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June 23, 2004
In 'My Life', They Love Him Less

Bill Clinton's new autobiography, My Life, should have had a ready-made audience, at least among the left-leaning intelligentsia. After all, his presidency still remains the gold standard for the left, eight years of supposed peace and prosperity that turned out to be an illusion, one revealed to us all on 9/11 as the culmination of a series of attacks in a war we refused to recognize being waged against us during his presidency.

At any rate, his personal popularity remains high among the literati, which one would expect to receive his new book with heightened sympathy. If this was ever so, then it speaks even more ill of Clinton's efforts. The New York Times, which still spends prodigious amounts of ink defending his presidency, savaged My Life earlier this week:

The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history.

In many ways, the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration.

Now the Washington Post has weighed in on the weighty tome (950 pages) in not one but two reviews in today's edition, and neither of them differ much from the Times' Michiko Kakutani. In its lead editorial, the Post notes the prerogative of former presidents to write self-serving memoirs, but casts My Life as an "alternative universe":

Mr. Clinton's new book, "My Life," is also part of a long effort on its author's part to deny, and not just breeze over, his profound disrespect for the law when it inconvenienced him.

In Mr. Clinton's alternate universe, in which many Democrats have also decided to live, his impeachment reflects nothing bad on him but is -- as he put it recently -- "a badge of honor," a defense of the Constitution against the ravages of his Republican enemies. So even as Mr. Clinton's book overflows with apology for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the former president still seems indignant that anyone would have investigated his public misconduct -- that is, his lies under oath, including to a grand jury, and other affronts to the justice system. In fact, you wouldn't know from reading Mr. Clinton's book that he had lied under oath, much less that he had at least tacitly encouraged others to as well.

The editorial ends with a caveat emptor warning, one to which Anne Applebaum adds her own caution, although she acknowledges in her summary that it probably won't make much difference:

It isn't just that it's dull, like so many political memoirs, or that the sections on Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky are weirdly abrupt and uninformative; it's utterly lacking in perspective. Apparently, Clinton dawdled over the book for several years, concentrating on his childhood, and wound up racing to finish the final, presidential chapters this spring. The haste shows. On Page 689, to take a random example, Clinton mentions his veto of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, his veto of the Republican budget, his submission of his own "seven-year balanced budget plan," a conversation with Shimon Peres about a plan to cede territory to the Palestinians, the agreement to end the Bosnian war, an encounter with Slobodan Milosevic, and Chelsea Clinton's appearance in the "Nutcracker" -- all in five paragraphs. ...

For all his faith that he is on "the right side of history," he doesn't engage much with his policy opponents at all, or even acknowledge that they have any arguments worth engaging. The comparison to another former president is impossible to avoid: Maybe Ronald Reagan thought air pollution came from trees, but in the end he stared down the Soviet Union, and that's what he was remembered for. Clinton, by contrast, has left us with mind-numbing lists of foreign trips, throwaway references to long-forgotten political battles, meetings with the pope, Rabin, Yeltsin, whoever. Because there is no central argument, no clear explanation of what his presidency was about, one is left, in the end, with nothing other than an emotional reaction to the man himself -- as always.

Much has been made of the fact that this former Rhodes scholar wrote the book himself, longhand, rather than rely on a ghost writer or biographer for the heavy lifting. However, had anyone remembered Clinton's predilection for self-aggrandizement, they would have considered a ghost writer to be the remedy for heavy lifting at the end of the process.

And this is what Clinton's natural allies say about his book. Imagine what his old opponents will be saying about it ... if they can manage to finish it.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 23, 2004 7:05 AM

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