Bill Clinton: My Life

I have been reading Bill Clinton’s memoirs, My Life, and am pleasantly surprised. He has an easy conversational style and there are charming vignettes in the book. His love for his mother and his grandparents — “Mammaw” and “Papaw” — his feelings about his stepfather, whose surname Clinton he took, all come through.

He writes about his grandfather’s grocery store, how an African African woman recalled after he became president that he was the only white kid who played with black children in the area, how he broke his leg trying to jump rope in cowboy boots. Born in 1946 in Hope, Arkansas, he writes about his life in Hot Springs, also in Arkansas, where he lived with his mother and stepfather:

Besides my friends and family, my life on Thirteenth Street was marked by my discovery of the movies. In 1951 and 1952, I could go for a dime: a nickel to get in, a nickel for a Coke. I went every couple of weeks or so. Back then, you got a feature film, a cartoon, a serial and a newsreel. The Korean War was on, so I learned about that. Flash Gordon and Rocket Man were the big serial heroes. For cartoons, I preferred Bugs Bunny, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and Baby Huey, with whom I probably identified. I saw a lot of movies, and especially liked the Westerns. My favourite was High Noon — I probably saw it half a dozen times during its run in Hope, and have seen it more than a dozen times since. It’s still my favourite movie, because it’s not your typical macho western. I loved the movie because from start to finish Gary Cooper is scared to death but does the right thing anyway.

I like the passage because it gives you a picture of the time Clinton grew up in and of the things he liked.

“I’ve had an improbable life,” he writes at the end of his book, and it’s true. From a humble background, he rose to be president.

Clearly, he was gifted. He was accepted at the only college he applied to — the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC, and later became a Rhodes Scholar, going to study at University College, Oxford, before attending Yale Law School. He is considered a wonk, and the wonkery is evident in this book, where he admits: “My life in politics was a joy. I loved campaigns and I loved governing.” He also made useful connections. For example, as a young man, he worked for Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Clinton’s love for politics enlivens his account of political campaigns. He writes about the bus tours he made and the televised debates he had with then president George HW Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot during his successful presidential campaign in 1992. Candidly, without any animus, he gives due credit to Bush and Perot when they made good points in the debates and points out where he could have done better. He speaks well of his running mate Al Gore with whom he went on to win a second term in 1996, defeating the then Republican candidate Bob Dole and Ross Perot again.

He recalls waiting for the election results in 1992 in Little Rock, Arkansas, with Hillary and Chelsea:

When we got home, the three of us watched an old John Wayne movie until we dozed off for a couple of hours. In the afternoon, I went jogging with Chelsea downtown and stopped at McDonald’s for a cup of water, as I had countless times before. After I got back to the Governor’s Mansion, I didn’t have to wait much longer. The returns started to come in early, at about 6.30 pm. I was still in my jogging clothes when I was projected the winner in several eastern states. A little over three hours later, the networks projected me the overall winner, when Ohio went our way by 90,000 votes out of five million cast, a victory margin of less than two per cent…

When all 104,600, 366 votes were counted, the final margin of victory was about 5.5 per cent. I finished with 43 per cent of the vote, to 37.4 per cent for President Bush and 19 per cent for Ross Perot…

Clinton’s memoirs are worth reading because he writes about his campaigns and his years in the White House. Obama’s acclaimed Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope were written before he became president. I haven’t read Jimmy Carter’s A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.

I enjoyed reading about Clinton’s childhood and youth. He recalls historical events. He was in school, he writes, when he heard President Kennedy was dead:

On November 22 (1963) Mr Coe was called out of class to the office. When he returned, he was white as a sheet and could hardly speak. He told us President Kennedy had been shot and probably killed in Dallas. I was devastated. Just four months before, I had seen him in the Rose Garden — so full of life and strength.

He writes about the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy in 1968. He quotes from the fearless sermon King gave, saying he wished for a long life but wasn’t afraid of death, the night before he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Clinton also writes extensively about the riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago in August 1968. The then vice president Hubert Humphrey, who was nominated Democratic candidate for president, lost the election to the Republican Richard Nixon, who was elected on a law-and-order platform. Besides politics, he also writes about his own life during those years, including the two years he spent as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, sailing from New York on the SS United States on October 4, 1968. “The United States was then the fastest liner on the seas, but the trip still took nearly a week,” he notes.

About the scandals that plagued his presidency, he writes:

My sense of my own mortality and human frailty and the unconditional love I’d had as a child had spared me the compulsion to judge and condemn others. And I believed my personal flaws, no matter how deep, were far less threatening to our democratic government than the power lust of my accusers.

About his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he says:

During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come to work to the White House and those who were there were working late, I’d had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions between April and November, when she left the White House for the Pentagon.

He admits: “What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish.”

He recalls how he confessed the affair to Hillary:

On Saturday morning, August 15 (1998), with the grand jury testimony looming and after a miserable, sleepless night, I woke up Hillary and told her the truth about what had happened between me and Monica Lewinsky. She looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut, almost as angry at me for lying to her in January as for what I had done. All I could do was tell her that I was sorry, and that I’d felt I couldn’t tell anyone, even her, what had happened. I told her that I loved her and Chelsea, that I was ashamed of what I had done, and that I had kept everything to myself in an effort to avoid hurting my family and undermining the presidency.

Clinton’s My Life is a baggy, diffuse book with a lot of political minutiae which a general reader like me will skip. But it is worth reading because this is a former president reminiscing about his days in the White House and all that preceded it. Besides, Clinton writes conversationally, unpretentiously. He can tell stories when he wants to.

The book was published in 2004 — four years after Clinton was succeeded as the 43rd US president by his predecessor George HW Bush’s son, George W Bush, who narrowly defeated Clinton’s deputy, vice president Al Gore, in a controversial election. When Gore contested the Florida election results in court, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount, but the US Supreme Court stopped the recount following an appeal by the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, the brother of George W Bush.

Clinton criticises the Supreme Court decision. He writes:

After the event (in Belfast), my family flew to England to stay with the Blairs at Chequers and listen to Al Gore give his concession speech. The night before, at 10 pm, the Supreme Court had ruled, 7-2, that the Florida recount was unconstitutional because there were no uniform standards for defining the clear intent of the voter for purposes of a recount, and therefore different vote counters might count or interpret the same ballots differently…

I disagreed strongly with the decision, but I was heartened that Justices Souter and Breyer wanted to send the case back to the Florida Superme Court to set a standard and proceed with the recount in a hurry. The electoral college was meeting soon. The other five justices in the majority disagreed. By 5-4, the same five justices who had stopped the vote count three days earlier now said it had to give the election to Bush because under Florida law the recount had to be finished by midnight on that day anyway.

It was an appalling decision. A narrow conservative majority that had made a virtual fetish of states’ rights had now stripped Florida of a clear state function: the right to recount the votes the way it always had…

Bush v Gore will go down in history as one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made… I knew America would get beyond this dark day when five Republican justices stripped thousands of their fellow Americans of their votes, just because they could.

Clinton adds:

Al Gore gave a marvellous concession speech. It was genuine, gracious and patriotic. When I called to congratulate him, he told me that a friend who was a professional comedian had joked to him that he had gotten the best of both worlds: he had won the popular vote and didn’t have to do the job.

It is little nuggets that make the story more interesting.

For the record, according to Wikipedia, Gore won the popular vote by approximately 500,000 votes nationwide but received 266 electoral college votes to Bush’s 271 (one District of Columbia elector abstained). Gore conceded the election on December 13, 2000.

Compared with Gore, the son of Senator Albert Gore Sr of Tennessee, Clinton was far more successful — the boy from Hope who spent eight years in the White House. He admits how lucky he was.

This is how he ends his epilogue:

I’ve had an improbable life, and a wonderful one full of faith, hope, and love, and more than my share of grace and good fortune. As improbable as my life has been, it would have been impossible anywhere but America. Unlike so many people, I have been privileged to spend working for things I’ve believed in since I was a little boy hanging around my grandfather’s store. I grew up with a fascinating mother who adored me, have learned at the feet of great teachers, have made a legion of loyal friends, have built a loving life with the finest woman I’ve ever known, and have a child who continues to be the light of my life.

As I said, I think it’s a good story, and I’ve had a good time telling it.

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