In the normal order of things, a 957-page autobiography by a person who had served two terms as president of the United States, in command of his faculties, recounting his version of the history he lived through, and to a considerable extent made, would not be widely, automatically, sarcastically execrated for its excessive length, faulted for the often unsparing mirror it held to the author’s complicated and by his own admission flawed character, or mindlessly attacked for nebulous, dark “motives” imputed to the book’s publication.
We are not living in any sort of normal times. We are living in the depths of a surreal fait accompli produced by the Supreme Court’s corrupt, meretricious, absurdly argued, transparently illegal, hubristic, and ultimately self-serving rulings in the matter of Bush v. Gore. Quite aside from usurping powers that properly belonged to the Congress and the Florida Legislature, and placing in the White House a criminal cartel whose contempt for the Constitution and democracy itself has turned our country into a terrorist oligarchy and an object of fear and loathing throughout the world, Bush v. Gore, in a rapid succession of inept, inane, overtly totalitarian strokes, demolished the entire foundation of American law by proclaiming itself “unique to this case” and exempt from any further use as judicial precedent. This may not have been apparent to anyone except a legal scholar at the time. However, now that the Bush Junior government is frantically seeking, and at the same time asserting, legal justification for torture, arbitrary detention without right of counsel, and other “emergency” powers, assertions cast in identical language to Nazi statutes (just look them up on the Internet if you think I’m exaggerating), the true implications of Bush v. Gore, and the nature of the court that accepted this case and ruled for the plaintiff, have become ever more apparent to the ordinary citizen.
A quality that informs much of Bill Clinton’s My Life, however self-congratulatory its author’s account of events may be, has been expunged altogether from American public discourse by G.W. Bush & Co. and by the media conglomerates who are among its few beneficiaries. That is, a sense of the greater good. The concept that the United States is a community of persons entitled to equal treatment under the law, and that every life in that community has intrinsic value, rather than a variable monetary one, had already been rendered so alien by eight years of Ronald Reagan’s polished, senile performance as a ventriloquial doll and four years of miserable sequel under the American Andropov, George Bush the First, that Clinton’s election in 1992 was perceived by the country’s owners as a dire threat to their property rights.
Presuming the reader is old enough to cast his or her mind back to the poisonous social atmosphere that prevailed before the expulsion of George the First and dissolved for eight years under Clinton despite the grotesque efforts of the hard right to remove him from office, and again, presuming our reader has not been sufficiently hypnotized—by the prospect of an even larger plasma TV screen, a space-shuttle-size SUV, and a cell phone that gives you an enema while booking you into a fancy restaurant—to ignore the stench of malaise and hopelessness that a few years of our Dry Drunk and Compulsive Liar in Chief, George the Second, have poured over all but the very, very rich and very, very psychopathic, it should be easy to credit most of Clinton’s book with abundant goodwill, a fair amount of wit, and far more reflection and intelligence than any of the recent literary effusions of G.W. Bush’s hagiographers and anorexic cheerleaders have evidenced, despite the fascinatingly demonic abandon they have brought to their exhibitionism.
Admittedly, Midge Decter’s biography of Donald Rumsfeld may stand the test of time as a classic achievement in the literature of coprophagia; the vivid yet bulimically svelte anthology of paranoid slanders Ann Coulter has given us in Treason has added something innovative to that small, delectable canon of hallucinatory works that also includes Céline’s Bagatelles Pour un Massacre and the unjustly anonymous Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and the eloquent-as-a-treacle-tart Christopher Hitchens, in a prodigious outpouring of books and articles, has rendered the mental process by which intellectual prostitutes magically change form in alignment with shifting power formations as legibly as few besides Curzio Malaparte have managed since the fall of Mussolini.
Despite the cornucopia of bijoux items from the crackpot right and free-range, publicity-addicted blabbermouths that publishers like HarperCollins and other multinational subsidy boutiques were touting a mere nine months ago as wonderful additions to whatever bookshelves American homes still feature as decorative touches, even the antic Ms. Coulter would have to concede—well, actually, I doubt it—that the popularity of these offerings has been remarkably transient, and most did nothing in sales next to Hillary Clinton’s recent blockbuster. It seems that Americans who can still afford to buy a book, and are able to read one, prefer political books that appeal to their better natures instead of their baser instincts and favor writing that offers, at the very least, some hope that diverse people might one day live in acceptance of difference and the golden rule instead of eternal antagonism and warfare.
Regarding My Life itself, it is long. Yes. While I doubt that any of the reviewers who have disparagingly compared it to the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant have ever actually read the latter, I also doubt that they have read the former. Say what you will about Clinton, but he is one of the few U.S. presidents since Grant to have written a book by himself. While reading it I often wished someone else had written it for him, since he clearly has a tin ear and little sense of what to include and what to leave out. All the same, it’s impossible to actually read this book without missing Clinton, for unlike his predecessor and his successor, the Spook and the Born-Again Cokehead/Booze Hound, he isn’t mean-spirited, homophobic, racist, or idiotic, never confuses himself with Jesus Christ, and even when putting annoying people in their place, does it with a light touch. “Unfortunately, my relationship with Bill Bennett didn’t fare well after I became President and he began promoting virtue for a living.” “Vice-President Dan Quayle said he intended to be the ‘pit bull terrier’ of the election campaign. When asked about it, I said Quayle’s claim would strike terror into the heart of every fire hydrant in America.” Clinton is even gracious to Barbara Bush, a vicious old bag in pearl sets who could’ve given Angela Lansbury notes for her role in The Manchurian Candidate.
I will leave it to others to parse whether it is preferable, given the systemic and implacable evils of maintaining an empire that is inherently vampiric and suicidal, to have its declining years managed by Rapture-hungry mental dwarves, cretinous judges flapping about in Iolanthe-inspired Inquisition costumes of their own design, and megalomaniacs of indeterminable species such as Richard Perle; or by a plain-talking arriviste who can’t resist a Big Mac and a strawberry milk shake, and once in a while needs a blowjob from somebody he isn’t married to. I happen to think it does make a difference what kind of arse sits in the Oval Office and whether he governs with a sense of his own transience and imperfection or uses fear and intimidation to whip the population into line with whatever brand of pious bullshit makes him feel like Superman. For people who truly believe the Bush coup d’état has “restored honor to the Presidency,” or however that tired tune goes, I recommend Bill Clinton’s book as a good strong dose of the reality principle. Honorable people don’t waste any time proclaiming how honorable they are, and sometimes honor consists in admitting you fucked up.
Oh, yeah, and all you brilliant Nader voters, ask yourself this: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 22, 2004