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Courtesy of Clinton Presidential Materials Project

Hope Springs Eternal: Bill Clinton hides behind a curtain of platitudes in his big, fat memoir, 'My Life.'

Bill of Particulars

Bill Clinton's 'My Life' is 957 pages long, but we know some shortcuts from Hope to Washington, D.C.

By Michael S. Gant

HAVE I read all 957 pages of Bill Clinton's My Life? That depends, as the ex-president might say, on what your definition of "read" is. Not being a member of the elite media, I didn't receive my copy until last Tuesday, and with a short deadline to meet—well, can you say, "Evelyn Wood Speed Reading"?

This doorstop-size memoir is dauntingly long yet eminently skimmable, and in order to save you the trouble, I've prepared some tips for getting through My Life without sacrificing too much of your personal life while still gleaning some tidbits to drop during receptions, soirees and rave parties.

Meet-and-Greet: Large chunks of My Life consist of laundry lists of world dignitaries who posed for photo-ops with the prez: "And then Hillary and I met with the president/prime minister/feckless dictator of ———." The only memorable anecdote crops up when Bill explains the forearm-squeezing maneuver he and National Security Adviser Tony Lake devised to make sure that Yasser Arafat didn't try to embarrass an already chagrined Yitzhak Rabin by planting a big wet one on his cheek when the sworn enemies met at the White House to sign the Declaration of Principles.

Name-Dropping: Long passages can be safely rifled past as thank-you notes for the many "FOBs"—Friends of Bill—and exercises in "Spot the Celebrity." In the former category, we get passages like "Marsha Scott and Martha Whetstone, who organized my campaigns in Northern California ... Sheila Bronfman, leader of the Arkansas Travelers, Dave Matter ... [who] succeeded me as class president at Georgetown," ad nauseam. Typically eye-glazing in category two is the following: "The next day we went sailing and swimming with Jackie and Maurice, Ann and Vernon, Ted and Vicki Kennedy, and Ed and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg."

Kiss and Make Up: No doubt still smarting from whatever tongue-flaying Hillary administered after she learned the truth about Monica, Bill goes to great lengths to praise his wife's virtues. She's "smart, tough, resilient, passionate"; she's "idealistic and practical." Bending way over backward, he offers what I suppose is meant to be a solicitous remembrance of some illness Hillary endured, but I doubt if she will appreciate the observation that "her large head seemed to be too big for her body."

Biblical Portents: Assuming that in a democracy the president is something of a secular Jesus, Bill's early life serves as an Old Testament account full of personal foreshadowings that will be revealed years later as New Testament policy initiatives. As a young boy, for instance, Bill endured the insults of a loud-mouthed neighborhood girl: "I later learned that Mitzi was developmentally disabled. The term wouldn't have meant anything to me then, but when I pushed to expand opportunities for the disabled as governor and president, I thought often of Mitzi Polk."

Bad-Music Metaphors: Bill's sax playing no doubt transcends Margaret Truman's singing, but his taste in pop is wince-inducing. Chelsea, he reveals, was named after Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning." (No wonder the First Daughter opted to go to the farthest-removed school in the continental United States from Washington, D.C.) Confessing his love for the Beatles, Bill describes the tumult of his life in 1970: "My 'long and winding road' was leading me home, and I hoped that, as the Beatles sang in 'Hey Jude,' I could at least 'take a sad song and make it better.'" Maybe we owe Yoko an apology after all.

Know Thy Betters: Early on, Clinton read quality literature (no My Pet Goat for Bill). He mentions Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Orwell, Flaubert (from whose Madame Bovary he may have drawn all the wrong lessons), Edmund Wilson and, most signal, Willie Morris. It's to Clinton's credit that he realizes that North Toward Home, Morris' memoir about growing up and out of the racially charged rural South, is exactly the kind of book Clinton might have written about his own Arkansas upbringing with a strong-willed mother and an alcoholic stepfather if he hadn't been constrained by the need to look so presidential.

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From the June 30-July 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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