From a dead president to one with, uh, too much life. Chief Executive Number 40 is in the ground — after a one-sided, ahistorical mediapalooza that celebrated a Hallmarkian “American Life” without mentioning the less pleasant and heartwarming part of the story: supporting dictators, backing foreign armies that massacred peasants, working with suspected drug smugglers in pursuit of an illegal war, cutting assistance to the working poor. But now it’s Number 42’s turn to be center stage, with the publication of his book, My Life, aptly titled for its me-me-me author, Bill Clinton.
The tome — 957 pages long, and each page, no doubt, utterly indispensable — descends upon the land on June 22. This will force the commentariat into overdrive, as the Clinton Wars are re-ignited and the nation once again has the chance to pick at the tale of the only president besides the glorious, loved-by-all Ronald Reagan to have served two full terms in the past 44 years. (For those of you keeping score at home, at the end of his presidency Clinton’s approval ratings were above those of Ronald the Great.)
To assist readers — and make life easier for besieged bookstores — Alfred A. Knopf, Clinton’s publisher, should have stained the edge of every page of My Life dealing with you-know-what, for certainly those passages will be perused first by anyone who comes into physical proximity to the volume. (Will the folks who buy the audio-book version — 41 CDs! — be able to scan to the good parts?) It’s doubtful that Clinton will add much in the way of details to the more-info-than-you-need Ken Starr report. (Will Clinton, for instance, explain why, as the pornographic Starr report noted, he only ejaculated two of the nine times Lewinsky performed oral sex on him?) But imagine how much Clinton could tell us about other aspects of his presidency that could truly illuminate the workings of government and the challenges and dilemmas of modern-day politics. So rather than look up “Lewinsky, Monica” or “Blue dress (Gap)” in the index, I’m going straight to some other entries.
Rector, Ricky Ray. In January 1992, when Governor Clinton was locked in a fierce fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, he left the campaign trail and headed to Arkansas to be home for the execution of an African-American man convicted of killing two people, including a police officer. This murderer, after shooting the cop, had put the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. He destroyed the front part of his brain, leaving him severely mentally retarded. So detached from reality was Rector that after his last meal, before being taken to the death chamber, he placed his dessert aside for later consumption. Clinton’s much-noticed return to Arkansas was an attempt to send a message to voters: Here was one Democrat who was a tough SOB on crime. Through the years I often heard liberal pals of Clinton say that they assumed that Clinton did not really believe the death penalty was effective. In other words, he exploited Rector’s execution for political gain. Shocking, I know. How refreshing it will be if Clinton in his book forthrightly discusses how he felt compelled to pull such a stunt to triumph electorally. Sure, it won’t bring Rector back to life. Yet, for $35, shouldn’t the reader receive a few dollops of candor?
Guinier, Lani. A close friend of the Clintons — she danced at their wedding! — Guinier was nominated in 1993 by Clinton to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. When the conservatives ganged up on her, Clinton tossed her overboard. The case against Guinier, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and civil rights scholar, was fraudulent. She was accused of being a “quota queen,” and her detractors pointed to her writings in legal journals as evidence. She was no advocate of quotas. In fact, she championed an innovative solution to the problem of minority representation: at-large voting. (Such a system allows minority voters to maximize their voting power without weakening anyone else’s vote.) But the truth did not matter to her foes, and Clinton caved. As a bogus explanation, he said he had not read Guinier’s articles before nominating her. He apparently did not want a fight on his hand at a time when he was slipping in the polls. Thus, he abandoned his dear comrade. Will he apologize to her in his book and clarify why he chose not to defend her?
Health-care reform, see Clinton, Hillary. When Hillary Clinton was pulling together the administration’s health-care reform plan, she routinely told policy advocates that the ideal solution would be some form of single-payer national health care. But, she added, it was not politically feasible, because Corporate America would scream bloody murder. So she hitched together a plan that was so convoluted few of its intended beneficiaries could understand it and all of its foes could deride it. Thanks to this disaster, health-care reform has been largely off the political agenda for a decade. How will Clinton chronicle this screwup?
Rwanda, genocide. More outrageous than his I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman lie was the whopper he told when he visited Rwanda in 1998. Four years earlier, the nation had experienced a genocide in which half a million people, mainly of the Tutsi minority, were slaughtered over three months by Hutu extremists. During his 1998 tour of Africa, Clinton touched down in Rwanda for a few hours and issued sort of an apology. He acknowledged that his administration had done little to stem the mass murder and explained, “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” That was utterly disingenuous. Intelligence and media reports had fully reported the nightmare under way in Rwanda. Human-rights activists in Washington were pounding on the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania demanding action and suggesting options. But the Clinton White House even declined to label the massacre a “genocide,” for doing so would have forced the administration, under international law, to take direct steps to halt the killings. After the disaster in Somalia, Clinton had no stomach for another messy conflict in Africa. As a recent report of the non-governmental National Security Archive notes, “That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.” What, then, inhibited Clinton in 1994? If he provided these unsavory details, he could truly serve history.
Criminal-justice policy, incarceration rates. In a farewell interview with Rolling Stone in the fall of 2000, Clinton, responding to high rates of incarceration, noted, “We really need an examination of our entire prison policy.” But as president, Clinton, who had a hankering for signing lock-’em-up crime bills, enacted what the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice called “arguably the most punitive platform on crime in the last two decades.” The policies that went into action during his administration led to the largest increase in the prison population of any president in U.S. history. The number of inmates rose by 673,000 in the Clinton years — 225,000 more than the boost that occurred when Reagan was president. Will Clinton acknowledge any errors on this front?
Oh, there’s so much more: all the gates — Travelgate, Filegate, Lincoln Bedroomgate. Will he reveal anything new about Whitewater, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey? Admit that he misled the nation regarding Gennifer Flowers? Tell us whether the cruise-missile attacks he launched against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan were unrelated to his grand-jury troubles? Sure, he’ll hail the 22 million jobs while he was in the White House, his successes in Bosnia and Kosovo, his near successes in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. But will he defend the Democrats’ sleazy fund-raising that transpired while he led the party? Explain the unexplainable last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financier? Nearly 1,000 pages should provide Clinton the opportunity to cover fully the known and not-so-known highs and lows of his roller-coaster years in the White House. But I suspect that even at this great length, the book will leave a discerning reader with as many questions as answers.