Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Good Old Bill

This past Tuesday, Bill Clinton's memoirs were released. (I'm on vacation, so I'm a bit behind.)

Apparently, the Times' senior books writer, Michiko Kakutani, decided to pull rank and review the book herself.

Normally, I'm a fan of Ms. Kakutani's somewhat cranky reviews. I think books should be held to a high standard, and when she writes that she has actually enjoyed a book, it often gets bumped up pretty high on my "priority reading" list.

This time, however, I think Ms. Kakutani may have overreached.

"In many ways," Ms. Kakutani writes, "the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration. This memoir underscores many strengths of Mr. Clinton's eight years in the White House and his understanding that he was governing during a transitional and highly polarized period. But the very lack of focus and order that mars these pages also prevented him from summoning his energies in a sustained manner to bring his insights about the growing terror threat and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to fruition."

While I'm not surprised that Mr. Clinton's writing fails to live up to Ms. Kakutani's high literary standards, and she rightly calls him on it, I think that few people will pick up My Life based on their high expectations for the quality of its prose. At the same time, if I may be pardoned for my frankness, Ms. Kakutani's assessments of Mr. Clinton's poltical career strike me as a bit trite. And, as much as I admire Mr. Clinton, to have assassinated Osama Bin Laden, closed an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, AND to have produced a slim, diamond focused memoir would have been a godlike set of accomplishments indeed.

We literary types often need to remind ourselves that we don't really have equal insight into all aspects of existence.

(Ed. note: the Times ran Larry McMurtry's more positive review of My Life on 6/23.)

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