.
Does Bill Clinton give any credit at all to the Republicans taking over Congress in 1994 for their role in pushing a balanced budget or Welfare Reform?
Or does he think a Congress controlled by Democrats would have achieved either accomplishment?
John Harris: He maintains he wanted to do these things even before the Republicans came to power.
He's pretty sparing in any credit to the other side, though he has a few nice words about Newt Gingrichs' intelligence and understanding of politics and America's role in a modern world--before going on to criticize him as ruthless and driven by a lust for power.
Thanks for the good questions.
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