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Strolling Memoir Lane

'I don't spare myself in this book,' Clinton tells a BookExpo America crowd about 'My Life,' which will be released this month. 'It's a pretty good story.'

June 04, 2004|John Beckham | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — When he graduated from law school, Bill Clinton set himself a goal: Whatever else he accomplished in life, he wanted to write a great book.

His much-anticipated memoirs, "My Life," will be published June 22. "I have no earthly idea if it's a great book," Clinton told hundreds of booksellers gathered here Thursday night. "But it's a pretty good story."

And the publishing world expects it to be a bestseller.

Thousands of bookstore managers, authors and librarians -- fresh from seminars on such topics as "The Outsourcing of Inventory Management" and "The Art of Crafting the Perfect Pitch" -- packed Clinton's keynote speech at BookExpo America, the industry's annual convention. They greeted the former president with a standing ovation.

He promised them a book both densely political and intensely personal, which lays out his policy decisions on Bosnia and also lays bare the fear he felt as a boy when his abusive stepfather fired a bullet into the wall a few feet from his head.

He also promised an honest account of his failings, though he did not mention the Monica S. Lewinsky sex scandal that led to his impeachment.

"I don't spare myself in this book," Clinton told the standing-room-only crowd of 3,000. "I take on a lot of water for both the personal and the political mistakes I think I made."

The first half of the book -- which Clinton wrote out by hand, scrawling through 27 notebooks -- tells the story of his early years, intertwined with a history of American culture and politics in the 1950s and '60s. The second half, he said, is "a diary of the presidency," intended to put readers alongside him in the Oval Office as he tried to fulfill his campaign promises while responding to world crises.

"A lot of presidential memoirs, they say, are dull and self-serving," he said, grinning. "I hope mine is interesting and self-serving."

Publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, which reportedly paid Clinton at least $10 million for the memoirs, plans a first printing of 1.5 million copies.

"And I suspect that won't be nearly enough," said Sonny Mehta, the New York publisher's president and editor-in-chief.

If it does as well as people here predict, "My Life" will cap a remarkable run of nonfiction by and about Washington insiders. Former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV have both published bestsellers. Bob Woodward's book about the decision to go to war in Iraq and a tell-all from former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill grabbed headlines and racked up strong sales.

"These are frustrating times and people want more knowledge, so they're going to the stores and seeking out all these political books," said Karen Auerbach, publicity director for Avalon Publishing Group, which put out Wilson's "The Politics of Truth."

Readers eager for more knowledge about the federal budget in the 1990s might well find it in "My Life."

But those looking for juicy partisan digs will apparently be disappointed.

"I don't settle a lot of scores," Clinton said. And in his hourlong address, he sounded a notably conciliatory tone.

Again and again, he urged the booksellers not to get angry or upset about political developments they might oppose, such as the Patriot Act. He did not talk specifically about President Bush's policies or the war in Iraq. But several times, he encouraged the crowd to cut their leaders some slack.

"It's going to take us a while to figure out how to get the right balance" and adjust to the new threats America faces, Clinton said. "You shouldn't be pessimistic."

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