Former president Bill Clinton says his admission to Hillary Rodham Clinton that he carried on an extramarital affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky left him banished to a White House couch for two months, but also prompted a season of self-examination and counseling that ultimately strengthened his marriage and gave him greater awareness of the origins of his self-destructive behavior.
In "My Life," his long-awaited memoir, Clinton says the affair revealed "the darkest part of my inner life," which he believes had its roots in a turbulent upbringing, in a family beset by domestic violence, leaving him with feelings of shame and a predilection for secrecy, according to advisers who have read the book.
Clinton's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had hoped to keep details of the book closeted until its official release Tuesday, but the Associated Press obtained a copy yesterday and began reporting details.
Among them was Clinton's recollection of warning President Bush during the post-election transition that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network were the biggest threats to national security, but that Bush said little before changing the subject.
The New York Times, in its Saturday editions, said it also obtained a copy from a bookstore, despite orders from Knopf that sellers not release copies. According to the Times account, Clinton takes aim at a familiar roster of foes. These include independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and former FBI director Louis J. Freeh. The former top law enforcement officer, a Clinton appointee, made common cause with Republicans in pursuing the president in order to deflect attention from his own management failures, Clinton writes.
Clinton also returns in the book to a decade-old decision whose consequences shadowed his entire presidency. That was his acquiescence to demands from Congress and the media that he ask his attorney general, Janet Reno, to appoint a special counsel to investigate controversies stemming from his involvement in the Whitewater land deal. Despite vigorous warnings from his wife, he made the request -- a move that through a long and convoluted trail of events ultimately led to Starr's investigation of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky and whether he lied under oath about it.
Clinton attributes this January 1994 misjudgment to fatigue and grief over the death of his mother, Virginia Kelley. Most of his mistakes in the presidency and life generally, Clinton says, can be traced to moments when he was feeling tired, or angry, according to the AP. In the case of Whitewater, he said he wishes he had instead acceded to requests from the news media, including The Washington Post, that he voluntarily disclose his and the first lady's records on Whitewater -- but resist appointing an outside investigator with an open-ended mandate.
These revelations do not fundamentally reshape understanding of the Clinton presidency or even understanding about Clinton's attitudes about what happened to him during those tumultuous eight years. Even while president, usually at fundraisers and other evening events when he was in a looser and more contemplative mood, Clinton spoke regularly about his battles to overcome grievance and resentment, and to maintain a balance between "light forces [and] dark forces in our psyche and our makeup and the way we look at the world," as he put it in 1999.
As for the confession about Lewinsky, his account echoes the one his wife, now a senator from New York, gave last year in her own memoir, "Living History." She said both she and the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, were often barely speaking to the president in the late summer and fall of 1998, and that she considered divorce but ultimately sought to repair the marriage, including with counseling.
Still, Clinton's book promises to be the most definitive account of a question that has haunted admirers and opponents alike: Why would a leader of prodigious talents and energy imperil his presidency with a sordid relationship with a starstruck 21-year-old office worker? By giving an answer to this, Clinton and his confidants hope public attention will then pivot to other parts of the 957-page book. He intends it as a framing of his historical legacy and what he contends was his success in creating a robust economy and social progress at home and cooperative relationships overseas.
For now, however, Clinton and Knopf prefer that these details remain sealed for a few more days. Lawyer Robert Barnett, visiting London, said: "It is terribly unfortunate that the Associated Press has again decided to breach a clear and unambiguous embargo. There are strong legal consequences to such actions, and the president's publisher has put the AP on notice of that fact."
Knopf paid Clinton a reported $10 million advance, a record. The accompanying publicity bonanza may well set records as well. On Sunday, Time magazine is set to publish excerpts, and that evening's "60 Minutes" program on CBS will devote its hour to a Clinton interview.
Yesterday, the audio division of Random House released the first of five sound snippets from "My Life," which is read on tape and CD by the author. The news bites are being doled out, one a day, to Infinity Broadcasting Corp. and America Online.
In the first audio morsel, Clinton recalls his caught-on-camera meeting with President John F. Kennedy. "It was during this summer with Boys Nation that I first visited Washington. On Wednesday, July 24, we went to the White House to meet the president in the Rose Garden," Clinton says.
"After accepting a Boys Nation T-shirt, Kennedy walked down the steps and began shaking hands. I was in the front, and being bigger and a bigger supporter of the president's than most of the others. I made sure I'd get to shake his hand even if he shook only two or three. It was an amazing moment for me."
The second excerpt will be released today, as part of the publisher's concerted marketing effort. In the clip, Clinton speaks of watching Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on television in 1963. "I started crying during the speech and wept for a good while after Dr. King finished. He had said everything I believed, far better than I ever could. More than anything I ever experienced, except perhaps the power of my grandfather's example, that speech steeled my determination to do whatever I could for the rest of my life to make Martin Luther King's dream come true."
Staff writer Linton Weeks contributed to this report.
"The Hunting of the President," produced by Harry Thomason.