I think I did a good job while reading George W. Bush’s Decision Points in differentiating the man from his presidency. I was able to judge the book not by the character of its author, but by the character of its content, and I came away with an appreciation for the man that I had never had before.
So I was interested to see how Bill Clinton’s voluminous memoir would impact my perceptions of the man and his presidency. A man, incidentally, whose accomplishments I felt far outstripped his personal failings, but one whom I’ve since come to see as having lost most of his luster.
To be quite honest, I’m left feeling underwhelmed with his memoir. This was a seminal time in American history. The 1990s is the pivot point to the 21st century, and the Clinton administration served as a prelude for all that has come afterwards. I mean, that’s technically true of every administration, but there are times that stand out as significant for their setting of the stage for momentous events. Think of the downfall of colonialism as a prelude to the War on Terror. Or the dismissal of Ho Chi Minh by Woodrow Wilson setting the stage for the Vietnam War. There are countless examples. This memoir, this life recounted in great detail, could have served as the prequel to the most tumultuous time of our lives: 9/11, the wars that followed, and the economic collapse. The root of the 21st century is anchored firmly in the 1990s and the choices of the Clinton administration.
But we don’t get that. Instead, we get a bildungsroman. This is David Copperfield with less emphasis on ancillary characters. And, like David Copperfield, there’s tragedy here. The great tragedy of the Clinton administration is that the peace, prosperity, and promise of his administration was squandered so quickly, and that while he may have walked away with an incredible approval rating, his legacy collapsed, at least in part, because of his failure to see the ominous portent that under-cut his reign. And while, in tragedy, there can be redemption, there’s none to be had for Bill Clinton in this book, because he all but glosses over the events the led to our reckoning.
I’ve come away from this thinking that Bill Clinton’s My Life is the Phantom Menace of presidential memoirs. Like that movie, I had an unassailable mountain of anticipation that ultimately left me flailing with discontent and blue-balled frustration. This could have been a marvelous prequel to the modern era; one that detailed the legacy of compassionate conservatism, the atrophied tendrils of Cold War interventionist policy, partisan divide, and misplaced attention on political scandal. This book could have set the stage for one of the most ominous periods in the history of what Arthur Schlesinger called the Imperial Presidency. Clinton could have used this as a platform to set himself apart from the deep nightmare that followed his gilded age of American economic dominance and technological achievement. It could have been a clarion call for strength, openness, and restraint. Instead, we get a timeline writ large; a stale recitation of events given moderate commentary.
While his writing is more than adequate, I found there to be a fundamental shallowness to the entire book. Clinton goes to great lengths to describe a childhood of familial struggle, his early ambition, the romance of Hilary, and the birth of his daughter. But these seem more like textural flourishes to give the text humanity and warmth. The brightest, most energetic moments of the memoir are when he’s talking about the campaign trail or working to get legislation passed through Congress. The people in the book don’t feel alive and real, and their impact on his decisions seem minimal.
Maybe I expected too much from this memoir. To be fair, the title should’ve tempered my expectations. My Life. He clearly foreshadows his angle. Bill Clinton is giving us the story of his life, not the meaning of what he did, or the legacy he gave the world. He isn’t engaging in self-reflection. So my great disappointment may be more a reflection of my own desires for this book than a fair accounting of the work itself.