Nigel Hamilton leaves no innuendo unturned in his life of Bill Clinton
By GIL TROY, Correspondent
Raleigh N.C., News Observer - Newsobserver.com - November 2, 2003
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Alas, in Nigel Hamilton's biography of Clinton, two genres collide -- generating, as this cliche-addicted biographer might write, more heat than light. With Hamilton, a British biographer whose previous work includes "JFK: Reckless Youth," the almost always too earnest field of presidential biography enters the steamy world of the Harlequin romance.
Hamilton places sex at the center of his exploration of Bill Clinton's life until 1992, the first of a planned two-volume biography. The result is a prolonged exercise in foreshadowing. Hamilton is so busy anticipating President Clinton's unhappy fate as the American "Oscar Wilde," caught in the most celebrated sex scandal of his morally confusing times, that he fails to explain just how this smart but needy boy from Arkansas became the most powerful man in the world.
Hamilton draws character sketches with a sledgehammer. Having expressed an idea, he insists on restating it repeatedly. Hamilton exhausts himself seeking ways to say that "girls went gaga" over Bill Clinton, and that Clinton was happy to play the role of "Despoiler of Englishwomen" -- or any other female of the species. In one three-paragraph sequence, he writes that Clinton "Seemed to collect girls like postage stamps," that "Make love, not war!" was "a slogan of the times that Bill Clinton did his best, in the fall of 1969, to live up to, with woman after woman," that young Bill was "possessed of high intelligence, high ambition, and high testosterone," and that both young John Kennedy and young Bill Clinton "were youths who loved to graze and hunt in the lush meadows alongside female herds."
In fairness, it would be hard to write a sex-free biography of Clinton. Yes, Clinton came of age in the 1960s. And yes, Clinton has issues around fidelity, self-control and sexuality. Still, is it necessary to begin a section on the inspiration Clinton drew from 1963's stirring "I Have a Dream" speech by writing: "Another man who liked pretty women was Martin Luther King, Jr."? And must one describe Chelsea Clinton as Bill Clinton's "first -- and only legitimate -- child?"
Good historical writing entails selectivity. Hamilton has a clear standard for selection -- he never met an innuendo he did not like. No charge is doubted or discounted. More vacuum cleaner than historian, Hamilton draws in whatever he can, wrapping all the rumors in purple, cliche-ridden, dust bunnies.
In doing so, Hamilton retains his membership in the National Enquirer School of Biography. These days, scandal-laden prosecutorial briefs all too often shunt aside the meticulously researched and thoughtfully well-balanced biography. Sadly, such works fit right in with this year's bumper crop of shrill political screeds. Having polluted our airwaves, the O'Reillys and Frankens, from the left and the right, have now invaded our bookstores -- and topped the best-seller lists. These products -- they are to books what processed cheese is to cheese -- reflect the degraded state of our political discourse.
Of course, in one of the defining, mysterious paradoxes of his life, Bill Clinton was both practitioner and victim of this politics, at once helping to polarize while claiming to heal, and howling when he was harpooned by what he memorably called "the politics of personal destruction.
Bill Clinton's life story is compelling, dramatic and emblematic. And, in fairness, Hamilton writes insightfully about many topics, especially Billy Blythe Junior's tumultuous upbringing -- raising intriguing questions about young Billy's decision to take his stepfather Roger Clinton's last name only after he, his mother and his brother fled from the abuse. Hamilton defines the pre-presidential years by three great moral failings: Clinton's deceptive dodge of the Vietnam draft, his refusal to acknowledge his leadership failures during his first gubernatorial term, his reckless decision, while governor, to continue partying with his brother, Roger, who was awaiting sentencing for drug dealing.
Moreover, Hamilton places this story into historical context, and offers some interesting riffs about the culture wars that shaped Bill Clinton's America from the 1960s through the 1990s. Hamilton writes poignantly about Vietnam's debilitating moral impact on Clinton's generation and about the psychological demons and historical forces that would propel Bill Clinton toward his sex-mired, scandal-scarred presidency.
And yet, here, too, an addiction to sensationalism and a lack of discipline sabotage sound historical judgment. Having overly sexualized Bill Clinton, Hamilton erases any sexual impulse in his wife. And in an act of historical hindsight that should be taught in graduate schools as an example of what not to do, Hamilton criticizes Hillary Rodham for failing to foresee that investigating Richard Nixon in 1974 "would inevitably result, given the two-party binary culture of America, in Republican revenge one day."
In another classic amateurish mistake, Hamilton overstates the significance of his subject's great moment, the election of 1992. "The nation was aware that it had reached a cultural crossroads, a turning point, a moment of generational change," he writes -- so far so good. This passage showcases Hamilton's sensitivity to America's cultural turmoil and identity conflicts. Yet, typically, he adds: "The Soviet Union had already experienced it; now it was America's turn."
Hamilton and Bill Clinton himself
might be the only two people in the world who would
consider Clinton's election to the presidency as
momentous as the fall of the Soviet Union. And therein
lies the allure of this frustrating, flawed yet somewhat
fascinating book. In their overzealousness, their
sloppiness, and their obsession with sex alternating with
moments of keen insight, the biographer and his subject
meet. One walks away from this book about Bill Clinton,
as so many walked away from Clinton's presidency, amazed
by the great potential but even more sobered by the
stunning, self-indulgent, tragically avoidable mess.
Gil Troy, who teaches history at
McGill University in Montreal, is the author of "Mr.
and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the
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