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Wednesday, October 23

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Airbags

I don't want to make any contentious statements, but Bill Clinton is one of the eight greatest presidents to serve the United States of America. Why eight? Because of James Polk, who I add only because he honestly felt he accomplished everything a president could in his one term, so declined to run again. For your edification, in no particular order, I offer: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton's autobiography, My Life, has been derided as being self-indulgent, sniffling, self-righteous, tedious, pandering, and mind-numbingly dull. People who say these things about the book are the same people who would criticize a book by the Pope for being too "preachy." They don't get it. Bill Clinton's presidency marked a shift in America not seen since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and as much was at stake as during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Clinton's autobiography illustrates clearly why a cabal of wealthy southerners, neo-conservative activists, and ultra-right wing economic organizations did everything within their power to destroy him or, failing that, distort the character of his presidency and legacy.

Because if Bill Clinton was a successful, great president, then Ronald Reagan -- policy-wise his polar opposite -- was the worst president to ever occupy the office. And if Reagan was the worst president in our nation's history, then everything conservatism espouses is wrong. The so-called "Third Way" Clinton espoused was called slick pandering by the Right, and "centrist-rightism" by the Left. In reality, the Third Way as Clinton practiced it was simply the victory of the faculty of reason -- or as Clinton repeatedly calls it in the book, "arithmetic" -- in pursuit of a truly egalitarian society.

Had George W. Bush and the forces of reactionary ultra-conservatism not stolen the election in 2000, our country would be on a progressive path not seen since radical Reconstruction. Al Gore was left of Clinton on many policies, and even more of a wonk to boot; and Ralph Nader's surprisingly strong performance and grassroots support in that election would have lent credibility to at least portions of the Green Party agenda. Clinton left office with job approval ratings into the high 60s; had it not been for the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky scandal, perhaps the greatest abuse of legal authority since the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, Gore would have won in a walk. Reaganite conservatism would have been dealt a death blow.

Clinton's book reads like one of his meandering speeches -- detailed policy wonkishness blended with personal stories that are tangential. You remember, like:

"A year or so after I signed X bill, I met an African-American woman named Sandra Davison from Hampstead, Mississippi who owned a small grocery store and had three kids with cerebal palsy. She told me that if it weren't for that bill, she would have had to sell the store and apply for welfare, just so she could get on MedicAid. Whenever people ask me why I signed that bill, I tell them it was for people like Sandra Davison."

By my count, Clinton mentions some variation of "Republican attack machine," (acceptable variations: "The Republicans" within some variation of "enemies" or "opponents"; "political enemies"; "personal enemies"; "conservative activists" OR "ideologue"; "neo-conservative" within five words of "opportunists") at least 178 times, or about once every five and a half pages.

Clinton is evidently very bitter about what happened to him during his presidency; although he repeatedly apologizes for his indiscretions, for which he insists there is no excuse, he never fails to qualify it by pointing out the hypocrisy, indecency, and perverse power-hunger of the Republican Congress and vast right-wing conspiracy that targeted him. After a while, his indignancy begins to wear on the reader and does seem to be a bit of sniveling. But it is important to put things in perspective. The man worked tirelessly his whole life, starting out in a poor family in rural Arkansas and making a hell of a walk to the presidency of the United States against amazing odds, only to have all of his important work erased by a well-financed cabal of plutocrats out to destroy him personally. Wouldn't you be pissed? A president has a maximum of eight years to enact their vision; Clinton was besieged for nearly five of those eight years by Kenneth Starr.

Part of Clinton's clever way of attacking Starr is via the index. Starr's entry in the index indicates the first mention of him is on page 22; however, Starr's name never comes up on page 22. Rather, on that page Clinton recalls an incident in his youth on his family farm in which a grown ram attacked him without provocation and beat him to a bloody pulp; but the attack, Clinton explains, only made him more resilient.

The book lays bare Clinton's obsession with his legacy: every page he seems to be either signing several laws into existence or visiting a slew of foreign dignitaries to bring the world closer to peace. He also meets a lot of "average" Americans, and eats. A lot. The guy mentions food over 100 times, or about once every nine pages. There are at least 10 references to pie.

The President's casual, almost childish way of recalling the achievements of his presidency almost make him seem like a simpleton hillbilly from Arkansas, until you realize that he is just putting one over on you. Bill Clinton is a brilliant man, perhaps the most intelligent to ever hold the office, but he never feels the need to bludgeon anybody with it; this is the "parallel nature" he refers to repeatedly throughout the book. When relating to his fellow Americans, he is sincerely casual and personable -- when approaching a problem of policy is when he begins to wield all his faculties of reason. He's kind of like a plumber in that way; when around his neighbors, he doesn't feel the need to delve into details about drainage systems and auxiliary hatches just to show off his knowledge.

The Economist's review of the book repeatedly pointed out a perceived narcissism throughout the book; Clinton repeatedly insists that his guidance brought America into line with the changing economy and solidified our role in the Post-Cold War world. He also insinuates that his New Democrat/DLC philosophy revolutionized populist politics in the United States. He seems to take especial pride in author Toni Morrison's description of him as America's "first Black President," mentioning it on at least three different occasions. At one point he even mentions how as a teen he wished he could be black, which is a little awkward to read. After 12 years of Reagan/Bush, however, the cause of civil rights and equality were set back generations; Clinton had more to do with the leveling of the economic and social playing field than any president since LBJ, and deserves the pride he takes in his great pains to relate to the African-American community.

Besides, doesn't Clinton have a right to brag? Especially considering most media and political pundits remember him only for his scandals and transgressions, Clinton has every right to highlight what he accomplished. Bill Clinton was not born into greatness; nobody expected anything of him. In his own mind, he is an average guy who accomplished the following:

1. Bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
2. Bailing out the Mexican economy.
3. Stabilizing a freshly democratic Russia.
4. Maintaining a 65 percent approval rating after six years of unabashed scandalmongering by the press.
5. Bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closer to resolution than at any point since 1948.
6. Presiding over the biggest boom in the US economy since the 1960s. 7. Shepherding the biggest economy in the world through a revolution akin to the industrialization of the 1870s.
8. Creating international regimes that eliminated tens of millions of landmines from the face of the earth.
9. Defending the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion while simultaneously reducing the number of early-term terminations through education and safe-sex initiatives.
10. Transforming the biggest federal budget deficit in our nation's history into one of the largest surplus in our nation's history.
11. Transforming the image of the United States as a maverick self-concerned superpower into the "good offices" for peace and prosperity throughout the world.
12. Forcing the US Congress to pay back dues of nearly $2 billion to the United Nations, financing thousands of poverty and hunger relief programs throughout the world.
13. Presiding over the largest gains in economic status for African-Americans, Latinos, and women in history.
14. Restoring democracy to Haiti.
15. Putting pressure on North Korea to halt its insatiable lust for nuclear weapons.
16. Cutting taxes on the middle class and eliminating over 20,000 pages of federal regulations while simultaneously expanding government services.
17. Creating hundreds of empowerment zones in low-income areas across the country, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of investment into America's blighted inner cities and rural communities.

I could go on for a while, but you get the point. President Clinton accomplished more during his presidency than we will ever know, especially since he has basically become fodder for late-night comedians and right-wing radio personalities making outdated jokes about the definition of the word "is" and sexual potty humor.

As a writer, Clinton is entertaining and straightforward; his knowledge is boundless and he is possessed of almost total recall, filling in scenes from his youth and early election campaigns with remarkably minute details. He is also capable of concise explanations of complex policy positions and his reasons for espousing or opposing them, although he often allows himself longer digressions with real-life examples. He is obviously very concerned with pleasing people and earning their affection, perhaps more so than their respect.

Personally, Clinton doesn't spend enough time on his relationship with Hillary, perhaps at her behest since she is still in political life. His affection for Chelsea, however, knows no bounds. He slips in a reference to her whenever possible, and his desire to talk about her and his affection for her seems genuine. He seems especially hurt by accusations that Chelsea was merely a political convenience, and mentions wanting to punch a TV Newsmagazine journalist who suggested Clinton's marriage to Hillary was an "arrangement." Nevertheless, I wanted to know more about Hillary's reaction to Clinton's failure to push through health-care reform -- many feel that Clinton basically hung his wife out to dry after that setback -- and his admission to her that he did in fact "have sexual relations with that woman," after she went to bat for him and earned ridicule by suggesting there was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to destroy him. Clinton describes the look on her face -- like she just got "punched in the stomach" -- and famously describes how he had to sleep on the couch. Chelsea also refused to speak to him for a while. Slowly, however, Hillary forgave him and eventually, "I got to sleep in the bed again." Reading about his personal life in his own words really makes one realize just how much he was dehumanized by the press, and turned into a purely political object, whose personal life deserved no respect from the public at large.

One thing you take away from this book is that Bill Clinton is not just a slick, gentle politician, all finesse. Bill Clinton is a tough-guy, too, a hard ass with the balls for a fight. In the face of seething, hateful attacks, insurmountable political odds and personal strife, Bill Clinton kept working for the American people. He never backed down from an attack and he forced some very progressive legislation through a hostile Congress by refusing to pander to the desires of established legislators and conservative activist judges. He threatened Newt Gingrich, hostilely reprimanded Yasser Arafat, and angrily responded to the president of Vietnam during a press conference in that country. The image of Clinton as a draft-dodging, Ivy League pansy is completely dispelled in this book, and that perhaps is one of its greatest contributions to Presidential history.

My Life is not only an impressive and exhaustive recounting of the Clinton Presidency; it is a great history of the second half of the twentieth century, and a heartbreaking personal history that lays bare the perverse depths humanity can sink to in pursuit of power.

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Comments

Naz / July 21, 2004 9:31 AM

I like ol' Bill. In my lifetime, I think there has been no better president that I actively knew about (first president I learned of was ol' Ronnie). He's quite the charming bastard isn't he? Despite all the brou-ha-ha, I think he left his presidency in a good place.

I look forward to reading his book.

Have you seen the Panorama interview? At about 16 minutes in, he's busting some balls.

Peter / July 21, 2004 9:51 AM

A little perspective please. Clinton wasn't as bad as his critics say, nor was he as good as his devotees would point out.

1. Bringing peace to Northern Ireland. You don't think the British and the Irish had a little more to do with it? They've been dealing with that issue since Cromwell.

3. Stabilizing a freshly democratic Russia. Again, more the Russians than Clinton.

5. Bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closer to resolution than at any point since 1948. The argument has been made that by doing so, the seeds for the intifada were sown. Is it a valid argument? Maybe, but you have to admit that Clinton was trying to push so that it would happen during his term.

6. Presiding over the biggest boom in the US economy since the 1960s. Anybody could have presided over the boom. Anybody.

7. Shepherding the biggest economy in the world through a revolution akin to the industrialization of the 1870s. Yes, the Clinton taught us how to use computers and the meaning of productivity.

11. Transforming the image of the United States as a maverick self-concerned superpower into the "good offices" for peace and prosperity throughout the world. Except for that whole bombing of Kosovo, Sudan, Iraq. I remember noticing that Clinton bombed more countries than any other peacetime president.

13. Presiding over the largest gains in economic status for African-Americans, Latinos, and women in history. Again, the economy did that, not Clinton.

14. Restoring democracy to Haiti. Or restoring Aristide to Haiti.

15. Putting pressure on North Korea to halt its insatiable lust for nuclear weapons. Obviously not enough.

16. Cutting taxes on the middle class and eliminating over 20,000 pages of federal regulations while simultaneously expanding government services. Sweet, more government services.

Mike / July 21, 2004 1:38 PM

Clinton's two terms saw some pretty good improvements for middle class folks, I'm not sure how much of it was his doing. Unemployment dropped, real wages rose (a little bit), he inherited a $290 billion deficit made it a $230 billion surplus.
One of the best facts that will really piss off your Republican friends is that While Reagan and Bush Sr. (and his son, W) increased spending and employees on the federal payroll, Clinton reduced both during his two terms. So much for the GOP being the party that wants to shrink government.

FOUR MORE YEARS!! / July 21, 2004 2:29 PM

Y'know, Rasmin, if you open up a little wider, you might be able to fit even MORE of Clinton's penis in your mouth. Sure was a nice hummer you gave him in your review of his book.

Does he also walk on water?

amyc / July 21, 2004 3:08 PM

Why can't Republicans stop talking about Clinton's penis?

GapersBlock for Bush / July 21, 2004 3:34 PM

Nobody can stop talking about Clinton's penis because it seems he can't keep it in his pants.

I heard he bumped into a woman in the subway the other day and his penis ended up in her mouth.

Steve / July 21, 2004 4:05 PM

Hey Gapers Block -- do y'all track back? Sounds like yer gettin' some traffic from Lucianne Goldberg / Freeper country. Watch out -- that crowd tends to lower your property values even as they try to turn everyplace into a gated community.

mike / July 22, 2004 12:42 AM

Good review. The republicans in here are a little defensive; ahhh, the tell-tale signs of a desperate community. They have had their time in the spotlight, and like the evil vampires they are, they are now melting away......poor evil republican vampires...

Roxabunch / July 22, 2004 11:15 AM

It is pretty funny to watch the Republican'ts talk about Slick Willies Jimmy while everyone else talks about his domestic economic policy. Ahh, the last gasps of the IL GOP.

Fitz / July 22, 2004 7:09 PM

To Peter:
1. That is exeactly the point. Four centuries of intractable strife, and Clinton got it down. Not all him, of course, much respect to the British, Irish, G. Mitchell, et al.
But Clinton got it done.
5. Israel. He was trying "push so that it would happen during his term"? What the hell should he have done? When else would he have done it?
6. Clinton is not singularly responsible for this, but if anybody could have done it, why didn't they? Reagan sure as hell didn't.
15. North Korea was at the table, being dealt with. And then Bush "got tough", or some shit. Now we have a almost nuclearized power. Good job Dubs.
I would continue, but I have to leave the library.
Good article, and might I point out, objectively, that Republicans are idiots. And, subjectively, yes mike, they are evil vampires.
G for B, at least the dick is in his mouth, not his ass. It is fairly obvious whose in is yours.
Love,
Clark Gable

RENTZ / July 26, 2004 1:23 AM

What FITZ said.

 

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