Former Presidents have a difficult, even awkward, role. They cope in different ways, but if the past half-century is any guide, we can be certain of one thing: They write their memoirs. Usually, these are variants of campaign biographies, only now their campaign is for History. Ex-Presidents battle to define their legacy, and their memoirs are the opening salvo.
The accounts compiled by Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush have little value as historical sources. They are relentlessly celebratory, merely chronicling successes. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower at least sporadically offered revelations, with occasional introspective backward glances. But leave it to Richard Nixon to offer the most interesting, useful account. Nixon, being Nixon, could not help but reveal himself, often in spite of himself. For example, describing John Dean’s devastating Senate testimony in June 1973, Nixon wrote: “Dean’s account of the crucial March 21 meeting was more accurate than my own had been. I did not see it then, but in the end it would make less difference that I was not as involved as Dean had alleged than that I was not as uninvolved as I had claimed.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, presidential memoirs are usually dull, uninformative and embarrassingly self-congratulatory. Now comes William Jefferson Clinton, one of our best-educated, most intelligent Presidents, a man known to spare few words when discussing himself–or anything. To be sure, his memoir launches his campaign for history. But to dismiss My Life as a whiff of grapeshot, as have the instant first reviews, underestimates the man. Most relentlessly try to fit the book into the Age of Oprah, carefully scouring index entries for Monica, Paula and Gennifer, and concluding that Clinton has written a long, dull book, once again squandering his talent.
Give him a break; Clinton has many tales to tell, particularly a rich, sometimes moving account of his years before the public life, fit for future analytical historians and biographers. Clinton, true to form, is enchanting and infuriating, fascinating and perplexing, with some lies and evasions, as well as some truth and revelations; and always accommodating, eager to please. The personal and the political are intertwined. Vintage Clinton.
Clinton is a man who learned to live with secrets, among them alcoholism and abuse in his family. He apparently never met a teacher or professor he did not like or cannot recall; he engaged an extraordinary array of people, from preachers to bootleggers and, yes, women. He has much to say about his wife, including, “I had always loved her very much, but not always very well.” His life has been a seamless parade of campaigns, which he remembers exhaustingly and exhaustively, whether it be Boys Nation or a presidential election. He offers an encyclopedic account of his presidency that almost rivals Johnson’s numbing rendition of his legislative achievements in the cadences of biblical begats. Yet Clinton always manages to inject a human element.