Jonathan Yardley on 'In Search of Bill Clinton'
Putting Bill Clinton on the couch.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 26, 2008


A Psychological Biography

By John D. Gartner

St. Martin's. 466 pp. $26.95

At the end of his introduction to this "psychological biography," John D. Gartner denies that he was wholly "seduced" by Bill Clinton, "the great seducer," which will come as quite a surprise to anyone who has read the preceding 13 pages -- not to mention anyone who manages to make it all the way to the end, more than 400 pages later. In Search of Bill Clinton does have its interesting moments and occasional insights, not all of which are in Clinton's favor, but overall it borders on hagiography, the work of someone who at times appears to be in the grips of a schoolboy crush.

Yes, I know, Clinton does have that effect on people. It has never been my good fortune to come within striking range of his magnetic field, but I know people who have, and they report that the sensation is powerful. "People regularly describe becoming euphoric in his presence," Gartner writes, "as if he were a drug," and though "euphoric" might be a bit strong for my friends (at least one of whom is a sworn Republican), there's unanimous agreement that the man is a force, "sunny, optimistic, and infectiously exuberant," as Gartner puts it, able to make the person with whom he is talking feel as if they are the only two people in the room. These are powerful assets for a politician, and Clinton appears to possess them in almost superhuman quantities.

The essential argument of Gartner's book is that Clinton is the beneficiary, and occasional victim, of what he calls " hypomanic temperament, a mildly manic personality that imbues some people with the raw ingredients it takes to be a charismatic leader: immense energy, drive, confidence, visionary creativity, infectious enthusiasm, and a sense of personal destiny," as well as "problems with impulse control, frequently in the area of sex." Gartner, who is a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and also the author of The Hypomanic Edge (2005), obviously has a professional investment in this theory -- and a personal one as well, since he identifies with those of hypomanic temperament. The reader does well to bear this in mind as his analysis of Clinton unfolds.

It's a strange book. Precisely how qualified Gartner is to analyze Clinton's psyche I cannot say, but he has had only one direct contact of any significance with the former president. He managed to get himself into the press entourage that accompanied Clinton on a tour of Africa in July 2007. In the course of that month he was able to ask Clinton only one direct question, as he reports in an epilogue that is so fawningly adulatory and self-serving as to close on a thoroughly nauseating note. He did interview about 80 people, several of whose knowledge of Clinton dates back to his boyhood in Arkansas, but his questioning does not seem to have been unduly probing.

At one point, for example, he describes his encounter with Marge Mitchell, who "might as well have been Bill Clinton's second mother" and who knew his actual mother, Virginia, intimately. He thought she could enlighten him about "Virginia's sex life," which by most reliable accounts was lively, but he "didn't feel comfortable" about raising such a sensitive matter. Finally he came forth with words notable for their lack of boldness: "I've heard rumors that Virginia was involved with a number of men," to which Mitchell replied, "She probably was," and then went on to describe Bill Clinton as "the most loving person." As Gartner was leaving, "Marge grabbed my hand. 'You have a chance to tell the world who Bill Clinton really is. You don't know the favor you're doing the world. And I admire you.' " To which Gartner replied, doubtless with a modest blush: " 'I promise you, Marge, I'll do my very best to get it right.' "

In Search of Bill Clinton oozes with authorial intrusions such as that one. The book suggests that Clinton may be the illegitimate son of George Wright, who was a physician in Hope, Ark., and is now deceased. Gartner expended a lot of effort trying to substantiate that rumor, but, he tells us, "I wrestled with whether this was the right thing to do. . . . And functioning in my new role as psychologist-investigative journalist, a profession which essentially never existed before, I had no precedent or principles to guide me."

When he finally meets Clinton, he gushes that, "for over a year, twelve hours a day, I'd done nothing but research and write about Clinton, all day long, without ever having met the man. Now he was hugging me!" And when he succeeds in shouting a question to the former president, he says Clinton "burst into a luminous, knowing smile, looked at me, and locked his bright blue eyes onto mine. Strangely, it suddenly felt as if he were inside of me, as if there were now a direct neural connection between his eyes and my heart. Others had described Clinton's penetrating gaze to me, but I had never experienced it until now."

Schoolboy crush, puppy love . . . whatever you call it, Gartner's got it, and it infuses this book with a smarminess that just won't go away. Beyond that, one can't get away from a sense that Gartner is out to cut Clinton's cloth to fit the pattern of hypomania, that he comes to his task with too many preconceived notions. To be sure, hypomania as defined herein does seem to fit Clinton:

"The person of hypomanic temperament is filled with a high degree of energy and is very active in both work and other pursuits. . . . They talk fast, talk a lot, and tend to dominate conversations. They are driven, ambitious, and hard working. . . . They are charismatic, persuasive, and attractive. They are charming, witty, gregarious, and good at making people laugh. They like to be the center of attention, want to be the boss, and seek to be the alpha male or female in any group. . . . They are risk takers, who seem oblivious to obvious dangers. They have a large libido, are highly sexually active, and can show poor judgment in their sexual behavior. They seek stimulation and excitement. They have an addictive personality and are prone to both chemical and behavioral addictions. They appear to have poor insight into why some of their actions antagonize others or sometimes produce disastrous results."

While it's unclear whether Clinton fits the definition or the definition was written to fit Clinton, over and over again Gartner uses hypomania to explain, or explain away, Clinton's behavior. He also explores the lasting effects of Clinton's childhood influences: a mother who "had always been his elusive erotic ideal," an unverifiable assertion at best; a stepfather who was abusive, especially to his mother and younger half-brother; a grandmother, Edith Cassidy, who was "aggressive, suspicious, and controlling" but provided stability in a sublimely dysfunctional household. That Clinton had to overcome a lot is obvious, and that he was able to do so is evidence of his determination, ambition and intelligence. But whether the source of these considerable strengths lies in childhood and other formative influences, or in the temperament that is his "normal self," is beyond final explanation, especially by someone engaging in long-distance psychologizing.

At times Gartner's determination to put Clinton on the couch descends from the speculative to the ridiculous. My favorite involves l'affaire Monica Lewinsky: "The psychodrama inside Clinton's unconscious was about to be played out on the national stage: Roger Clinton, the abusive older man who dispensed the whippings, would be played by Ken Starr. Virginia, the exuberant lost love object whom Clinton had long been desperately seeking and now longed for more than ever, would be played by Monica. And Edith, his fierce protector, would be, as always, played by Hillary." Gartner may be on staff at Johns Hopkins, but that's about as close as anyone can get to psychoanalyzing without either a license or a patient.

Which, in the end, is the judgment that must be passed on In Search of Bill Clinton. Gartner has some smart and occasionally thoughtful things to say about this very talented, interesting and infuriating man, but he finds everything rooted in childhood trauma or intrinsic temperament, or both, and nothing in strengths and faults of character. Where does altruism (as in Clinton's anti-AIDS efforts in Africa) end and the thirst for applause and adulation begin? Where is the line between raw sexual appetite and utter shamelessness? Where does self-deception end and mendacity begin?

Gartner thinks he can explain it all with psychological boilerplate. Methinks it's a whole lot more complicated. ยท

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