My Life by Bill Clinton is 900 pages long and will barely fit in your carry-on bag on your next flight to Jomsom, but it is the one new book that is destined for every bestseller list this summer (it's already number one on Amazon.com). But if reading a US presidential memoir is not your idea of fun, sample what Clinton has to say about his personal 'War and Peace' on the American presidency and his experiences there: 'Most presidential memoirs are dull and self-serving; I wanted to write a memoir on the Presidency that was interesting and self-serving.'
Clinton's new book is not just about being the 42nd US president, and all that went on in the White House between 1993-2001. It is the story of how a simple Bill from a broken home in rural America grew up to be one of the most popular as well as controversial presidents in recent history. Not many have the legacy of near-impeachment over oral sex in the Oval Office.
However, if you are looking for a personal account of the Monica Lewinsky affair, you will not find that in My Life. To say anything more about Monica would be telling. What you will find in this weighty tome is a comprehensive and well-written memoir divided into two parts: one, the life of the man and his family, and two, the policy thinking of a past president caught in a quagmire of controversy, all at a very critical time in American history. The first half of the book is told in a narrative style, just like how his small-town uncle taught him to weave a good tale back in the 1950s. The latter half of the book, however, appears to be a justification for most of the major policy decisions made or ignored by Clinton in his eight years as the most powerful man in the world.
Surprisingly lacking in this huge book are any signs of anger, resentment or ill-feeling towards any of his opponents during the Whitewater investigations, even when it seemed like bipartisan policymaking had stopped and gossip-mongering had taken over completely in 1998. I was living in Washington DC at that time, and I can tell you, the executive branch of the government had pretty much shut down and gone into defensive-retaliation mode, combating everything from rumours of murder-suicides over corrupt investment deals to date rape while Clinton was Governor of Arkansas.
By 1999, any policymaking that was in the making had stopped. This happened at the worst possible time for America, as we see in My Life. Many of the shenanigans that went on in the capital during those years happened when important policies were being formulated and the book gives some insight into why the CTBT failed, why US policy in the Middle East went on the rocks and why the Republican Party refused to pay up on UN dues. Nevertheless, don't expect much rational thinking into why Clinton decided to bomb Iraq especially when he admits, 'Iraq was no higher than number six on my list of priorities'.
While one does not get a feeling of anger over all the problems that Clinton faced in his life at the White House, you do get hints of frustration over the way Washington works, or doesn't. After all is said and done, at least you believe Bill Clinton when he quips, 'There are no Good and Bad people in Washington, there are just people who are Right and Wrong'.
I was glad this book ended when it did, for after hundreds of pages of thinking about how the US government is steering the people of America down an ever slipperier slope of social decay, increased colonialism and an alarming rise in nationalism, I was ready for Bill Clinton's undying optimism: 'We are more alike than we are different. On a global level, all we have to do is to see that there are more similarities between us all than there are differences'. That's the good news, as is the news that this presidential memoir, while definitely self-serving, is indeed very interesting and is a must-read for all American history buffs. ***1/2
Alfred A Knopf, 2004
Jiggy Gaton is a cartoonist and columnist for Nepali Times and WAVE, who visited Bill Clinton's hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas many times and always wondered, "How does a boy from this place wind up as president of the US?"