Clinton omits no one in memoir

by Alan Freeman
Toronto Globe and Mail
June 23, 2004

Washington — Jean Chrétien, Joni Mitchell and Kim Campbell should be pleased. Yasser Arafat and Kenneth Starr should be seething.

Bill Clinton's long-hyped memoir, My Life, hit the world's bookshops yesterday. And anyone who gets to the end of its 957 pages will know the former U.S. president's views on virtually everyone he has met since his birth in Hope, Ark., in 1946.

Mr. Chrétien rates five references in the voluminous index, more than the Pope or the Queen, although not Monica Lewinsky, who gets 14.

"We spent a lot of time with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his wife, Aline," Mr. Clinton writes about a trip to Ottawa in February, 1995. "Chrétien would become one of my best friends among world leaders, a strong ally, confidant and frequent golfing partner."

Even Kim Campbell, whose career as Canada's prime minister was over in the blink of an eye, is mentioned favourably.

Recalling her appearance at a 1993 world leaders summit, Mr. Clinton says she was "an impressive, clearly dedicated person who had just taken office after the resignation of Brian Mulroney."

Canadians might be pleased to discover that Alberta-born Joni Mitchell, through her song Chelsea Morning, inspired the name Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, chose for their daughter.

Strolling down a London street in 1978, the Clintons heard a loudspeaker playing Judy Collins's version of the song. "We agreed on the spot that if we ever had a daughter we'd call her Chelsea," Mr. Clinton writes.

Names, in fact, are what much of the book is about. The account of Mr. Clinton's childhood is chock-a-block with the names of every one of his neighbours, how many children they had and what they did when they grew up.

"It's weightlifting at the same time" as reading, joked Sam Hiersteiner, a young public-relations expert, as he prepared to plunk down $24.50 (U.S.) for a discounted copy at a Borders bookstore early yesterday.

Like many stores, the outlet had opened at midnight to cater to hard-core Clinton aficionados, stocking several thousand copies of the tome.

There were predictions yesterday that the initial press run of 1.5 million would soon be spoken for, meaning a rapid payback for publisher Alfred Knopf and its $10-million advance.

Legal secretary Gloria Pfeiffer wasn't put off by a devastating front-page critique in The New York Times that called the book "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull."

She said she wanted to read it for herself, adding that she would vote for Mr. Clinton in a flash if he were to run for office again.

"I'm always embarrassed when [President] George [W.] Bush speaks off the cuff because he says stupid things," Ms. Pfeiffer said. "Clinton is intelligent. He's engaging."

Nevertheless, much of My Life is a tedious recapitulation of its author's presidential diary.

One passage reads: "In July, as I continued to push my agenda at home, Dick Holbrooke flew to Belgrade to see Milosevic in an attempt to resolve the Kosovo crisis; Prime Minister Hashimoto resigned after election losses in Japan; Nelson Mandela got married to Graca Machel, the lovely widow of a former president of Mozambique . . . and Ken Starr continued to build his case against me."

Mr. Starr, the special prosecutor who hounded Mr. Clinton for everything from the Whitewater real estate deal to the sex scandal involving Ms. Lewinsky, is depicted as a key member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that Ms. Clinton accused of tarring her husband.

In a book which treats most world leaders kindly, Mr. Arafat is a notable exception. Mr. Clinton blames the Palestinian leader for the collapse of his final effort at Middle East peacemaking, and questions his grasp on reality.

"I had felt for some time that he might not be at the top of his game any longer," he writes, calling Mr. Arafat's rejection of a peace offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak "a colossal mistake."

The most engaging part of the book is Mr. Clinton's description of growing up as a chubby, precocious boy with an adoring mother and a sometimes violent, alcoholic father in small-town Arkansas.

He recalls how he began leading "parallel lives," hiding his family's violent secrets behind an optimistic outgoing disposition, a pattern he continued as an adult.

He admits to human frailties and personality flaws, including his "inappropriate encounters" with Ms. Lewinsky. But he prefers to see the impeachment battle that followed his sexual foibles as a grand contest between good and evil.

"Although I would always regret what I had done wrong, I will go to my grave being proud of what I had fought for in the impeachment battle, my last great showdown with the forces I had opposed all of my life," he writes.

These "forces" include defenders of racial discrimination as well as opponents of the women's movement, gay rights and environmental protection.

Mr. Clinton, who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, appears to express regret at not having signed up for military service.

"The more I saw of America's military, the more I wished I'd been a part of it when I was young, though I never changed my feelings about Vietnam," he writes.

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