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Bill and Tony’s Excellent Adventures

David Floyd reads the latest weighty tomes on the Third Way’s prominent evangelists.

‘I think it’s a good story, and I’ve had a good time telling.’

With this sentence, 3/4 of the way down page 957, the 42nd President of the United States ends his autobiography. It’s a good book but it might have been better split into two volumes - the first volume on Clinton’s life before he became President, the second volume on his time in the White House.

The two sections of the book are quite distinct. The pre-Presidency section is better written and flows much better as a story. It tells you lots of things you probably don’t know, especially if you don’t know that much about the US state politics and life in Arkansas.

The story of the Presidency gives you an interesting view of world events you already knew about, from the perspective of an astute political analyst who was actively involved in proceedings as they unfolded but the number of shocking or even surprising political revelations is extremely limited.

The Presidency section is also extremely repetitive. There must be seven or eight instances where Clinton visits either Northern Ireland and/or the Irish Republic, meets the various key figures in the peace process and tells everyone what a great chance they have for peace.

Similarly uninteresting are interminable meetings with peripheral world leaders who Bill generally decides are quite nice blokes committed to progress, working in partnership and assorted other banalities.

Clinton’s painstaking attention to detail in this regard may be a deliberate attempt to show that being the most powerful man in the world isn’t always particularly exciting. If so, it is a successful one.

The Presidency section is also hampered by the fact that Clinton’s wife is still in active politics so you often feel he pulls his punches when talking about fellow politicians, both foreigners and domestic opponents.

On the domestic policy front, though Clinton waxes lyrical about ‘The Third Way’ he clearly isn’t a Blairite. He does genuinely believe in something (other than a divine right to invade other countries).

He repeatedly takes a stand against Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economic policies and, more interestingly, repeatedly condemns the US propping up of right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War.

But this is an autobiography and that there are big risks in taking it entirely at face value. For example, Clinton does mention the famous ‘triangulation’ technique promoted by whore-friendly pollster Dick Morris but his understanding of it is even more confusing than his understanding of the word ‘sex’.

Clinton claims to think triangulation involves ‘bridging the divide between Republicans and Democrats and taking the best ideas of both’. The practical reality tended to be something more along the lines of taking traditional Republican policies – such as removing welfare benefits from those who ‘refused’ to work – adopting them and selling them to voters as a reinterpretation of traditional Democratic values for a modern age.

Sadly, scandal is probably the defining characteristic of the Clinton presidency. Sadly, because while it’s easy to disagree with Clinton politically, you wouldn’t wish his political enemies on anyone and you certainly wouldn’t wish them to be running your country.

Considering that the Republicans are meant to be fiscal conservatives, the amount of tax dollars they were prepared to waste on the dark farce of Kenneth Starr’s independent prosecution is almost completely incomprehensible.

Almost completely incomprehensible because but once every other explanation is ruled out, there’s still room for good old-fashioned spite. Watching Hillary Clinton claim there was a ‘right-wing conspiracy’ against her husband you’d think it was a sign that the Americans had finally discovered irony. How could there possibly be a critical mass of people in the US who were both considerably more right-wing than Bill Clinton (who even his most fervent supporters would admit, is hardly Fidel Castro in a cowboy hat) and sane enough to organise a conspiracy?

Starr’s independent prosecution ended up turning into something resembling a grotesque pantomime, directed by Alfred Hitchcock with a script by Franz Kafka.

It’s likely that the late Ronald Reagan did several things during each week of his presidency that were more worthy of impeachment that Clinton’s messy dalliance with his intern. Needless to say, the parts of the book that deal with the Lewinsky scandal are fascinating.

Cynics will obviously question the nature of Clinton’s unequivocal repentance on the issue of non-sexual acts of fellatio. Does he really love Hillary or is the whole reconciliation just a politically motivated sham.?We won’t know for sure, at least until after Hillary makes her own presidential bid in 2008 (assuming Kerry’s lost by now).

Like his Presidency, Clinton’s epic starts well before losing its way and, though it could’ve been worse, it could also have been much better.

This is also true of The Blairs and Their Court, a critical biography of Clinton’s former political soulmate, Tony Blair. One of the authors, Francis Beckett, was responsible for Enemy Within, an extremely balanced and well-written history of the British Communist Party.

Unfortunately, in this book, which was written in conjunction with The Guardian’s David Hencke, Beckett’s powers of objectivity and semi-detached analysis seem to desert him almost entirely. Maybe this is because, as a Labour press officer under Kinnock, he is too involved with the story.

The book is meant to be a political biography of Blair and - once their man reaches the point that he is an opposition spokesman - the small, mostly unelected clique that coalesce around him.

The problem is that while the authors weave in a number of interesting incidental facts, some of which are original, their analysis is almost breathtakingly predictable and says far more about the Labour Left and its pain than it does about Tony Blair.

So we’re told that Blair is posh and doesn’t really understand poor people. He is more interested in religion than he is in politics. That Blair and Gordon Brown pretended to be Tribunites during the 1980s because that kept them in with Neil Kinnock and also put them in a position to assist Kinnock with his modernisation plans.

Blair has an amazing talent for never taking the blame for unpopular actions carried out on his behalf, particularly those carried out by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, whose adoration of Blair has produced in them an almost compulsive desire to put themselves in the line fire to take bullets intended for the PM.

Blair often misleads political colleagues into thinking that he agrees with them before saying and doing something very different behind their backs. He likes hanging out with the rich and famous. He took Britain to war with Iraq with no good basis for doing so other than his faith that it was the right thing to do.

He instructed Campbell to bully the BBC over its Iraq war coverage, which ultimately led to the Gilligan affair. He knew Lord Hutton would probably produce a report that was favourable to the government. He is fairly right-wing.

The point of this list is that, while all this may be true, it tells us little or nothing we don’t already know. Obviously the authors explain these things in some detail and many of the details are interesting. Many of Blair’s actions and much of his approach to politics is wildly different to what the vast majority of Labour supporters would want and expect from their leader.

But while this is an entertaining hatchet job, it is never gets beyond that. The authors fail to explore in depth (or in fact, at all) the political context in which Blairism, the Third Way call it what you like, was formed.

The political legacies of Thatcherism and the social democratic consensus that preceded it barely get a mention. You’re left with the impression that the authors believe the only reason why someone could possibly become a Blairite is because they’re ambitious to the point of unfettered evil.

The late Hugo Young’s One of Us it certainly isn’t which is a shame because Beckett is capable of writing good books and Blair needs a good biography. This is good fun and the growing anti-Blair forces in the Labour Party and beyond will read it, chuckle and agree but it does little or nothing to improve our understanding of Blair and co’s impact on British politics.

My Life by Bill Clinton is published by Hutchinson
The Blairs and Their Court by Francis Beckett and David Hencke is published by Aurum Press