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Bill Clinton's 'My Life': vast details, little insight

When Bill Clinton was a rising young star in Arkansas politics almost 30 years ago, old-timers there marveled at his rhetorical gifts. "That old boy could talk a dog off a meat wagon," they would say.

Now, in his imposing memoir, he has turned his talents for persuasion to a quest for what seems to be the almost universal approval he always sought as a politician and president. But he falls short, even in 957 pages. In My Life (Knopf, $35), Clinton is candid without being revealing and encyclopedic without telling us many of the things we might like to know.

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At a personal level, Clinton rewards those readers looking for the "good stuff" with his florid mea culpa about his "inappropriate encounter" with Monica Lewinsky and the ensuing trauma when he finally had to admit to it and, as we all know now, sleep on the couch. But there is no further explication of his role in what his campaign staff in 1992 called "bimbo eruptions." Instead, there are familiar and sometimes tortured explanations of the many episodes in his life that raised questions about his judgment.

For example, he dismisses as Kathleen Willey's "sad tale" her accusation that he fondled her breasts in the Oval Office. But he doesn't review the history of their relationship that might have made the episode seem less unusual: Speaking in Richmond, he spotted her in an audience and asked his Virginia campaign chairman who she was, then telephoned her later that night and invited her to visit him in his hotel room in Williamsburg. She declined but did not mistake his intentions.

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But in the Lewinsky case, Clinton is extravagant in his apologies not only to his wife and daughter but to the many administration officials and longtime political allies who had been defending him with their own credibility. This is something of a new Clinton. Among Democratic activists one of the continuing complaints about Clinton has been that, as it is often phrased, "it's all about Bill." He was not a leader who seemed to understand that political loyalty must flow from the top down as well as the bottom up. He often seemed to forget how many people invested their own lives in advancing his career.

It is not that Clinton is stinting in his kindness to all these people now that he is writing what he considers the authentic portrait of his career. On the contrary, in this book he is effusive in his praise for scores, perhaps hundreds, of people whose paths crossed with his along the way, many of whom ended up serving in his administration. Other than Saddam Hussein and Kenneth Starr, there are few villains in this story.

The most critical flaw in Clinton's memoir is that it lacks a sense of proportion. There is too much attention devoted to routine accounts of what he did this month and that, too little to his thoughts on complex political and policy issues on which his ruminations might have been interesting.

Do we really need to know the names of all his teachers in grade school in Hope and high school in Hot Springs? Is it vital to understanding this man to know who lived next door and who lived on the next corner - and how they all turned out? Why must he quote the text of the prayer he delivered at his high school graduation ceremony? Or does he tell us all this just because he had a phalanx of researchers who found a paper trail easy to follow?

Often he seems determined to draw some life lesson from an essentially unremarkable experience. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, the Innocent Abroad tells us about a visit in London to Royal Albert Hall to hear Mahalia Jackson. "She was magnificent with her booming voice and powerful, innocent faith. At the end of the concert, her young audience crowded around the stage, cheering and begging for an encore. They still hungered to believe in something larger than themselves. So did I."

Elsewhere he writes what is essentially history from the clippings. His description of the tumultuous Democratic National Convention at Chicago in 1968, for example, is bloodless enough to tell those of us who were there that he wasn't. But the narrative continues, month by month, sometimes week by week.

What might have been more rewarding would have been his thinking on difficult decisions - something beyond saying the decision was difficult - that might give us an insight into the way his mind works, at least on political matters. Too often, however, Clinton brushes by what were intensely disputed issues that evoked strong emotions. Too often he ignores the political calculations.

In August of 1996, for example, he signed a welfare reform bill that was advertised as a compromise with the Republicans who controlled Congress. Here he argues that the bill was the best he could get and boasts that the measure had the support of bipartisan majorities of more than 70 percent in both houses of Congress. But whatever the size of the majority, Republicans on Capitol Hill were gloating; they believed they had proven that Bill Clinton could be rolled - particularly with an election little more than two months ahead.

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And leading Democratic liberals such as Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York agreed, dismayed by their party abandoning the federal guarantee of benefits that had been bedrock policy for more than 60 years - and also persuaded that Clinton was spooked by the impending election. The issue was serious enough to deserve more than four paragraphs, less than devoted to a University of Arkansas football game.

Similarly, Clinton refuses to concede a political calculation in an episode that had much to do with his reaching the White House in the first place - the Sister Souljah incident in the summer of 1992. She was an African-American rap singer who had delivered a blatantly racist diatribe when asked about the riots in Los Angeles. Clinton had taken note of her remarks but it wasn't until a month later that he chose to act on them, when he found she and he were both on the program of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition in Washington. With Jackson at his side Clinton excoriated the rap singer and criticized the group for giving her a forum. If he had done otherwise, he claims in his memoir, "I might look weak or phony."

In fact, Clinton was fully aware of the Jackson problem his campaign faced. It was essential for him to avoid being seen as caving in to the black leader as happened to both Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. So he seized the chance to affront Jackson, and the strategy worked; Jackson complained loudly for weeks. Indeed, it was possibly the key to Clinton's reclaiming the Reagan Democrats by proving he was indeed "a different kind of Democrat."

What might have been more intriguing in this book would have been Clinton's discourse on the strategy he followed in attracting those critical white voters. But Bill Clinton hasn't offered that kind of insight here. It's all about all the wonderful people he knew and all his good intentions.

In the end, there is a fundamental question for many who have known him along the way and have always had trouble accepting what he says at face value. He is so charming it is hard to doubt his sincerity. But, given his history, it is inevitable that we all wonder whether he is putting us on.

Jack Germond has covered politics for 45 years and expressed opinions on television for more than 30, reporting on every presidential campaign since 1960. From 1977 until 2000, he wrote a column with Jules Witcover, first at the Washington Star and then for The Evening Sun and The Sun. He wrote four books with Witcover and then, in 1999, Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics. His next book, Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad, will be published by Random House this week. Additional coverage of the Clinton book can be found at www.baltimoresun.com/clintonbook.


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