NEW YORK - The scene inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night would surely have been included in Bill Clinton's exhaustive autobiography were the book not already printed and on sale starting at 12:01 a.m. today. Here he could have described a former president basking in his new incarnation as author, reveling inside a media-celebrity scrum where wonks and luminaries mingled openly and the talk swirled around his life and legacy.
"I hope my publisher gets his money back," a jovial Clinton joked to the more than 1,260 people gathered under the vaulted ceiling in the museum's Great Hall. "But more than anything else, it's a pretty good story and I hope America likes it."
My Life arrives on bookshelves today with a simultaneous marketing rollout across the country and abroad. The publicity is aimed at generating a new wave of Clintonmania, spurring sales to justify his reported $10 million, record-breaking book advance and the huge pre-sales of the book's first printing.
Last night's high-profile media ball - comprising Clinton groupies, gossip columnists, Hollywood strivers and dueling power brokers from the political and literary spheres - was a hot ticket. Vogue editor Anna Wintour hugged herself in the air conditioning while actress Lauren Bacall held court inside the hall's echoing limestone interior.
Publishing people jostled with political types to find a little room to eat tiny steak canapes or, better yet, shake the hand of the tall and tanned former president enjoying his victory lap.
"This is huge," said Cathy Calvert, a national account manager for Random House, whose division, Alfred A. Knopf, published Clinton's book. "It is the biggest book event of the year, and it's a historical event. This book will be read by generations to come."
Clinton navigated the crowd with his wife, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his daughter Chelsea, who avoided reporters' questions while boyfriend Ian Klaus stood nearby. Chelsea and 20-something fact-checkers offered the youngest sets of eyes for Clinton's manuscript, the former president said, while his 85-year-old mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham offered the oldest.
'Like a campaign'
Hillary Clinton described her husband's intensive years writing in spiral-bound notebooks as a solitary act of a writer sitting up nights to get down his life story.
"It was like a campaign where you're rushing to reach the deadline," she said, adding that for her husband, the book tour will be easy compared with those long days and nights of scribbling chapters in longhand. "The book tour starting tomorrow will be like a real campaign in the sense that you're no longer sitting at home alone."
Some Clinton fans already were closing ranks around the president, calling a front-page New York Times review on Sunday that panned the book more evidence of an anti-Clinton cabal. But others believed the bad press would hardly hurt sales of a book that already has sold out its first printing of 1.5 million copies.
"I asked a fellow author, 'If I were guaranteed 1.5 million in sales but had to swallow that review in The New York Times, would I do it?'" said Mark Green, a former New York mayoral candidate and co-chairman of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign in New York. "Before I could finish my sentence she told me, 'Absolutely!'"
Ever the politician, Clinton couldn't pass up the opportunity for some campaign season hint-dropping, noting that while
he has great faith in the judgment of American voters, sometimes the public can get distracted and forget the consequences of their ballots.
"When we let all this other static get in the way," he told the crowd, "we can make the darndest decisions you ever saw."
Whether the former Democratic president will overshadow the current candidate trying to take back the White House, though, remains to be seen.
Peggy Kerry, the sister of the Democratic presidential hopeful, attended the book party and mused about the effect of Clinton's memoirs on her brother's campaign. "We've heard pros and we've heard cons," she said. "I really don't know."
While the 957-page autobiography is imposing and gargantuan reading during this season of beach books, some were undaunted. Dan Glickman, a former agriculture secretary under Clinton, plans to get to Clinton's book within days. The book is easy reading for this nonfiction buff, who when asked what he considered light reading replied: "A lot of food and nutrition books."
But not everyone interested in Clinton's book was a policy hound. Bacall insisted she would read every word, slowly, and not while lying in bed or on the couch.
"I think you have to sit up when you're reading a book like this," she said. "And that's what I intend to do, as soon as I can get a copy." She turned to a friend. "Do you know they already started to get in line at Barnes and Noble? I am not standing in line."
Gazing at stars
Nearby, two stargazers described looking for improbable celebrity pairings.
"We saw Arthur Schlesinger Jr., completely blow off the Rev. Al Sharpton," said one publishing wag, refusing to be identified with his catty comments about the historian and the politician. "Schlesinger looked at Sharpton like he was trying to sell him magazine subscriptions."
But the ultimate piece of celebrity-gazing came when the former president entered the hall, the crowd drawing toward him as though a magnet were hidden in his crisp blue suit.
"George Stephanopoulos told me once," the actress Anna Deavere Smith said, "we are living in a celebrity culture and the president is the Celebrity in Chief."
She and friend Marlo Thomas said they were looking forward to reading Clinton doing his own psychoanalyzing, instead of the media doing it for him. They had read quite enough already, thank you, when it came to Clinton's personal life.
"I don't want to know all the details," Thomas said. "It's too much!"
Clinton's literary posse saw last night as the start of another campaign, one to convince readers that the 42nd president's sheer charisma translates onto the two-dimensional page. Robert Barnett, the Washington lawyer who served as Clinton's literary agent and coordinated the book's marketing strategy, sees Clinton's work as a triumph and considers the author the most skilled salesman for his book.
"There's no one better," he says. "He has written this book, every word of it in his own voice, and I don't think there's ever been by a major public figure a more candid book about one's life or a more detailed book about what it's like to be president."