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In Search of Bill Clinton | The Nation

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In Search of Bill Clinton

I'd just finished reading a wonderful book, In Search of WillieMorris, when I got a note from Rahm Emanuel. Nothingpersonal. It was a (mass) e-mail asking me to join him in wishingPresident Bill Clinton a happy 60th birthday. (The Clinton Foundationhad organized an online birthday card.)

I sometimes wonder if Clinton knows what Karl Marx said of theeconomist David Ricardo. Bear with me--because this applies toClinton and his legacy. Ricardo, Marx is reported to have said,towers because of the barrenness of the landscape around him. Today,after six years of George W. Bush, Clinton's Presidency--with all ofits faults and squandered opportunities--sometimes seems totower because of the barrenness of our political landscape.

But back to what I'd just finished reading when I got Rahm Emanuel'snote.

In Search of Willie Morris is the biography of anotherSoutherner. Morris was a famously talented--and complex--writer andeditor who helped to remake American journalism. He wrote more thana dozen books, including the classic memoirs My Dog Skip andNorth Toward Home. His years at Harper's --he was madeeditor at age 32--were legendary. He was a friend, mentor, colleague,to a remarkable group of writers--William Styron, Norman Mailer,Truman Capote, Gay Talese, James Jones and, later in life, BarryHannah, Donna Tartt, Winston Groom and John Grisham, who wrote that"Wlllie Morris was a simple soul with enough conflicts andcomplexities to drive mad those who loved him."

When Morris died in 1999, Clinton sent a eulogy. It was read at theservice, which was held in the same Methodist Church in Yazoo Citywhich Morris attended as a kid.

Whatever one thinks of Clinton's Presidency, the former President'swords reveals a human being who shared with Morris what Grishamdescribed: a person "with enough conflicts and complexities to drivemad those who loved him."

Here's what Clinton sent to be read in Yazoo City, that summer of 1999:

"It was early in 1968 when I met Willie Morris in New York. Morriswas editor of Harper's and had been a Rhodes Scholar. I wroteto him shortly after I got my Rhodes,and to my surprise, he agreed tosee me. He was wonderfully wry and funny--the classic Southerner. Hewrote a great book about his dog. He wrote a fascinating book aboutthe role of football in the South and the racial barriers, TheCourting of Marcus Dupree. You know, most Southerners thoughtthey'd be looked down upon if they went up the Northeast. Thecultural elites would all think they were hayseeds--although that waskind of phony; The New York Times was largely run bySoutherners--but there was always this sensitivity about how youwould be seen. Willie gave us another way of thinking about the South.

You know, for most of my generation of Southerners who went north,the book that stuck in their minds was [Thomas Wolfe's] You Can'tGo Home Again. Willie's North Toward Home was abeautifully written, evocative portrait of one person's love for theSouth who had profound regret over the racial situation. It helped alot of people like me who wanted to see the world but also come homeand live in the South. He showed us how we could love a place andwant to change it at the same time. It really was an important thinghe did for me. He showed us we could go home."

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