June 20, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Don’t let the jacket fool you.

Though it beckons with a warm photo of Hillary Rodham Clinton and what looks like a handwritten title, Living History is very much a political memoir, not a personal one, and throughout its 562 pages, the former First Lady maintains the same cool demeanor that was in evidence during her interviews with Barbara Walters and Katie Couric. To her credit, Clinton realizes such reserve can be intimidating: ”Eleanor Roosevelt’s observance that every woman in political life must ‘develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide’ had become a mantra for me…. No doubt my armor [has] thickened over the years.” Later she admits, ”I am not the sort of person who routinely pours out her deepest feelings, even to my closest friends.”

In other words, if you’re looking for introspection, you won’t find it here. And as for dish, forget it. Gennifer Flowers? Her name appears exactly once, and the entire episode is briskly dealt with in fewer than two pages. Paula Jones gets marginally more. Monica Lewinsky, of course, wins the most space of all, and Clinton does work up some real outrage for her husband — she ”wanted to wring Bill’s neck.”

But, mostly, this is a straightforward account, first of Clinton’s childhood, then of her years at Wellesley and at Yale Law School, where she met Bill Clinton. Writing about their wedding, she muses in typical fashion, giving nothing away: ”After all that has happened since, I’m often asked why Bill and I have stayed together…. All I know is that no one understands me better…. Bill Clinton and I started a conversation in the spring of 1971, and more than thirty years later we’re still talking.” She quickly dispatches their years in Arkansas; they’re installed in the White House by page 124. From that point on, it’s a fairly tedious march through health-care reform, Travelgate, Whitewater, and so on. There are personal reminiscences, to be sure — lunching with Jackie Onassis in her Fifth Avenue aerie, eating pig ears and moose lips with Boris Yeltsin — but these crop up randomly. Clinton musters the most passion when discussing policy issues like women’s rights.

One moment of painful honesty occurs the day Bill tells her about Monica, though she concludes on an odd note: ”I will never truly understand what was going through my husband’s mind that day…. Why he felt he had to deceive me and others is his own story, and he needs to tell it in his own way.” That sure sounds like a plug for Bill’s book, for which Knopf paid over $10 million. He has yet to deliver a manuscript. They’re wringing their hands over its lateness, and understandably so, since even the very best political memoirs are tough sells.

Simon & Schuster is probably just as nervous about its $8 million Hillary investment. Despite the Associated Press leaks and TV hoopla, it seems unlikely the publisher will sell enough books to recoup its advance. Unless…unless New York’s junior senator actually decides to run for President in 2008. Then the book’s blandness, its lack of news, and its endless policy discussions would suddenly all make perfect sense.

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