My Life by Bill Clinton -- Book Review

Book Classification : Nonfiction - History - Autobiographies & Memoirs - U.S. Presidents - Politics & Current Affairs


My Life by Bill Clinton -- Please select a book edition to check the price ...
Hardcover
Knopf - 900 Pages
Hardcover - Large Print Edition
Random House - 1664 Pages
Audio Book on Cassette Tape - Abridged
Random House
Audio Book on Audio CD - Abridged
Random House
Hardcover - 942 pages
First Edition, June 2004
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
A Division of Random House
ISBN 0375414576

Two photo inserts,
totaling 32 pages with 142 photographs.

Book Review


My Life by Bill Clinton was published simultaneously in four editions (hardcover, hardcover large print, and abridged audio books on tape and CD which are read by the author) on June 22, 2004.

Many critics are saying that Clinton's new book lacks organization and structure. As I see it, what Mr. Clinton seems to have done is to end one chapter and begin another for no particular reason except to prevent the book from being a single chapter of 900 pages. Most of the chapters, numbered and not titled, do not represent topical demarcation.

Buy the book My Life by Bill Clinton

In fact, the book is primarily in chronological order, beginning with William Jefferson Clinton's birth, and ending with the day he packed his possessions to move out of the White House. The narrative is sufficiently organized as long as the reader doesn't look for each chapter to adhere to one story.

The author's chronological approach gives the book the style of a personal journal or diary, successfully conveying a sense of what it must be like to be a president. As the narrative proceeds week by week, all of the subject matter is interwoven, as in real life.

For example, one passage describes NATO's formation of a response to the Bosnian attack on Sarajevo, followed immediately by the author's remarks about a dispute with the Republicans in Congress about the budget, the defection of Saddam Hussein's daughters to Jordan, and indictments in the Whitewater scandal announced by special investigator Kenneth Starr. This is the story of a particular week in Bill Clinton's administration. Readers who wish to find all discussion of each topic in its own place will be frustrated, while readers who imagine that they are peering into Clinton's diary for that week will be delighted.

Similarly, on a different occasion, the president responds to the attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City, meets with European leaders to discuss the battle between Russia and the separatist movement in Chechnya, and returns to his dispute with those members of Congress who were proposing cuts in health care and education. This is as close as a reader can get to the experience of having someone provide a collection of weekly letters from the former president, each letter describing his activities and reflections for the week.

Clinton's story of his earlier life, while chronological, doesn't take this week-by-week form. It is reflective, pointing out the events and influences which have impressed in him the strongest memories. He describes, for example, his youthful fanfare about the music and movies of Elvis Presley around the same time that he was a musician in the junior high school band.

There are numerous points is the book where the author finds opportunities to hit back at Kenneth Starr for never ceasing to be Mr. and Mrs. Clinton's gadfly. One paragraph describes how Starr had previously requested records and information regarding Whitewater, which were then given to him without resistance, except for the delay involved in sorting through "the disordered array of papers we brought up from Arkansas." However, Starr's next move was to use the power of subpoena to force the release of information. Clinton writes: "Starr's summons was a cheap, sleazy publicity stunt. We had turned the records over voluntarily as soon as we found them, and they proved the truth of Hillary's account. If Starr had more questions, he could have come to the White House to ask them, as he had done three times before, rather than make her the first First Lady to appear before a grand jury."

The author continues, "I was more troubled by the attacks on Hillary than on those directed at me. Because I was helpless to stop them, all I could do was stand by her, telling the press that America would be a better place 'if everybody in this country had the character my wife has.'" Later, the former president adds, "Those boys certainly seemed to get a big kick out of beating up on Hillary. My only consolation was the sure knowledge, rooted in twenty-five years of close observation, that she was a lot tougher than they would ever be."

Clinton is extremely candid about the problems be brought onto himself by what he calls his "inappropriate encounter" with Monica Lewinsky, when she worked at the White House during 1995-1996, and on one occasion after she transferred to the Pentagon. [This subject begins on page 773 of the standard hardcover edition.]

Starr offered Linda Tripp immunity from the charge of illegally taping her conversations with Lewinsky. Clinton concludes that Starr "was trying to create a firestorm to force me from office." But world affairs didn't pause for Kenneth Starr's crusade. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the White House on one day, and PLO leader Yassir Arafat arrived the next. "While all this was going on, I had to keep doing my job."

"I knew I had made a terrible mistake, and I was determined not to compound it by allowing Starr to drive me from office.... I went on doing my job, and I stonewalled, denying what had happened to everyone: Hillary, Chelsea, my staff and cabinet, my friends in Congress, members of the press, and the American people. What I regret the most, other than my conduct, is having misled all of them. Since 1991 I had been called a liar about everything under the sun, when in fact I had been honest in my public life and financial affairs, as all the investigations would show. Now I was misleading everyone about my personal failings. I was embarrassed and wanted to keep it from my wife and daughter. I didn't want to help Ken Starr criminalize my personal life, and I didn't want the American people to know I'd let them down. It was like living in a nightmare. I was back to my parallel lives with a vengeance."

The author describes the guilt he felt after his wife appeared on the NBC Today Show. "Hillary said that she didn't believe the charges against me and that a 'vast right-wing conspiracy' had been trying to destroy us since the 1992 campaign." Clinton confesses that "seeing Hillary defend me made me even more ashamed about what I had done."

"Hillary's difficult interview and my mixed reaction to it clearly exemplified the bind I had put myself in: As a husband, I had done something wrong that I needed to apologize and atone for; as President, I was in a legal and political struggle with forces who had abused the criminal and civil laws and severely damaged innocent people in their attempt to destroy my presidency and cripple my ability to serve."

While admitting certain moral failures, Clinton also writes in his own defense. He points to the story in Newsweek magazine which "traced the connections of more than twenty conservative activists and organizations that had promoted and financed the 'scandals' Starr was investigating." He also explains why his false testimony during the Paula Jones case, during which Clinton denied his intimacy with Lewinsky, did not comprise perjury. Judge Wright ruled that those remarks were not relevant to the Paula Jones case. Clinton explains that "perjury requires a false statement about a 'material' matter."

Clinton admitted to the grand jury "... that 'on certain occasions in 1996 and once in 1997' I engaged in wrongful conduct that included inappropriate intimate contact with Monica Lewinsky; that the conduct, while morally wrong, did not constitute 'sexual relations' as I understood the definition of the term that Judge Wright accepted at the request of the Jones lawyers." At this point, the investigator "took me through a long list of questions dealing with the definition of 'sexual relations' that Judge Wright had imposed." When the investigator complained that Clinton didn't volunteer information that was not specifically asked for, "... I reminded him that both my lawyer and I had invited Jones's attorneys to ask specific follow-up questions, and that they declined to do so."

Clinton reflects on what the "four-year $40 million investigation had come down to: parsing the definition of sex."

After four hours of testimony, Clinton wrote and then delivered an address to the people, during which he confessed that "I was solely and completely responsible for my personal failure, and admitted misleading everyone, 'even my wife.' I said I was trying to protect myself and my family from intrusive questions in a politically inspired lawsuit that had been dismissed." Clinton then describes the family vacation at Martha's Vineyard which immediately followed his testimony and public address: "I spent the first couple of days alternating between begging for forgiveness and planning the strikes on al Qaeda. At night Hillary would go up to bed and I slept on the couch." From the vacation site, Clinton issued "the final order to proceed, and U.S. Navy destroyers in the northern Arabian Sea launched cruise missiles at the targets in Afghanistan, while missiles were fired at the Sudanese chemical plant from ships in the Red Sea." The author notes: "The American people had to absorb the news of the strike and my grand jury testimony at the same time."

Mr. and Mrs. Clinton began marriage counseling.

"In the long counseling sessions and our conversations about them afterward, Hillary and I also got to know each other again, beyond the work and ideas we shared and the child we adored. I had always loved her very much, but not always very well. I was grateful that she was brave enough to participate in the counseling. We were still each other's best friend, and I hoped we could save our marriage. Meanwhile, I was still sleeping on a couch, this one in the small living room that adjoined our bedroom. I slept on that old couch for two months or more. I got a lot of reading, thinking, and work done, and the couch was pretty comfortable, but I hoped I wouldn't be on it forever."

Bill Clinton's My Life is an intimate outpouring. While other book critics complain that the writing could have more logically structured and edited, I interpret the stream of consciousness as the genuineness of Clinton's disclosure. As a reader, you will feel as though you are sitting on the back porch with the former president and listening to him spill out the contents of his heart.

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com   /   See more History Books

My Life by Bill Clinton -- Please select a book edition to check the price ...
Hardcover
Knopf - 900 Pages
Hardcover - Large Print Edition
Random House - 1664 Pages
Audio Book on Cassette Tape - Abridged
Random House
Audio Book on Audio CD - Abridged
Random House

Book Description from the Publisher's Press Release

President Bill Clinton's My Life is the strikingly candid portrait of a global leader who decided early in life to devote his intellectual and political gifts, and his extraordinary capacity for hard work, to serving the public.

It shows us the progress of a remarkable American, who, through his own enormous energies and efforts, made the unlikely journey from Hope, Arkansas, to the White House -- a journey fueled by an impassioned interest in the political process which manifested itself at every stage of his life: in college, working as an intern for Senator William Fulbright; at Oxford, becoming part of the Vietnam War protest movement; at Yale Law School, campaigning on the grassroots level for Democratic candidates; back in Arkansas, running for Congress, attorney general, and governor.

We see his career shaped by his resolute determination to improve the life of his fellow citizens, an unfaltering commitment to civil rights, and an exceptional understanding of the practicalities of political life.

We come to understand the emotional pressures of his youth -- born after his father's death; caught in the dysfunctional relationship between his feisty, nurturing mother and his abusive stepfather, whom he never ceased to love and whose name he took; drawn to the brilliant, compelling Hillary Rodham, whom he was determined to marry; passionately devoted, from her infancy, to their daughter, Chelsea, and to the entire experience of fatherhood; slowly and painfully beginning to comprehend how his early denial of pain led him at times into damaging patterns of behavior.

President Clinton's book is also the fullest, most concretely detailed, most nuanced account of a presidency ever written -- encompassing not only the high points and crises but the way the presidency actually works: the day-to-day bombardment of problems, personalities, conflicts, setbacks, achievements.

It is a testament to the positive impact on America and on the world of his work and his ideals.

It is the gripping account of a president under concerted and unrelenting assault orchestrated by his enemies on the Far Right, and how he survived and prevailed.

It is a treasury of moments caught alive, among them:

  • The ten-year-old boy watching the national political conventions on his family's new (and first) television set.
  • The young candidate looking for votes in the Arkansas hills and the local seer who tells him, "Anybody who would campaign at a beer joint in Joiner at midnight on Saturday night deserves to carry one box.... You'll win here. But it'll be the only damn place you win in this county." (He was right on both counts.)
  • The roller-coaster ride of the 1992 campaign.
  • The extraordinarily frank exchanges with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.
  • The delicate manipulation needed to convince Rabin and Arafat to shake hands for the camera while keeping Arafat from kissing Rabin.

The cost, both public and private, of the scandal that threatened the presidency. Here is the life of a great national and international figure, revealed with all his talents and contradictions, told openly, directly, in his own completely recognizable voice. A unique book by a unique American.

My Life by Bill Clinton -- Please select a book edition to check the price ...
Hardcover
Knopf - 900 Pages
Hardcover - Large Print Edition
Random House - 1664 Pages
Audio Book on Cassette Tape - Abridged
Random House
Audio Book on Audio CD - Abridged
Random House

Book review by Amazon.com reprinted with permission

An exhaustive, soul-searching memoir, Bill Clinton's My Life is a refreshingly candid look at the former president as a son, brother, teacher, father, husband, and public figure. Clinton painstakingly outlines the history behind his greatest successes and failures, including his dedication to educational and economic reform, his war against a "vast right-wing operation" determined to destroy him, and the "morally indefensible" acts for which he was nearly impeached. My Life is autobiography as therapy -- a personal history written by a man trying to face and banish his private demons.

Clinton approaches the story of his youth with gusto, sharing tales of giant watermelons, nine-pound tumors, a charging ram, famous mobsters and jazz musicians, and a BB gun standoff. He offers an equally energetic portrait of American history, pop culture, and the evolving political landscape, covering the historical events that shaped his early years (namely the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK) and the events that shaped his presidency (Waco, Bosnia, Somalia). What makes My Life remarkable as a political memoir is how thoroughly it is infused with Clinton's unassuming, charmingly pithy voice:

"I learned a lot from the stories my uncle, aunts, and grandparents told me: that no one is perfect but most people are good; that people can't be judged only by their worst or weakest moments; that harsh judgments can make hypocrites of us all; that a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain."

However, that same voice might tire readers as Clinton applies his penchant for minute details to a distractible laundry list of events, from his youth through the years of his presidency. Not wanting to forget a single detail that might help account for his actions, Clinton overdoes it -- do we really need to know the name of his childhood barber? But when Clinton sticks to the meat of his story -- recollections about Mother, his abusive stepfather, Hillary, the campaign trail, and Kenneth Starr -- the veracity of emotion and Kitchen Confidential-type revelations about "what it is like to be President" make My Life impossible to put down.

To Clinton, "politics is a contact sport," and while he claims that My Life is not intended to make excuses or assign blame, it does portray him as a fighter whose strategy is to "take the first hit, then counterpunch as hard as I could." While My Life is primarily a stroll through Clinton's memories, it is also a scathing rebuke -- a retaliation against his detractors, including Kenneth Starr, whose "mindless search for scandal" protected the guilty while "persecuting the innocent" and distracted his Administration from pressing international matters (including strikes on al Qaeda). Counterpunch indeed.

At its core, My Life is a charming and intriguing if flawed book by an equally intriguing and flawed man who had his worst failures and humiliations made public. Ultimately, the man who left office in the shadow of scandal offers an honest and open account of his life, allowing readers to witness his struggle to "drain the most out of every moment" while maintaining the character with which he was raised. It is a remarkably intimate, persuasive look at the boy he was, the President he became, and man he is today.

-- Daphne Durham

My Life by Bill Clinton -- Please select a book edition to check the price ...
Hardcover
Knopf - 900 Pages
Hardcover - Large Print Edition
Random House - 1664 Pages
Audio Book on Cassette Tape - Abridged
Random House
Audio Book on Audio CD - Abridged
Random House