“I Respect You, Bookerman!”
Making the most of the Clintons’ literary legacy.
by Shelton Hull
June 21, 2004 — I haven’t read Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life yet, but I have read almost every book written about him in English, including his wife’s. As a journalist and an American, I — we — have a vested interest in seeing their lives rendered with optimum finesse in print. Love them or hate them, they matter, more now than perhaps ever before.
I would suggest that while both Clintons have made at least $20 million combined off their books already, better management of their literary careers would have made even more money, sold more books and given them a better chance to control the many memes that swirl around their names. I doubt I could have negotiated a better deal for them, but my advice would have been salient like a mutha.
None of this is to say that Clinton’s life doesn’t merit such length and detail. I will read the book no matter what, and maybe even buy it. The problem is that most people who will read this book aren’t doing so to enhance their understanding of a decisive time in the history of everything. They read it for smut, gossip, verbal violence and mistakes. That the buildup to the release of Clinton’s book has centered so on “the vast right-wing conspiracy” — a phrase that does not occur in the book — is a disaster of marketing that might put a few more dollars in Clinton’s pocket but does nothing for posterity.
The notion of a 957-page memoir strikes me immediately as audacious and potentially self-defeating for an author who, for reasons beyond the financial, wants his book to be read by as many people as possible. In its present form, the book will alienate a fourth of its potential audience — that crucial fourth that remains ambivalent about him. He should have stuck with his original plan and written one volume about his life prior to January 1993 and a second about the Clinton Administration itself. That would have been one hell of a page-turner, even for those of us who think we’ve heard it all.
One could divide the potential consumer base for the Clinton books as follows: a third of them (margin of error +/- 6.66%) buy simply for the Lewinsky stuff, and the rest would have bought it even if that debacle has never occurred. Thus, they need to make the blowjob marks understand the unique context in which the events of 1998 occurred. This is a story that no one, to date, has told properly, and that’s a shame because the media’s fixation on 1998 created the vacuum in which the 9/11 hijackers assimilated into the US. A lesser man in his situation would have simply killed off the VRWC, and maybe left the institution of government in a better position to prevent the execution of the terror plot. The preemption debate, four years early.
The Clintons should have saved the bulk of the Lewinsky material for a book to be written together, for the benefit of couples facing difficult circumstances. To withstand a sustained public humiliation and get over despite it was a miracle worth the cover price. Logistical difficulties notwithstanding, this would have been the ultimate gimmick and the best-selling nonfiction book since the Bible.
A better division of content would have resulted in an official history of the Clintons that was easily accessible and thrilling to read, while leaving room for more volumes to come. This is why Jay-Z never made a double album, and why My Life should have been called In My Lifetime, vol. I. The moves made by Bill and Hillary in the decade to come may be as momentous as those made in the 1990s, and it is important that both allies and apostates have memoirs they can sink their teeth (or fangs, or gums) into.
The important thing is to chronicle the Clinton Years in a way that makes it unnecessary to revisit them later. The real value is in their vision for an uncertain future, a future in which they will figure prominently. So, instead of two books, the Clintons should have done four. They would have spent just as much time and made just as much money. As it is, they have already executed one of the most astounding publishing feats in modern history (thanks to al-Gore’s Internet), a strong start to literary careers that will hopefully continue for decades to come.