Walter Isaacson: Clinton's Book Better Than Reported

Roundup: Historians' Take

Walter Isaacson, in the Australian Financial Review, (originally washpostbookworld) July 7 2004:

If each era gets the leaders it deserves, then it is also true that each gets the memoirs it deserves. Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton, avatar of the 1990s and of the ageing baby boom, has written one suited for the Age of Oprah.

Like a boomer's version of Pilgrim's Progress, it has a hero who wanders through the wilderness of the Vietnam-to-September 11 world filled with earnest idealism jostling with unabashed ambition, while confronting trials that produce a conflicting mix of self-righteousness and self-awareness. Faith in psychotherapy joins with religious faith in a quest for sensitive personal insights suitable for sharing. As a result, Clinton's 957-page My Life* captures and conveys, in ways that are sometimes brilliant and at other times unintentional, the essence of his personality and presidency: fascinating, undisciplined, deeply intelligent, self-indulgent and filled with great promise alternately grasped and squandered.

It is those qualities, too, that make his book a reflection of his day and generation. The Indulgent Nineties, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers, were disciplined neither by a Cold War nor a war on terrorism. It was a time of optimism unleavened by sacrifice. Digitally driven exuberance produced an economic boom and a psychological bubble. Although Clinton portrays this period as one filled with Herculean struggles by progressive forces to beat the regressive right, which was occasionally the case, more often the fights were so bitter because the stakes were so small.

Clinton's psychological introspection, rendered in lingo from personal therapy and couples' counseling, is another reason his memoir reads like a period piece.

In that regard, it contrasts with the most underrated modern presidential memoir, Richard Nixon's RN, the product of a more emotionally inhibited generation. Nixon's crisp opening sentence -"I was born in a house my father built" - stands starkly without further reflection. Clinton's opening sentence likewise describes his birth, but it's clogged with fact-filled clauses and followed by pages of analysis about how both his father and stepfather helped to instill his drives and demons.

Perhaps the best presidential autobiography, or so we were informed repeatedly in the walk-up to the Clinton launch, is Ulysses S Grant's Personal Memoirs, which wins this month's Alexis de Tocqueville award for being the book most often cited by people who have not actually read it.

Its opening sentence is likewise revealing of the tenor of its times:"My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral."

The critic Edmund Wilson called it"a unique expression of the national character". It was helped by having a great editor - Mark Twain - who relentlessly pushed Grant to write it, then edited it into shape and promoted it brilliantly. In a blurb that would have dazzled even today's promotion-savvy publishers, Twain called the memoir"the best of any general's since Caesar's".

Which brings up one additional way, alas, that Clinton's tome reflects our times. It is the product of an age of hyper-marketed blockbusters that are rushed into print and hurled into promotional orbit. Clinton was inexplicably pushed by the normally stately House of Knopf to meet an arbitrary deadline, and guessing whether he would meet it became a public pastime. The result is as messy as certain months of his presidency.

His beguiling recollection of his childhood is stapled together with a hastily disgorged data dump on the day-by-day chronology of his presidency that features stretches of unrelated paragraphs beginning with such phrases as,"Also that week ..."

Despite all of this, Clinton's finished product evokes another quote from Twain: Like Wagner's music, it's not as bad as it sounds. His life is too fascinating, his mind too brilliant, his desire to charm too strong to permit him to produce a boring book. The combination of analytic and emotional intelligence that made him a great politician now makes him a compelling raconteur....

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