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Tiptoeing through the White House years

My Life Bill Clinton Alfred A. Knopf: 958 pp., $35

July 18, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein, The Times' national political correspondent in Washington, D.C., is the author of "The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection" and co-author of "Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival."

Bill CLINTON fulfills most of the demands of the memoir genre in his voluminous, intermittently interesting but ultimately unsatisfying book. The former president produces a few juicy personal revelations. (His alcoholic stepfather once shot at his mother; he slept on the couch after revealing his affair with Monica Lewinsky to his wife.) He settles scores with old adversaries in the political world and the media (especially for the fevered coverage of his investment in the Whitewater land deal). He paints telling portraits of world leaders, offering verdicts both expected (reverence for former South African President Nelson Mandela and assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) and surprising (grudging respect for the late Syrian dictator Hafez Assad). He puts himself on the couch for some amateur analysis. (He explores, at times movingly, the strains between a sunny exterior and an internal life of which he chillingly writes: "It was dark down there.")

But throughout the more than 950 pages of "My Life," Clinton offers little serious reflection on his successes and failures in eight years as president or what his experience means for the future of center-left politics in America. These omissions mark the book as a missed opportunity. Clinton is not only a skilled politician but also a diligent student of politics. He flashes those skills here with acute analyses of political trends and political leaders in the years leading to his election. But he seems to shut down that part of his brain when he turns to his presidency; the book, as a result, stagnates for most of its final 500 pages.

It's too bad, because Clinton may be better suited than any recent occupant to explain what the Oval Office feels like from the inside. In conversation while president, he could be captivating on the presidency itself. On how a president builds consensus for change, how he accumulates and leverages influence and how he copes with uncertainty, Clinton had thought seriously about how his strategies compared with his predecessors'. Once during an interview, I read Clinton a quote from "Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department," Dean Acheson's magisterial memoir about his years as one of the architects of America's post-World War II foreign policy. Of his time in government, Acheson wrote: "Not only was the future clouded, a common enough situation, but the present was equally clouded.... The significance of events was shrouded in ambiguity. We groped after interpretations of them ... and hesitated long before grasping what now seems obvious."

I asked Clinton if he ever felt that way. "Absolutely," he answered. "I think this is a time when we have to be highly flexible. We have to be willing to admit when we make a mistake and change course." Does that mean, I continued, that like Acheson's generation, he had resigned himself to uncertainty about whether he was pursuing the right course? "Absolutely," he said again, more insistently. "What I want people in this country to feel about our administration [is] ... not that we have all the answers, not that we can solely foresee the future, not even that we won't make mistakes, but [that]

Don't look to "My Life" for many such insights about the nature of leadership. Instead, more like the current president, Clinton rarely acknowledges confusion or doubt. He reflexively defends the vast majority of his decisions. He accepts the unavoidable conclusion that he tried to do too much during his first two years and acknowledges that the 1994 election might have turned out better if he had advanced welfare reform sooner, once his healthcare plan stalled. But for long stretches the book reads as if Clinton were still at the White House podium selling the talking points he or his staff had devised that morning, as if he were still campaigning.

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