‘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
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
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
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
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
and Their Court by Francis Beckett and David Hencke is published
by Aurum Press