Based on a True Story

My Life
By Bill Clinton • Knopf • 957 pages • $35.00

Presidential memoirs are among the worst of all literary genres. That is not because they are invariably self-serving and less than wholly honest. Even the greatest memoirs are both. It is because they are relentlessly inauthentic. One can read the memoirs of virtually every postwar president without learning anything of importance about the men who wrote them, even in those relatively rare instances when the man was actually the former president himself. Instead, the reader confronts what is, in effect, an official state document, vetted by many hands, carefully edited to offend no one and to reveal nothing of importance, written with a lofty, statesmanlike dullness. Unsurprisingly, historians writing about recent presidents make little use of their memoirs, and readers wanting to learn about the men also steer a wide path around these books.

But a small number of presidential memoirs are of value to students of the presidency. Richard Nixon's autobiography, reviled at the time of its publication as a dishonest cover-up, is actually among the most revealing books about this complicated president -- a portrait suffused with the tortured resentment, cloying self-pity, subtle evasiveness, and genuine intelligence that formed much of the essence of the man. Likewise, Bill Clinton's new memoir reveals a great deal about this driven, complex, frustrating, but irresistible figure, who ranks alongside John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as one of our most compelling modern presidents.

My Life is a very long book, far longer than it needs to be. It is crammed with detail -- much of it needless -- about almost every aspect of Clinton's life, including portraits of countless people he has met and exhaustive, sometimes tedious discussions of the many policy issues that absorbed his attention as governor and president. Although often self-critical, it is also self-exculpatory. But whatever its flaws, this massive book has one indispensable virtue: It is authentically his. That is not just because Clinton wrote the book mostly himself (reportedly in longhand, on legal pads). It is also because he used the book to explain his career as he actually saw it, with all the sentimentality, anger, affection, frustration, pride, and at times relentless self-examination that make up his elusive character. Although parts of the book are dull, the memoir as a whole is a rewarding and revealing portrait of an endlessly fascinating man. Those who write histories of Clinton and his time -- as many people, of course, will do -- will find this memoir an essential starting point.

Although My Life may seem at first glance to be without clear structure or theme, three distinct stories thread their way through the narrative. One is the role of Clinton's early life in determining the mainsprings of his character. The second is his political career, as a candidate and as an elected official. And the third is the story of his encounters with the many scandals that bedeviled his public life, from its beginning to its official end (at least until now). Many people will read this book with an interest only in the last of these stories, but Clinton makes clear how inextricably intertwined they all are.

Up From Trouble

Clinton's father, Roger Blythe, died in an automobile accident several months before Bill was born. His mother -- a gregarious, fun-loving woman who was seldom happier than when she was at the racetrack -- worked for years as an anesthesiologist (in a time before doctors monopolized the field) to support her son. She married a charming scoundrel, Roger Clinton, had a second son, and weathered two decades of her husband's wild swings between alcoholic abusiveness (he once fired a gun in her general direction during a fight) and penitent amends. Bill, who took his stepfather's name (perhaps as a way to prove his loyalty and affection), intervened to protect his mother more than once. Like many relatives of alcoholics, he learned to hide his family's problems and to disguise his own anguish behind a sunny, garrulous demeanor. Throughout his boyhood, he thrived on the affection he managed to elicit from friends, relatives, teachers, ministers -- anyone who might validate his effort to prove that he was different from the man he called “Daddy” but whom he never fully accepted as a father. Clinton put up with his stepfather and even felt real affection for him. But he adored his mother and was fiercely loyal to his brother, Roger Jr., who weathered the family wars far less successfully than Bill did and ultimately served time in prison for dealing drugs.

Clinton describes his younger self as something of an outsider, separated from others by the secrets of his family and by his self-image as a large and somewhat awkward boy. But he worked hard to be popular and successful, and by the time he was in high school, he had succeeded -- so much so that he began his political career as an energetic and ambitious member of Boys Nation (through which he won a trip to the White House and a now-famous photograph with Kennedy). He also developed enough confidence to dream of leaving Arkansas to attend Georgetown University in Washington, where he was not just a good student but a successful campus politician and an eager aide to his boyhood idol, Senator William Fulbright, whose recommendation helped him win a Rhodes Scholarship.

Clinton's account of his years at Oxford is entangled with his description of how he confronted the military draft, then at its Vietnam-era height. Anyone who recalls the 1992 New Hampshire primary will recall the charges and countercharges that swirled around Clinton's first presidential race and nearly destroyed it. Clinton carefully describes his own conflicted views -- his opposition to the war, his reluctance to risk his life for a cause he opposed, and his simultaneous doubts about the morality (and future political value) of his position. His anguished letters at the time to the National Guard commander who had offered him a position came back to haunt him two decades later, but he makes a persuasive case that his indecision and anguish were real.

The most important event of his youth was likely his encounter at Yale Law School with Hillary Rodham, whom he pursued for several years with a single-minded intensity that he usually reserved for politics. This is a familiar story, in part because Hillary Clinton tells it herself in her own memoirs. What is clear from these accounts is the deep attachment these two talented, ambitious young people developed -- an attachment deep enough to draw Bill away from career and politics to follow Hillary to California during one of their law-school summers; and one deep enough ultimately to persuade Hillary to follow Bill to Arkansas, giving up what would certainly have been a far more luminous career in law than she could hope to find in Little Rock. Whatever the difficulties this marriage and partnership faced over the years -- and there were clearly many -- neither of these remarkable people would have achieved alone what they have achieved together.

Turning to Politics
Bill Clinton's electoral career -- which began with an unsuccessful race in Arkansas in 1974 for the U.S. Congress and ended with his becoming the first Democrat elected to a second term as president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- is a remarkable story. That Clinton began his public life in the mid-1970s, with the United States in the throes of its first serious economic difficulties since the Great Depression, profoundly shaped his outlook. That he began it in Arkansas, a poor state in which working people were paying a high price for the halting emergence of the new global economy, defined his politics as well.

Clinton sensed early how profoundly different the politics of the 1970s and '80s were from those of the heady, turbulent '60s. As a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, he helped craft a strategy that he believed would permit the Democrats to recover from the loss of popular faith in postwar liberalism. He argued that the party must embrace the task of helping ordinary people weather economic change.

Out of this new political strategy came several important innovations. One was the emphasis on work -- on the value of work to both the community and the individual, and on the importance of making work an attractive alternative to welfare and crime. Another was the belief that in the new economy, only those with education could hope to succeed. Still another was the commitment to fiscal discipline, both as a rejoinder to the Democratic Party's spendthrift image and as a strategy for making the U.S. economy competitive in the world.

The most important policy innovations of Clinton's presidency -- some of them thwarted and some of them achieved -- were almost all directed toward the advancement of these goals. The politically costly tax increases of his first year in office were critical to the fiscal stability and booming economic growth that won him re-election in 1996. The failed health-care reform of 1994 was driven in large part by his understanding that employers struggling with the competitive economy of the late 20th century were finding it increasingly difficult to provide adequate benefits to workers. The Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the most effective anti-poverty policies of the last third of the 20th century, was an effort to create incentives for low-income people to work. The 1996 welfare reform -- crafted in large part by Republicans but reflecting principles Clinton had long supported -- was an effort to direct more public assistance toward working people.

Clinton spent most of his presidency in battle with a hostile Republican Congress, and his policy options were heavily restricted as a result. But he became a master of incremental change, using executive powers and what legislative leverage he had to inch public policy in the direction of the work- and education-based philosophy he had helped create. No one will confuse the Clinton years with the New Deal or the Great Society. But the policy achievements of the 1990s were considerable.

Clinton's description of his international policies is more fragmented and less compelling than his account of his domestic efforts. He came into office amid the ruins of old Cold War paradigms and took the foreign-policy helm without a compass. Not surprisingly, he often seemed rudderless, reacting to events as they occurred without framing a clear set of principles to guide him. But in fairness, no one else in those years was able to articulate a clear and compelling philosophy of international relations in a world no longer governed by competition among great powers. And as Clinton's successors try their hand at bringing coherence and “moral clarity” to America's role in the world, the pragmatic, nonideological policies of the 1990s look much better than they did at the time.

“While I was hard at work on foreign affairs,” Clinton writes in his account of his first term, “the new world of Whitewater was beginning to take shape at home.” Some have found his description of the wave of scandals that almost destroyed him evasive and dishonest. But many readers will likely agree with Clinton that the degree of investigation and harassment that his administration faced was without precedent in American history, both in its intensity and in its longevity. Clinton offers several, sometimes conflicting explanations of his plight, and at times succumbs to a sullen bitterness that is out of place with the mainly positive, even sunny tone of most of the book. But at heart, his explanation rings true: Whitewater and subsequent investigations were, above all, the result of a political strategy crafted by the Republican Party and its allies on the right. They feared and resented Clinton because he was so skillfully repositioning the Democratic Party to occupy ground the Republicans believed was their own, and they calculated that he was far more vulnerable on personal than on political grounds. Clinton's own self-destructive behavior gave them an opportunity to move in for the kill, to be sure. But the assault was already far advanced and highly organized before anyone had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky.

It was certainly “vast” and certainly “right-wing” but hardly a “conspiracy.” Rarely has a campaign of political destruction been waged so openly and unashamedly -- and so effectively. That Clinton ultimately survived is testament to his own political skills and to the self-defeating excesses of his enemies. But no one could argue now that he truly won the battle. The Whitewater strategy helped limit Clinton's effectiveness. Perhaps most of all, it saddled Al Gore with unnecessary baggage without which he would almost certainly have won the 2000 election. Should we blame Clinton himself for giving the right the opportunity it was looking for? In part. But there can be no doubt that he paid a far higher price than any other president for tawdry personal behavior.

Clinton writes: “Although I would always regret what I had done wrong, I will go to my grave being proud of what I had fought for in the impeachment battle, my last great showdown with the forces I had opposed all of my life -- those who defended the old order of racial discrimination and segregation in the South and played on the insecurities and fears of the white working class in which I grew up; who had opposed the women's movement, the environmental movement, the gay-rights movement, and other efforts to expand our national community as assaults on the natural order; who believed that government should be run for the benefit of the powerful entrenched interests and favored tax cuts for the wealthy over health care and better education for children. ... I was glad that, by accident of history, I had had the good fortune to stand against this latest incarnation of the forces of reaction and division, and in favor of a more perfect union.”

Self-serving and melodramatic to be sure. But like most of this sprawling, ungainly, captivating book, and like the man who wrote it, mostly right. n

Alan Brinkley is provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University.