Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My ‘First’ President

A review of Bill Clinton’s My Life (2004)

(Rating:5 of 5)

William Jefferson Clinton is my first president. Well, not really, I was born on July 3, 1981 so my first president was actually Ronald Reagan. The first presidential election that I remember is the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush. However, in many ways, Clinton is my first president. The presidential election of 1992 was the first national election I ever cared about. Coming from a family of Democrats excited for the first chance in sixteen years to capture the White House, Clinton was very much a favorite that year. I was one of only two kids in 5th grade class the wanted to see Clinton elected. I was excited because on our state reports for class that year, I was the student who randomly picked Arkansas much to the shock of my friend. President Clinton was president when I first became interested in the history of our nation and the presidency itself. It was interesting to have someone in the White House who was also a major presidential history buff.

Born William Jefferson Blythe III, his father William Jefferson Blythe, Jr. was a con artist who had multiple families at the same time. However, the elder William would not know the son who shared his name, because he died in a car accident before Clinton was born. His mother, Virginia, would later remarry this time to a man named Roger Clinton. The Clintons would have another son together, Roger C. Clinton, and the future president would legally change his name to match the rest of his family. Nevertheless, his family life was terrible, the elder Roger Clinton was a drunk and abuser; Clinton often would have to defend his mother and little brother.

Despite (or maybe, because of) his horrible family life, Clinton excelled both academically in school and socially with peers. Clinton would ultimately become a Rhodes scholar and with that travel abroad. He would during this point of his life have his famous ‘I didn’t inhale’ episode, and he would, although legally, dodge the draft. When he was a student at Yale, he would meet and later marry a young law student named Hillary Rodham. Ultimately, he would end up becoming a lawyer and end up as a professor at the University of Arkansas.

The most fascinating elements of the book are the way he discusses the ups and downs of his own political career. His frustrating loss at a run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1974, when it seemed like every other Democrat won big in the wake of Watergate. Later, he becomes Arkansas’ Attorney General, which would act as a stepping-stone for the Governor’s seat in 1978. At the age of thirty-two, he was the youngest governor in the nation. Unfortunately, for him, the same year his daughter Chelsea was born, 1980, he was turned out of office. He would joke that he became as he called it ‘the youngest ex-governor in the nation’s history.

“These problems were aggravated by my own lack of experience and my youth. I looked even younger then my thirty-two years. When I became attorney general, George Fisher, the talented cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette, drew me in a baby carriage. When I became governor he promoted my to a tricycle. It wasn’t until I became President that he took me off the tricycle and put me in pick up truck. And he was a supporter. It should have set off an alarm bell, but it didn’t.” p.267

His biggest mistake as governor had been to increase the people of Arkansas’ car tags. Alternatively, as we call them in Maine ‘excise tax’. It made him many enemies but after awhile he was able to rebuild his popularity and mount a comeback. In time, his political career recovered and skyrocketed all the way the top. He regained the governorship in 1982 and would hold it for the next ten years. From that platform in 19998, he would mount his campaign for the presidency.

“As I walked back to my car, I ran into an elderly man in overalls. He said, ‘Aren’t you Bill Clinton?’ When I said I was and shook his hand, he couldn’t wait to tell me he had voted against me. ‘I’m one of those who helped beat you. I cost you eleven votes—me, my wife, my two boys, and their wives, and my five friends. We just leveled you.’ I asked him why and I got the predictable reply: ‘I had to. You raised my car tags.’ I pointed to a spot on the highway not far from where we were standing and said, ‘Remember that ice storm we had when I took office? That piece of road over there buckled and cars were stuck in a ditch. I had to get the National Guard to pull them out. There were pictures of it in all the papers. Those roads had to be fixed.’ He replied, ‘I don’t care. I still didn’t want to pay it.’ For some reason, after all he said, I blurted out, ‘Let me ask you something. If I ran for governor again, would you consider voting for me?’ He smiled and said, ‘Sure I would. We’re even now.’ I went right to the payphone, called Hillary, told her the story, and said I thought we could win.” p.291

One most interesting things about Clinton’s book is how he discusses how all the political and historical events that had occurred in his own life. Meeting President John F. Kennedy when he was 17, and commenting on that famous photo. He talks about his feeling on President Johnson and how shocked he was when Johnson decided not to run for president in 1968. The president comments on the disastrous 1972 Democratic Convention that left the party weakened and crushed in that year’s election. He often compares what goes on to his own life and career.

“In the summer, I led the Arkansas delegation to the Democratic convention in San Francisco to see Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro nominated and to give a five-minute tribute to Harry Truman. We were in trouble to start with, and it was all over when Mondale said he would purpose a hefty tax increase to reduce the budget deficit. It was a remarkable act of candor, but he might as well have purposed a federal car-tag fee.” p.316

When discussing his presidency, he mentions that his brutal upbringing allowed him to compartmentalize. As president, he was able to focus on doing his job despite the immense assault on him and the very institution of the presidency. As one can imagine he tires to gloss over his martial indiscretions. He calls his affair with Monica Lewinsky ‘disgusting’ and that he did it for the ‘worst possible of reasons’ and that is: he could. However, one cannot fail to be impressed with the way he tries to keep working for the American people both on the domestic and foreign fronts despite being assailed from all sides. However his political enemies keep trying to bring him down, not simple by the legitimate methods of congressional gridlock and elections but by tearing down some of the basic institutions of government in order to get him. It did not matter how hypocritical their methods were, they were going full stop.

“Starr admitted he had talked to the press, on background, a violation of the grand jury secrecy rules. Finally, he dined under oath that his office had tried to get Monica Lewinsky to wear a wire to record our conversations with Vernon Jordan, me, or other people. When confronted with the FBI form proving that he had, he was evasive. The Washington Post reported that ‘Starr’s denials…were shattered by his own FBI reports.

The fact that Starr admitted violating the law on grand jury secrecy and had given false testimony under oath didn’t slow him or the committee down a bit. They thought different rules applied to the home team.” p.829

Although, far from a perfect human being I feel he was probably the best president we had since Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961. His writing, although a long book (over nine hundred pages), follows smoothly and is an easy read. Anyone interested in modern American politics would enjoy this book.

{Video is part of the 1992 presidential debates.}

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