Hark to the rustle of paper as thousands of American readers skip 957 pages of text to land on a particular item in the index of Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life.
Ah, there’s the item, Lewinsky comma Monica, and now we flip backward to the little moments of the big sin. Back and forth, back and forth, page to index and back again. It isn’t easy in a book this size and, after all’s read and done, the Monica episode is hardly worth the trouble. All you get for your exertions is a confession by the President of an ”inappropriate encounter” and ever after appropriate remorse. Still, that encounter almost destroyed his presidency, his marriage, his life, and he’s still paying for it every time he appears on a television interview.
(Observe the interviewers, brows furrowed, lips pursed, as they prepare to launch the question — and you know the question. Observe Clinton taking a deep breath, his here-we-go-again resignation, his Herculean restraint.)
Scan the landscape of Clinton’s life — Hope, Hot Springs, Georgetown, Oxford, Yale, Little Rock, Washington, D.C., Chappaqua. Consider his origins and early days, and no matter what your particular persuasion you have to give him credit. No gravy train for Bill. Like Johnson and Nixon, he comes from the school of hard knocks, a hardscrabble life where you climb or expire. The Texan and the Californian never felt at ease with the Eastern crowd, but Clinton, easy in his skin, moved right in.
(In the spirit of full disclosure and adhering to the high moral imperatives of our times, I have to note I am mentioned on page 809. I’ve socialized with Mr. Clinton in three cities: Washington, D.C., Dublin, and New York, and we had a very good time, thank you.)
Remember the story of the little girl returning the book? The librarian asked her how she liked it. The little girl said it was okay, but it told her more about penguins than she needed to know.
Take pity on the future Doris Kearns Goodwin or Robert Caro who sets out to write a biography of Bill Clinton. It was a tumultuous, meaty presidency with all the ingredients of a 13-part television series: humble origins, abusive stepfather who really had a heart of gold, indomitable mother who loved and inspired her bright son, Bill, the ambitious son who distinguishes himself everywhere he goes — and so on. Everyone knows the rest.
What is left for that putative Goodwin or Caro? Clinton supplies enough detail to weary the little penguin girl. There were times when I wanted to cry out: ”Oh, Bill, do you have to tell me, me, that Damascus is ‘the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world’ or that Philadelphia is ‘the birthplace of our democracy’ or that the late Queen Mother, at 93, was ‘still lively and lovely, with luminous, piercing eyes’? Do I need a description of the ring you bought Hillary on your 20th wedding anniversary, that she loved ‘the little diamonds across the thin band, and wore the ring as a reminder that, through all our ups and downs, we were still very much engaged’?”
Enough nitpicking. This is a massive book, more than memoir, more than history. It is, with all due respect to the Pope, the journey of a soul, many-layered, complex, tantalizing.
How did this man, beset and hounded by the crawthumpers in this country, keep his sanity? How did he go about his business, national and international, while trying to save his marriage and tossing nightly on a couch? How, with the attack dogs baying, did he juggle al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Hillary, Kenneth Starr? His life is a field day for future psychohistorians.
The writing? It rolls along, a hell of a good story if you keep the image of the young Clinton before you, with his enthusiasm, energy, curiosity, tremendous brainpower. He has the charm of a John F. Kennedy, the gritty intelligence of a Richard Nixon, the persuasiveness of a Lyndon Johnson.
The book ends on a somber note, the sentences short, simple, almost elegiac. Bill Clinton becomes ”a private citizen again…still pulling for my country, still thinking about tomorrow.”
(Frank McCourt is the author of the memoirs ”Angela’s Ashes” and ”’Tis.”)