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Hype aside, missteps mark 'My Life'

My Life, By Bill Clinton, Knopf, 957 pp., illustrated, $35

Bill Clinton's long-awaited memoir is a pinata of personal ruminations, policies, and justifications. Ranging from the abject poverty of his Arkansas childhood to his eight years at the apex of power as president, the book is a spotlighted lectern for a man who likes to talk.

And that is part of its problem. Henry Kissinger once said that listening to Clinton's explanations of his policies was often better than the policies themselves. Regrettably, Clinton's oratorical talents don't readily translate to his writing skills.

In "My Life," the author's subtext is "Love me and accept my latest explanations. I screwed up, but now I'm doing better." Clinton was a brilliant politician with personal flaws, but his apologies inevitably raise the question of whether he would have admitted these shortcomings if he hadn't gotten caught in them. Probably, no one would.

Why do so many people around the world care about Bill Clinton? The answer is his potential greatness, and we glimpse that often in this book. We are riven as we watch him teetering on the edge of both success and failure. There is a daring spirit in the great and near-great, whether they turn out to be heroes or rascally sinners. This elan is what distinguishes Clinton from many others. If he had no redeeming graces, we'd say good riddance. At the same time, Clinton's misuse of his enormous talent is enough to make more than just the author bite his lower lip.

One of the problems in reviewing "My Life," relentlessly hyped for days but with no advance galleys for reviewers, is that the book has been creating its own momentum. The publisher, Knopf, has Clinton spinning his story on AOL, "60 Minutes," "Oprah," "Good Morning America," "Larry King Live," and "Charlie Rose." Such control can help to make a book review-proof, and the autobiography is benefiting from that media blitz. The publisher says it sold more than 400,000 copies nationwide Tuesday, a record for a nonfiction opening.

But what of note is in the book itself? Clinton discusses Monica Lewinsky and how his indiscretions "had hurt the presidency." He relives his impeachment trial and criticizes independent counsel Kenneth Starr. He recounts the briefly successful Mideast peace process, explains how Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden eluded his administration, and recalls a warning to incoming President Bush about terrorism. Clinton also expresses enmity for former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

As a book, "My Life" has problems of both style and substance. Stylistically, it's hard for a reader with a sense of order to figure it out. There is no table of contents. Perhaps the editor couldn't classify the "one thing after the other" drift into broad themes. There's a prologue in which Clinton says "I always tried to keep things moving in the right direction, to give more people a chance to live their dreams, to lift people's spirits, and to bring them together." From there it's headlong into chapters "One" through "Fifty-Five." In an epilogue, Clinton attempts to summarize in 3 1/2 pages what you already read.

An acknowledgments section does the courteous thing, thanking the Friends of Bill who helped in the effort. Clinton credits his editor, Robert Gottlieb, since "without his judgment and feel, this book might have been twice as long and half as good." (In the end, unfortunately, one longs for a book half as long and twice as good.)

The book's substance varies. Clinton's recounting of his early years in Hope, Ark., is as good as anything. He movingly reminisces about his mother, his grandparents, and about an older boy named Vince Foster, who lived in a "bigger, nicer house" close by. "He was kind to me and never lorded it over me like the way so many older boys did with younger ones. He grew up to be a tall, handsome, wise, good man."

Clinton's hometown, he says, was a place where "the guy pumping your gas might have had an IQ as high as the guy taking your tonsils out." At first glance, that's quite complimentary. On second thought, of course, it might be a good idea to get your tonsils yanked somewhere else.

He also strikes a universal chord, even if it protects him from future penalty for bad behavior, saying, "I learned a lot from the stories my uncle, aunts, and grandparents told me: that no one is perfect but most people are good; that people can't be judged only by their worst or weakest moments; that harsh judgments can make hypocrites of us all; that a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain."

In the book, Clinton's fabled photographic memory sometimes goes dark when it is not in his interest to be too specific. He can remember the Rev. Walter Yeldell's children's names (Carolyn, Lynda, and Walter) but says when his avoidance of the Vietnam draft comes up: "I don't remember, and my diary doesn't indicate, whether I asked Jeff [his mother's fiance] to talk to the local board before or after I learned that graduate deferments had been extended to a full academic year."

There is a good deal of political play by play. Perhaps no one but Arkansas's state archivist will be interested in the mind-numbing details of Clinton's gubernatorial and attorney general races, won and lost. The same detail covers Clinton's sojourn to Washington. He is his old policy-wonk self as he explains how he put together his cabinet and set goals for his first four years.

In essence, Clinton lays out his presidency the way that he wishes it to be remembered. "My Life" is replete with philosophical and practical musings. He explains, for example, why he gave Gerry Adams, leader of the political arm of the IRA, a visa to enter the United States to give a speech, against the advice of his secretary of state. Clinton regrets the suicide of Foster, his childhood friend, who came to the White House as a legal adviser and apparently wasn't up to coping with the mudslinging that came with the job. As he starts his second term, Clinton offers to make peace with his Republican opponents, but in the end there are few lasting achievements.

This is a book that in many ways mirrors the best and worst of a complicated leader, a lightning rod of his time.

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