Clinton Biographer: "I'm Absorbed" by His Memoirs

Roundup: Historians' Take

From NBC, the Today Show (June 22 2004):

ANN CURRY, anchor:

As you may have heard by now, former President Bill Clinton's memoirs,"My Life," went on sale at book stores at midnight last night. And as people lined up to get their hands on a copy, the details Clinton reveals about his life continue to dominate media coverage. Well, David Maraniss is the author of"First In His Class," a Clinton biography.

David, good morning.

Mr. DAVID MARANISS (Clinton Biographer): Good morning, Ann.

CURRY: Not only was your biography on Bill Clinton critically acclaimed, but, also, you won a Pulitzer covering the Clinton campaign. So you say that this book,"My Life," that Clinton has written, is vintage Clinton. Why?

Mr. MARANISS: Well, I think so. I was one of those people lining up last night, by the way, so I've been up reading it. And I'm absorbed by it. And when I was writing my own biography of him, I was fascinated by the level of self-awareness he had as a young person about his own contradictions. And I think that this book is absorbing and revealing how deeply he dealt with that at a very early age. There is something on page 58 that I think people should actually start the book with, and it's a letter that he--an essay he wrote as a junior in high school about himself. And it begins,"I'm a person motivated and influenced by many diverse forces. I sometimes question the sanity of my existence. I'm a living paradox, deeply religious, but not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be. Wanting responsibility, yet shirking it. Loving the truth, but oftentimes giving way to falsity. I detest selfishness, but see it in the mirror every day." I think that--that sets this up as a classic human story of someone dealing with their own frailties and trying to succeed and do good in the world. And that's part of the Clinton story. A big part of it.

CURRY: It talks--a big part of the Clinton story, because he does talk in the book, as we've been hearing in all the coverage leading up to the release of this book, about the--his acknowledgement of the parallel lives he lived. Basically, he traced roots back, I understand, to his father's alcoholism and how he would go--be at home at one point with his father and deal with that--that difficulty, and then go to school as if nothing were to happen. But--but, you know, you--you understand him. You covered this man for a long time. D--does he, as far as you can tell in his book, reveal more than we already know about him in terms of his acknowledgment of those parallel lives he lived?

Mr. MARANISS: Well, it's more than he's ever said about it. Whether it's more than we know is another question, because he's been more closely examined in terms of his personal life and his thoughts than probably any president in history. But, you know, that's all from the outside; 95 percent of any human's life is lived internally, inside their brain and, in that sense, we're seeing his own thoughts come out that way and his own revelations. And so I think it's totally worthwhile for that.

CURRY: You--you've also said one of the most honest things you've heard so far has--in all of the coverage leading up to this has been what Bill Clinton said on"60 Minutes" about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, which is--as to why he did it, he said, quote,"Because I could." What do you think this reveals about this man?

Mr. MARANISS: Well, first of all, I think there's far too much made about that one part of this book. I dealt with that myself in my own biography, where people focused just on a few pages of the sex. I think there's a lot more in this book. But I thought that was a very honest answer. It was not that he could get away with it in terms of his presidency, but just that he wasn't thinking. He wasn't thinking about the consequences to his wife or his daughter or his--or his country or his own career. It was just something that he did without thinking. And I think that is the very honest answer that he could have given many years ago.

CURRY: Now, you've read that some of the reviews are--are scathing. The New York Times review calls"My Life""sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull. The sound of one man prattling away not for the reader but himself and some distant recording angel of history." It does appear, I think, to a lot of people, David, that Bill Clinton is trying to define his legacy, that he's preoccupied still today with defining his legacy, and that he cannot feel comfortable letting other people, historians, define what his legacy is. What are your thoughts about these sorts of reviews and this idea?

Mr. MARANISS: Well, Bill Clinton--he has always been seething under the surface about his feelings that he's being misininterpreted or misrepresented. So, of course, he wanted to get this out early. And I think that that critique in The New York Times was true, but it wasn't the whole story. I mean, it is incredibly self-indulgent at times and boring at times. And that's Clinton. He goes on and on and on. But there are also woven through his many interesting stories. And it's all part of his--his attempt to--to define himself. I think every human being has that right, particularly in a memoir. That's what a memoir is, self-definition....

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