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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
My Life retains Clinton's flaws
The former US President Bill Clinton has published his memoirs, My Life. BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds, who was based in Washington during the last two years of the Clinton presidency, reviews the book.

Bill Clinton's autobiography on sale in US shop.
Bill Clinton's memoirs are flying off the shelves

Bill Clinton never quite achieved greatness as a president. And nor does his autobiography as a book.

It is as his presidency was - at times fascinating, often rambling - and always overshadowed by the demons which formed the character of the boy and the flaws of the man.

One has to turn first to the Lewinsky affair. It is sadly what he will be remembered for in this generation, whatever history might eventually say.

His account is a classic Clinton mixture of confession and accusation.

Anger against his accusers

He burns with hatred towards those who impeached him and would have seen him out of the White House.

In particular, his target is the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. "It was clear," he says, "that Starr was trying to create a firestorm to force me from office."

He accuses Mr Starr and his interrogators, who interviewed him on camera for the Grand Jury, of doing their best "to turn the videotape into a pornographic home movie".

He quotes with approval Cheryl Mills, the young black lawyer who defended him in the Senate trial: "Black people all over America knew that the drive to impeach me was being led by right-wing white southerners who had never lifted a finger for civil rights."

Mandela's advice

He movingly quotes Nelson Mandela recounting how he had refused to hate those who had imprisoned him.

"I realised that they had already taken everything from me except my mind and my heart. Those they could not take without my permission. I decided not to give them away. And neither should you," Mr Mandela told him.

It is, though, as if Mr Clinton is entirely the wronged party, as Nelson Mandela was.

Partly blaming himself

Yet, he knows that he cannot throw all the blame onto others and he takes a good deal of it on himself, though with Bill Clinton, you did not know at the time and you do not find out from this book, how much is genuine and how much is calculated.

I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring when I saw her again, I told her that it was wrong
Clinton about Lewinsky

After all, in the revealing account he gives of his early life with a stepfather who abused his mother, he tells of how he learned to love secrets. "The allure of our secrets can be too strong, strong enough to make us feel we can't live without them, that we wouldn't even be who we are without them."

Maybe, therefore, he enjoyed the moments with Monica not just because they were pleasurable but because they were secret. He doesn't really say.

What he does offer is a fairly standard mea culpa: "I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring when I saw her again, I told her that it was wrong her me, wrong for my family and wrong for her and I couldn't do it anymore."

"What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it and I didn't want it to come out."


And yet his confessions somehow lack total credibility. He sticks by his bizarre and legalistic definition of "sexual relations" and rather unconvincingly describes a period of post-Lewinsky self-investigation as he tries to "understand why I had made my own mistakes," as if it happened to someone else.

He stays up at night in the White House "two or three hours alone in my office" reading the Bible and "rereading" The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and other improving books. All this sounds somewhat self-serving.

Sleeping on the couch

What does come over very strongly is the terrible time which followed his admission to his wife Hilary and daughter Chelsea that he had lied to them.

Hillary "looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut".

When there were no cameras around, my wife and daughter were barely speaking to me
Bill Clinton

"When there were no cameras around, my wife and daughter were barely speaking to me," he admits.

He "slept on the couch" downstairs in Martha's Vineyard where they had gone on vacation, an arrangement which continued at the White House in a next-door room "for two months or more".

He talks of the three pastors who came to see him and about "the power of God's love" and, more practically, of how he and Hillary went into a once-weekly, year-long "serious counselling programme".

"I came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry or feeling isolated and alone. I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self decretive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed."

Eventually, Hillary came round and was "laughing again".

Accounts of the presidency

Interweaved with all this are the accounts of his presidency and here one longed for a good editor to cut out the tedious accounts of the routine meetings and travels so that he could concentrate on the significant ones.

But one feels that Mr Clinton insisted that everything be left in as his record of success (and economically he was a very successful president), alongside his account of failure.

Bill Clinton did not believe in solving problems by war. He refused for a long time to allow the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs. He preferred to talk to North Korea not confront it. He kept Saddam Hussein at bay but did not go to war with him.

He tried to kill Osama bin Laden but did not declare a "war on terror" as his successor did, though he says he warned Mr Bush that Bin Laden would be his biggest security problem. Iraq was only sixth on his list.

This book shows that he was really fired up when he intervened diplomatically, occasionally in Northern Ireland and above all, in the Middle East.

Details of diplomacy

I found his accounts of trying to reach a Middle East agreement the most interesting. But there are tantalising glimpses into other crises and events:

  • How the British Prime Minister John Major refused to take his calls for days after he had granted the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams an American visa

  • How the Chinese President Jiang Zemin also refused his initial call about the bombing of the Chinese embassy during the war over Kosovo

  • How the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told him that, after the Omagh bombing (the worst outrage of the troubles) "the IRA had warned the Real IRA that if they ever did anything like that again, the British police would be the least of their worries"

  • How Tony Blair and his wife Cherie were a "sight for sore eyes" when they turned up in Washington during the Lewinsky revelations. "They made us laugh and Tony gave me strong support in public, emphasising our common approach to economic and social problems, and to foreign policy"

    A hint of Mr Blair's greater readiness to use force comes when he speaks of Mr Blair pressing for the use of ground troops in Kosovo.

    Camp David talks

    His description of trying to get Yasser Arafat to sign up to an agreement at Camp David and later with the Israelis is perhaps the most useful part of the book historically.

    Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
    Yasser Arafat: Made colossal mistake, says Bill Clinton

    He just cannot believe that the Palestinian leader turned down the offer of a state in almost all the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. He calls this refusal " a colossal mistake".

    "At times, Arafat seemed confused, not wholly in command of the facts," he comments.

    He reveals that the Israeli leader Ehud Barak choked on a peanut in Camp David and "stopped breathing for 40 seconds" until given the Heimlich manoeuvre by an aide.

    Of such are memoirs made. There should have been more of them in this book of nearly 1,000 pages.

    In the last line, Mr Clinton refers to "the failure of my life." It is a sad conclusion but one supported by his account of what he told Mr Arafat.

    "Right before I left office, Arafat thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was. 'Mr Chairman,' I replied, 'I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me a failure.'"

    That's Bill Clinton. Blaming himself but blaming others, too.

    The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
    "It is America's obsession with Bill Clinton's private life that is driving sales"

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