Right, then. I’d been meaning to say something about this book. I think it’s best to really think of it as two books rolled into one. The first one, about Clinton’s days as a rising politico in Arkansas are quite good. The main limitation here is that it’s a book about Arkansas politics in the 1970s and 1980s which is not the most inherently fascinating topic in the world. Still, I’m interested in the question of where politicians who aren’t just leaping into the family business come from and how they get ahead, so I found this interesting. You get a lot of good memoirish stuff here about Clinton’s relationship with his sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries within Arkansas progressive politics — William Fulbright, Dale Bumpers, Dave Pryor, Jim Guy Tucker, etc. — along with things about his adversaries on the other side, and the friends and allies he made in other states.
The second book, about his presidency, is rather more disappointing. The Starr stuff is fine, as far as it goes, but if you want to read about this you should really read The Hunting of the President and if you’ve read Hunting you really don’t need to hear what Clinton has to say about it. The parts that deal with substantive policy and politics, on the other hand, are really quite disappointing. The trouble is that nothing gets explained, instead you just kind of have this blow-by-blow account of federal government related stuff that happened in the nineties. If you don’t know what stuff happened, you might learn a thing or two. Or else you might just get confused, I couldn’t really say. But if you’re looking to really learn anything about what Clinton thought — hoping to get an inside look at the process — which would seem to be the merits of a Clinton-authored memoir, you don’t get it. It’s just sort of “John said X, Jane said Y, so I did (X or Y) because (John or Jane) was right.” There’s no real account of what happened, arguments aren’t really put forward, etc. The fundamental flaw here is that whenever Clinton is talking about people who are still influential in left-of-center politics he wants to be uniformly nice about them.
One assumes that this is motivated by a desire to consolidate his position as an “elder statesman” in the Democratic Party and to avoid harming his wife’s political career. Those are both reasonable priorities, but the right way to deal with them would have been by not writing the memoir until such time as he felt ready to really tell us what he thinks. Instead everyone is his “close friend and frequent golfing partner” no on turns out to have been an idiot, an asshole, or just really brilliant at X but totally lacking understanding of Y. There’s no bitching and no moaning, which means that there’s no real praise of anyone either, because no one can stand out in the sea of banal niceties.
I would imagine that most presidential memoirs are like this, though I haven’t read any, but it makes for pretty disappointing reading. So far, then, Joe Klein’s The Natural is the best book about the Clinton years of which I’m aware, which is unfortunate, because I think a better, longer, more thorough book is needed. Maybe someday….