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Clinton backers, bashers are clearing their throats

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - It's beginning to feel like Bill Clinton's third campaign - but rather than selling his candidacy for president, he's selling his autobiography.

Clinton's much-anticipated book, My Life, won't go on sale until Tuesday, but the mega-memoir already has drawn out the old cast of characters - the Clinton backers, the Clinton bashers and the man himself. More than 1.5 million orders have come in, details of the book have leaked out and all the people who have made a living either loving or hating Clinton are getting ready, if not to read the 957-page tome, then at least to opine on it.

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"We do two things well in the media - we either ignore stories or overplay them," says Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser, now a co-host of Crossfire, a CNN political debate program. "Bill Clinton cannot be ignored."

The contents of Clinton's first interview pegged to the release of the book already are getting boiled down to talking points. In a sit-down with Dan Rather on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes this Sunday, according to excerpts released by the network, the president describes his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky as a "terrible moral error," calls the impeachment proceedings against him an "abuse of power" and recounts how he and his wife sought counseling after the adulterous affair put him "in the doghouse" with her.

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"I did something for the worst possible reason," Clinton says of his infidelity. "Just because I could."

Clinton can be heard reading daily anecdotes from his book starting today; the audio excerpts will be carried on Infinity radio stations across major U.S. cities as well as on America Online, both of which will also carry a question-and-answer session with the former president next week. On Monday, Clinton will appear at a book party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with a guest list stretching to 1,000 - A-listers from categories broadly defined as literary, political and generally fabulous. The publicity continues Tuesday with an Oprah Winfrey interview, and, the next day, spots on Today and Good Morning America, followed later in the week by appearances on Larry King Live and, finally, The Charlie Rose Show.

If that isn't enough Clinton, more will come from this: People talking about Clinton talking.

"This will create its own media storm," says Marty Ryan, executive producer of political programs for Fox News, who notes that Fox News Sunday and the Fox weekday cable talk shows will focus on the book as its details emerge. Ryan notes that though the giant autobiography is getting released next week, with Clinton using so many venues and mediums to promote it, many people will feel well qualified to talk about its contents without actually reading it.

"Everybody will know about the book," Ryan says. "It'll be in the bloodstream, so to speak."

For Begala, the publicity surrounding the book offers his former boss the perfect rebuttal to old critics.

"You've had this right-wing smear machine going after Clinton for 13 years, and it's good once in a while to see the big guy step back in and just crush them like a bug," he says. "One day [Clinton's critics] will get a hobby or a life or even a girlfriend, but while they're out there they'll do nothing but sell books for the president and make him look good."

Republicans, however, have no plans to stay silent during the Clinton literary campaign.

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"Clinton has to live with the fact that most of the world remembers his administration for Monica Lewinsky," says conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax organization. "Write the one sentence about his presidency. Ronald Reagan destroyed the Soviet Empire. Clinton had Lewinsky. If you had a case for Clinton not being a failed president, it wouldn't take 900 words to make it."

Already, the memoir is breaking records. Alfred A. Knopf, the division of Random House that is publishing My Life and reportedly offered Clinton a more than $10-million advance, has printed 1.5 million copies -the largest first run in Knopf's history. It still wasn't enough; the publisher reports that orders have reached 2 million.

Amazon.com tells a similar story. My Life has held number-one on its best seller list since advance sales started in April, the strongest early showing of any memoir in the Web site's history, according to amazon.com spokeswoman Kristin Mariani. She adds that Clinton is boasting seven times the early orders of Living History, the book by his wife, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The publicity tour, designed to spur sales of the $35 hardcover, won't end soon. As the taped interviews air, Clinton will embark on a 15-city book tour that starts in New York, winds through Washington in early July and ends in Florida later next month - a mix of signings from a Wal-Mart to tony independent book stores that, in its Clinton-like way, attempts to please many constituencies of readers all at once.

The book is sparking all kinds of questions - including whether the Clinton revival will help Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kerry by pushing similar causes, or hurt the presumptive nominee by stealing media coverage from him. But one inquiry that may get lost in the political melee is this: Is this book even readable?

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess believes the anticipation over Clinton's book may far exceed its value. Presidential memoirs, he said, generally disappoint.

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"I don't think you can point to them in literary history or presidential history as something extraordinary," Hess said. "They are usually tedious and self-serving."

Even though Clinton's book is quite lengthy - but still shorter than Richard Nixon's unapologetic, 1,136-page RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon - many believe the appetite for what Clinton has to say is almost unquenchable.

A. Scott Berg, the biographer of Charles Lindbergh and Samuel Goldwyn, who is in the midst of a book on the life of President Woodrow Wilson, said the memoir is bound to generate enthusiasm among readers.

"Frankly, because he has been president of the United States and is such a fabulous storyteller," he says, "it's hard for me to believe that anything he puts on paper will not be interesting."

As of yesterday, the former president was not scheduled for any book signings in Maryland, though three Marylanders will be particularly interested readers after helping Clinton write the book: Tommy Caplan, Clinton's one-time Georgetown University roommate; Ted Widmer, a former Clinton speechwriter who now heads the American studies department at Washington College in Chestertown, and Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Baltimore-based historian.

Caplan, a novelist whose family owned a jewelry business in Baltimore, reportedly read the book and made suggestions. and Widmer conducted interviews with Clinton about his life before the presidency. Caplan could not be reached this week, and Widmer was traveling.

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Branch, who has written two parts of a trilogy on the American civil rights movement, began conducting interviews with Clinton for the book soon after he won the presidency in 1992. The transcripts of those conversations apparently helped the former president re-examine and write about his White House years. The two had become friends in the early 1970s, but Branch said, "I've gotten to know him much better during this than I ever did before."

Branch declined to be interviewed about Clinton's memoir, saying he didn't want to draw attention from Clinton. Though he is more familiar with the book's contents than most, he is still eager to delve into it.

"I've read most of the book, but not the end," he says. "I'm curious how it came out."


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