Sunday, June 20, 2004

Give that Lady an Award

Michiko Kakutani shows why she fully deserves her high reputation as a book reviewer, in this less than fawning look at Bill Clinton's new opus.

As his celebrated 1993 speech in Memphis to the Church of God in Christ demonstrated, former President Bill Clinton is capable of soaring eloquence and visionary thinking. But as those who heard his deadening speech nominating Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta well know, he is also capable of numbing, self-conscious garrulity.

Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. Clinton's much awaited new autobiography "My Life" more closely resembles the Atlanta speech, which was so long-winded and tedious that the crowd cheered when he finally reached the words "In closing . . ."

The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is 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.

In many ways, the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration. This memoir underscores many strengths of Mr. Clinton's eight years in the White House and his understanding that he was governing during a transitional and highly polarized period. But the very lack of focus and order that mars these pages also prevented him from summoning his energies in a sustained manner to bring his insights about the growing terror threat and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to fruition.

Certainly it's easy enough to understand the huge advance sales for the book. Mr. Clinton would seem to have all the gifts for writing a gripping memoir: gifts of language, erudition and charm, combined with a policy wonk's perception of a complex world at a hinge moment in time, teetering on the pivot between Cold War assumptions and a new era of global interdependence. Add to that his improbable life story — a harrowing roller-coaster ride of precocious achievements, self-inflicted slip-ups and even more startling comebacks — and you have all the ingredients for a compelling book.

But while Dan Rather, who interviewed Mr. Clinton for "60 Minutes," has already compared the book to the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, arguably the most richly satisfying autobiography by an American president, "My Life" has little of that classic's unsparing candor or historical perspective. Instead, it devolves into a hodgepodge of jottings: part policy primer, part 12-step confessional, part stump speech and part presidential archive, all, it seems, hurriedly written and even more hurriedly edited.

In fact, "My Life" reads like a messy pastiche of everything that Mr. Clinton ever remembered and wanted to set down in print; he even describes the time he got up at 4 a.m. to watch the inaugural ceremonies for Nigeria's new president on TV. There are endless litanies of meals eaten, speeches delivered, voters greeted and turkeys pardoned.


Mr. Clinton confesses that his affair with Monica Lewinsky was "immoral and foolish," but he spends far more space excoriating his nemesis, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and the press. He writes at length about his awareness that terrorism was a growing threat, but does not grapple with the unintended consequences of his administration's decisions to pressure Sudan to expel Osama bin Laden in 1996 (driving sent the al Qaeda leader to Afghanistan, where he was harder to track) or to launch cruise missile attacks against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the embassy bombings in 1998 (an act that some terrorism experts believe fueled terrorists' conviction that the United States was an ineffectual giant that relied on low-risk high technology).

Part of the problem, of course, is that Mr. Clinton is concerned, here, with cementing — or establishing — his legacy, while at the same time boosting (or at least not undermining) the political career of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. He does a persuasive job of explicating his more successful initiatives like welfare reform and deficit reduction, but the failure of his health care initiative, overseen by Mrs. Clinton, is quickly glossed over, as is the subsequent focus of his administration on such small-bore initiatives as school uniforms and teenage smoking.
Ouch! I'll bet you'll never see anything half as critical of Bill Clinton anywhere else between the covers of the NYT, especially now that a Republican's in the White House. Kakutani has Clinton dead to rights: an immensely talented individual whose promise was undermined by a lack of self-discipline. I'll give the man his due in the domestic arena - one can't knock a guy who manages to oversee eight years of prosperity, an expansion of free trade and an improving government fiscal position - but his foreign policy quite frankly stank, especially where Africa and terrorism were concerned.

One parting shot and I'm done: I can't help but admire the understated manner in which Kakutani points out Dan Rather's sycophancy.