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A Page-Turner -- for the Wrong Reasons

<I>My Life</I> by Bill Clinton
My Life by Bill Clinton

Former President Clinton had an expression in the 1992 presidential campaign. When he was poised to deliver one of his long-winded, gale-force speeches, he'd warn the crowd that they were about to get "the full load." We had no idea. Twelve years later, his autobiography, My Life, is the real full load. And at 957 pages, it's about as accessible as Clinton's worst, wonkiest speech.

Many Americans will choose to read every word of the new book, though no one I know has made a sworn commitment. But, hey, NPR paid me to read it, so I'm offering something of a field guide. So if you decide to read it, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Like him or loathe him, President Clinton did a fascinating job analyzing a policy issue or a social trend. He'd turn it inside out and punch it into a whole new shape while putting it into historical context. It was fun to watch and listen, even when his run-on dissertations ran into the wee hours with no more of an audience than a band of bleary-eyed reporters on his campaign plane.

So I was sure that payoff would come for enduring what Clinton learned in psychological and religious counseling, for wading through his bitter flashbacks to Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinksy, Paula Jones and Kenneth Starr. The payoff, I thought, would be sharp analysis on Iraq, Osama bin Laden, the Mideast, North Korea and other ongoing concerns. Wrong.

The book's strict, chronological retelling of his presidency -- meeting by meeting, day after day -- crushes each spark of expansive discussion before it can catch fire.

The book's structure reminds me of the way a newspaper I once worked for filed its letters to the editor. The paper kept all the letters it received. But if you wanted to read them -- say, to find out what the citizenry thought of the mayor’s latest antics -- you could only pull the letters by the name of the person who sent them! There was just no way to get connected with all the information.

So to better understand President Clinton's dealings with North Korea, prepare for a literary scavenger hunt. Using the index, you must locate the 19 separate references to North Korea sprinkled across 450 chronologically correct pages. It’s maddening.

Consider the narrative arch of Page 757, which begins on June 6, 1997. It starts with Clinton describing his address to his daughter's high school graduation, where he said parents still longed "to read to you just one more time, Goodnight Moon or Curious George…" Then, he picks up, "soon after graduation" he accepted the human cloning recommendation of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He then touches on Dolly the cloned sheep and then his earlier apology for the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Before you can turn to page Page 758, Clinton is recounting his University of San Diego speech calling for a race initiative that few remember was called "One America." Maddening, indeed. And this goes on for hundreds of pages.

All told, there are two prime paragraphs dismissing the campaign finance scandals and White House coffees with major donors in 1996. Two other paragraphs acknowledge his administration’s failure to try to send troops to stop the slaughter of some 800,000 people in Rwanda. He calls it "one of the greatest regrets of my presidency."

Five pages, at least, recount "one of the darkest days" of his presidency in 1993, when 19 U.S. Army Rangers were killed and one was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia.

As an editor, let me say that we have no idea what Clinton first submitted to Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb. Maybe the hyper verbose ex-president hand-wrote 1,800 pages. The New York Times' book reviewer eviscerated My Life by calling it, among other things, eye-crossingly dull. So for the sake of better vision, here’s a quick guide:

The first half of the book, the best-written half, is about Clinton's improbable Arkansas biography. But the kickoff sentence might have sprung from Snoopy's typewriter: "Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother…"

His tortured dealings with the Vietnam-era draft begin on Page 154. He's governor of Arkansas, he's not, and then he is. The 1992 presidential campaign leads into, on Page 447, the transition to the White House. Whitewater is in full scandal by Page 572. Enter bin Laden on Page 797.

Okay, it's on Page 780 that Clinton recounts telling his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the truth about Lewinsky. But then, he's on to peace in Northern Ireland before the bottom of the page.

Susan Feeney is the senior editor of Morning Edition. She started covering Bill Clinton in 1991.

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Susan Feeney