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Not Quite Harry Potter | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Not Quite Harry Potter

Former President Bill Clinton can add another line to his résumé: bestselling author.

Clinton's autobiography, My Life, looks like it could achieve sales of 2 million. It had topped the amazon.com sales list even before its release. And by the time it was officially available, at midnight on Tuesday, crowds were lined up outside the bookstores that were smart enough to stay open. Some even had to put on extra help to handle the demand, providing evidence that, even as an ex-President, Clinton is still better at creating jobs than George W. Bush.

But what is the significance of this latest bout of Clintonmania?

Clintonites will, of course, embrace it with delight. This is the moment they have been waiting for--the return of the king, the renewal of the dream, the restoration of the legacy. They will hope that, as Clinton gets more and more exposure in the days and weeks ahead, voters will recall the period of relative peace and prosperity over which he presided. (The Clinton defenders should also hope that no one brings up the damage that Clinton's misguided trade policies did to American manufacturing.)

Clinton haters will groan from their sinecures as Fox News personalities and commentators. This is their worst nightmare--the overshadowing of Bush II by a dynamic Democrat, the contrasting of the competence that was with the bumbling that is, the reminding of the citizenry that Presidents actually can be articulate. They will hope that, as the media focuses excessive attention of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Americans will somehow be duped into believing that Clinton's lies about infidelity were somehow more troubling than Bush's lies about weapons of mass destruction and other so-called "justifications" for war with Iraq. (It is a vain hope. Americans are smart enough to figure out that, as the bumper sticker reads, "When Bush Lied, People Died.")

For most Americans, who fall somewhere between the Clinton lovers and haters, this Clinton moment will, like the period immediately following Ronald Reagan's death, be a time for casual nostalgia. They will remember why they twice chose Clinton to be their President, and why they probably would have re-elected him if they'd gotten the chance in 2000. That does not mean, however, that they will run out and buy the book--let alone read it.

While some commentators, spying the long lines at bookstores and imbibing liberally of the hype, have taken to referring to My Life as "the adult Harry Potter book of the summer," Clinton's sales will never rival those of the boy wizard.

The vast majority of Americans will learn about the contents of My Life not by reading a copy but by consuming some of the constant coverage provided by the media. Those who purchase the tome are likely to sample from the text rather than read all 957 pages. Some of the few who make it to the end will react as did New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who concluded that Clinton's book was "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull--the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history." Others will swear, as Clinton's defenders so frequently do, that they saw a glimpse of Camelot somewhere amid those many pages.

The fair analysis of Clinton's book lies somewhere in the middle. Presidential autobiographies generally fail to illuminate, and it appears that Clinton has maintained the tradition. There are few revelations in My Life. But, even if this book is not a page-turner, it does offer more useful insights into the first baby-boomer President's life and political legacy than even more self-serving memoirs did for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Clinton's recollections regarding the Middle East peace process are poignant; his comments on combating terrorism are more informative and instructive than the grumblings of President Bush or Vice President Cheney. And his complaints about the abuses of process and politics committed by not-so-special prosecutor Ken Starr and his minions merit repetition.

Ultimately, however, this latest Clinton moment will be just that: a moment. It is a summer break, nothing more. In a few weeks, the discussion of Clinton will fade. And Americans will focus again on the contest between Bush and Democrat John Kerry for the presidency. The suggestion that all this attention to Clinton will undermine Kerry is comic. Clinton is a more impressive figure than Bush, that's true. But so is Kerry. And a few weeks of focus on Clinton will, when all is said and done, serve as a welcome reminder that in the none too distant past the United States had a President who was competent, articulate and at least reasonably concerned about promoting international cooperation. It is difficult to imagine how that recollection will benefit George W. Bush's re-election prospects.

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