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The Nation

Bill Clinton's 'Life' and Times

His memoir reveals details of his journey from troubled youth to improbable rise to the presidency and impeachment battle.

June 23, 2004|David G. Savage and Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The story of "My Life," as told by Bill Clinton, is of a chubby, ambitious boy from rural Arkansas who, against all odds, arrives triumphantly at the height of power in Washington only to run up against a partisan, right-wing movement determined to drive him from the White House.

And 957 pages after it begins, the battle-scarred president has survived, still a bit awed that his "improbable life" has turned out so well.

"My life in politics was a joy," he writes in his much-publicized memoir, which went on sale Tuesday after a media buildup that included appearances by the former president on "60 Minutes" and "Oprah" and the cover of Time magazine. "I loved campaigns and I loved governing."

His polished good cheer aside, Clinton describes his presidency as a constant battle against political enemies: While he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, campaign for better healthcare, improved education and to bring peace to trouble spots around the globe, his right-wing antagonists lurk in what he calls "Whitewater world."

Chief among them is Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel assigned to investigate the Whitewater real estate deal, whose "cheap, sleazy publicity stunt" of calling the first lady before a grand jury leaves the president steaming. Starr, he writes, was appointed by conservative judges out to harm Clinton politically. Starr already had publicly voiced support for Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton.

Starr's "bias against me was the very reason he was chosen and why he took the job," Clinton writes. "We now had a bizarre definition of an 'independent' counsel: He had to be independent of me, but closely tied to my political enemies."Clinton also is none too impressed by the Washington press corps, which he said thrives on scandal, whether real or hyped. After six years, $70 million and countless news stories, the Whitewater investigation ended with no evidence that the Clintons had broken the law in the real estate venture.

But the investigation nonetheless nearly drove Clinton from office, because it revealed his sexual encounters with intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

Clinton writes that when the affair and Starr's investigation of it first became public, he thought the political damage might be limited. "I thought that if I could survive the public pounding for two weeks, the smoke would begin to clear, and the press and public would focus on Starr's tactics, and a more balanced view of the matter would emerge," he writes.

In the book, Clinton details the feelings that led him to deny the affair. "I went on doing my job, and I stonewalled, denying what had happened to everyone: Hillary, Chelsea, my staff and cabinet, my friends in Congress, members of the press, and the American people," he writes of the early months of 1998. "What I regret the most, other than my conduct, is having misled all of them.

"Since 1991 I had been called a liar about everything under the sun, when in fact I had been honest in my public life and financial affairs, as all the investigations would show," Clinton continued. "Now I was misleading everyone about my personal failings. I was embarrassed and wanted to keep it from my wife and daughter. I didn't want to help Ken Starr criminalize my personal life, and I didn't want the American people to know I'd let them down. It was like living in a nightmare."

Much of his book recounts Clinton's efforts to settle conflicts abroad. He regrets that he failed to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and calls his failure to capture Osama bin Laden his "biggest disappointment." He says he is sorry he did not intervene to halt the Rwandan genocide.

Clinton portrays his efforts against Al Qaeda as vigorous. He tells of authorizing the CIA to use lethal force against Bin Laden and asked the Pentagon and his anti-terrorism aides to develop plans to drop commandos into Afghanistan, although "it was clear to me that the senior military didn't want to do this."

He writes of telling President-elect Bush that the most pressing security threats were Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. By contrast, Bush's advisors "believed the biggest security issues were the need for national missile defense and Iraq."

"He listened to what I had to say without much comment," Clinton writes of Bush, "then changed the subject to how I did the job. My only advice was that he should put together a good team and try to do what he thought was right for the country."

While Clinton's presidential years will be familiar to those who lived through the 1990s, his story of his early years will strike many readers as revealing, detailed and personal.

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