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Bill Clinton: My Life


My Life

Author: Bill Clinton
Publisher: Knopf

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Thus far, history has been extraordinarily kind to Bill Clinton: George W. Bush's divisive approach to politics and foreign policy can't help but make Clinton's oily-but-effective pragmatism look like a wise and prescient attempt to move beyond partisan bickering and rigid ideology. If nothing else, it's refreshing to hearken back to a time when American presidents traveled the globe trying to resolve conflicts, rather than instigating them. But that's about the only reason to savor My Life, Clinton's overhyped, overlong, excruciating memoir.

To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson's reported take on The Birth Of A Nation, My Life is history written with Sominex, a punishing 957-page bore that lacks wit or insight. In prose that can charitably be described as pedestrian, Clinton manages a powerful act of reverse alchemy, transforming a remarkable life into a punishing avalanche of windy rhetoric and crusty banalities. He whines throughout about how the press glossed over his political successes and fixated on sex and scandal, so he clearly intends My Life as a corrective. But he inadvertently validates the press' obsession with sleaze by illustrating through example the tedium of a history of his presidency in which sex is a non-factor, yet every interchangeable meeting with a foreign leader—all of whom are deemed "intelligent" and "impressive"—is duly, dully noted.

Clinton-hunting Kenneth Starr, My Life's black-hatted supervillain, certainly abused his power, wasted government resources, and unfairly persecuted Clinton for personal failings. But the ex-president makes for such a bland, self-righteous, self-pitying hero that he makes it easy to root for the bad guy.

Clinton overdoses on folksy populism, but there's something condescending and self-serving about the way he uses his beloved common folk—who may not have book-learning, but are awash in homespun wisdom—as props whose worth is proved by their devotion to Clinton, as well as their eagerness for him to keep fighting the good fight. Clinton isn't running for office, but My Life is every bit a campaign book, in which he stays unwaveringly on message and never stops kissing babies and shaking hands. At this point in his career, he's entitled to a victory lap, but he botches his historical moment by making My Life into a traveling salesman's grating hard-sell on why he belongs high up in the pantheon of American leaders.