957 pp. Knopf Publishing Group. $22.63
The Story Writer: A Review of Bill Clinton’s “My Life”
By: Inesha Premaratne
I don’t usually weigh my books, but I must say that at 3.5 pounds and 957 pages, Bill Clinton’s My Life is quite hefty. Beyond his marked candor, this former President unearths with each sentence an incredible amount of detail—so much that while reading I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would be capable of half as much. Still, Clinton delivers his narrative with poise and fluidity, bundling the embarrassing and the poignant together in a singularly cohesive narrative. To this end, he creates an autobiography that is not just a portrait of an American icon, but also an intentional portrait of the country that elected him in the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Beyond the minutiae of his presidency, Clinton invites us into his old photo albums, the many conversations he had with his kinfolk in Arkansas, and even into the very first memories he has of his wife Hillary, saying in one of his more memorable lines: “With Hillary there was no arm’s length. She was in my face from the start, and, before I knew it, in my heart.” Even more, Clinton creates vivid images with his words—images such as that of his Mother kneeling by the side of the railroad tracks, crying on her knees whilst saying goodbye to her young son as she sent him off to be cared for by grandparents.
Clinton’s own story as he tells it provides insight into the stories of ordinary Americans, Americans that ultimately influenced this former president’s policies while in office. For instance, as a former law professor, Clinton saw his African American students struggle in law school because they had spent many of their earlier years confined to “poor segregated schools.” Clinton recounts how “high a mountain [his African American students] had to climb to reach the bar or the bench” and how accordingly they gave him enough evidence to support the Supreme Court in 2003 when it upheld the principle of affirmative action. Similarly, Clinton traces his proposal for a national community service program to an argument he had with a Mr. Rick Stearns. In this way, Clinton leaves the reader with an understanding that is both natural and commonly dismissed: when choosing our leaders it is in fact important to examine their family life and their own history, how they grew up and where they came from. If nothing else, these facts of a person’s life are apt to reveal to us the policies and the issues that he or she will be most compelled to champion when in office.
But Clinton goes further than just sharing the background that informed his eventual policy decisions. He shares his diary and his memories, mementos from the past that harken back to an age when he was not so sure of himself. In so doing he draws beyond the material surface of who he is and taps into the very essence of his soul to actually show the kind of man he is. For instance, Clinton shares one of his more profound introspections out of a diary he wrote while still a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford: “The soul: I know what it is—it’s where I feel things; it’s what moves me; it’s what makes me a man, and when I put it out of commission, I know soon enough I will die if I do not retrieve it.” Here we see a young man who has fought against himself, who has questioned his motives and actions and who has come out of his inner struggle affirmed that although he was once afraid he would lose his soul, he knows now that it is too integral to who he is to ever be lost, even in a world that can be as treacherous as politics.
Therein, at the heart of this biography is a man who very much understands himself, who is dedicated, hardworking, and as he himself says, “always in a hurry” to make a difference. In this memoir, Clinton proves to be a man much greater than the totality of the scandals that so tainted his last few years in office or the decisions he made that would inform this country’s future. Instead, he emerges a man whose own story is rooted so firmly in that of his grandparents’ and mother’s, in the stories of the father he never had, the students he taught, and the constituents and neighbors he grew up talking to. But even more in this memoir there emerges a man who believes so much in America and her future that in writing a novel entitled “My Life,” he has written not only his own story, but has memorialized too the stories of this nation’s people.