Clinton's "My Life" Serves an Adult Portion
      by  Gene Lyons
     After watching Bill Clinton at relatively close range since 1976, maybe I
should have stronger feelings about him. Everybody else seems to love him or
hate him. Why can’t I get with the program? It was in that spirit I decided to do
what I suspected few early reviewers of his encyclopedic “My Life,” had done:
actually read the fool thing before rushing into print.

     Slate’s press critic Jack Shafer had the same suspicion. He asked early
reviewers, some of whom admitted reading Clinton’s book selectively. He got
no reply from Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic who famously
pronounced it “eye-crossingly dull.” (In the same newspaper, novelist Larry
McMurtry, called it “by a generous measure, the richest American presidential
     Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum told Shafer she’d skipped
Clinton’s Arkansas political career, all 18 years of it. I’d suggest she wouldn’t
have admitted that had he matured in New York or California. Also that the
condescension of status-crazed Washington pundits towards Clinton’s humble
roots has always prevented their crediting the bone-deep egalitarianism that’s
one of his great virtues as a politician and a man. See, Arkansans will tolerate
an awful lot from their politicians, but they will not abide a snob.
      Clinton remains close to many people he’s known since grade school.
He sees them as equals and understands their lives. How many powerful,
self-made men do that? Several times as president, Clinton annoyed the
traveling press by dragging them to Arkansas to attend funerals in remote
locations like Jasper and Birdeye. He interrupted a trip to China to return to
Little Rock to help a childhood friend bury his daughter. Had he begged off,
as most of us would have, nobody would have said a word.
      Like most successful Southern politicians, the boy can tell a funny story.
If you make allowances for his tin ear—at one point Clinton writes of his need
“to recharge my batteries and water my roots” (hopefully not simultaneously)
—the Arkansas chapters read like early Twain. Garrulous, energetic, endlessly
curious, a sharp judge of character, Clinton’s often the butt of his own humor:
he’s the fat kid who tripped and got butted by his granddad’s ram while others
skedaddled; the glad-handing pol who fled an Ozark mountaineer leading a
full-grown bear on a chain, but who told a truckload of Marion County good old
boys he’d get out and walk back to town before he’d chew a plug of Red Man,
only to have them crack up. He’d passed the test.
      He also knows his enemies and what makes them tick: “the self-righteous,
con-demning Absolute Truth-claiming dark side of white southern conservatism…
Since I was a boy, I had watched people assert their piety and moral superiority
as justifications for claiming an entitlement to political power, and for demonizing
those who begged to differ with them, usually over civil rights.”
      Thus “Justice Jim” Johnson, the KKK-endorsed Arkansas gubernatorial
candidate whom Clinton confronted in his student days, only to see him re-emerge
helping peddle fables of drug-smuggling and murder on the “Clinton Chronicles,”
writing columns for the Washington Times, advising Whitewater witnesses, and
accepting emoluments from Richard Mellon Scaife’s “Arkansas Project.”
Thus too, at a politer remove, Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr.

      Clinton’s other great gift, his enormous, almost insatiable intelligence, is
something he’s understandably reticent about discussing. That too excites envy
and contempt from rivals. Always has. Doesn’t seeing so many sides of every
issue render him wishy-washy? No, it often enables him to understand other
people’s arguments better than they do, while also grasping how they FEEL
about what they think.
      A lifelong student of power, Clinton’s accounts of his successful negotiations
to end the Irish “Troubles,” and his failed efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestine crisis
show him at his best: knowing every disputed checkpoint in Jerusalem, and able to
explain Rabin’s political dilemmas to Arafat and vice-versa. When the Palestinian
leader called him a great man he answered, “I am not a great man. I am a failure,
and you have made me one.”

     He’s also smart enough to give simple answers. Why don’t GOP “supply-side
theories work? “Arithmetic.” How would Bush vs. Gore been decided had the
Democrat been leading? “[T]he same Supreme Court would have voted 9-0 to
count the votes.”

      Clinton’s ideology is almost pre-Socratic: Politically, you can’t step into the
same river twice. Get what you can today; come back tomorrow. Here’s what
I’d guess is Clinton’s favorite line about himself: “Say what you want,” wrote
Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin “but do not say he quits.”
      Sure Clinton can be a narcissist, like every other politician who ever lived.
Anyway, McMurtry’s right; it’s a fascinating book about an extraordinary man.
As for his sexual sins, I already knew more about those than I needed to. Didn’t you?

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