A Complicated Man

More than 170 interviews with those who knew him present Bill Clinton – the politician and the man– in all his complicated splendor.

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    A Complicated Man:
    The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him
    By Michael Takiff
    Yale University Press
    528 pp., $32.50
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Since Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, polls show that Bill Clinton’s stock has been rising, both among Democrats and Republicans. Democrats recall a man who wasn’t afraid to take on Republicans, who always stood up to the bullying right-wing when it counted. Republicans, conversely, look back fondly on a centrist Democrat, one who understood that change must be gradual and rooted in American traditions.

Those seeking to correct this misplaced nostalgia would benefit from Michael Takiff’s new book, A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him. An oral historian and the author of a book on father and sons in wartime, Takiff reminds us that the Clinton administration was just as filled with alleged radicalism and expressed disappointments as that of the current president.

Takiff conducted a staggering 171 interviews for this book, with everyone from 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis to friends of Clinton’s family, though the Clintons themselves are notably absent, as are the Gores. Interviewees’ statements comprise most of the book, interrupted only by Takiff’s explanation and occasional commentary.

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“A Complicated Man” recalls the Clinton presidency in minute detail, but also gives sufficient attention to other periods in the president’s life, from growing up in Arkansas to studying at Oxford to establishing the Clinton Global Initiative. It’s a valuable document because until now there has not been not a solid examination of Clinton’s entire life. “The Survivor,” John Harris’s fine 2005 book, attends only to Clinton’s presidency, while David Maraniss’s well-regarded biography, “First in His Class,” was written in 1996, before the 42nd president’s second term.

“A Complicated Man” is also timely in arriving at a moment when the Obama administration looks disturbed. Reading it reveals tremendous parallels between Obama and Clinton. “The Man from Hope” was Clinton’s campaign slogan, foreshadowing one of Obama’s favorite themes in 2008. And one of the three ideas on the sign Democratic strategist James Carville hung on his wall at 1992 campaign headquarters was “Change vs. more of the same.” That, of course, was the basic idea Obama ran on against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

More substantively, Bill Clinton countered the image of Democrats as tax-hikers, soft on crime, and the party of special interests. He neutered GOP race-baiting, while appealing to African-Americans. It is difficult to imagine America electing a biracial man with an exotic-sounding name had Clinton not dramatically improved race relations in the 1990s.

And yet, the tragedy of Bill Clinton is succinctly illustrated by the awkward subtitle of Takiff’s book, which replaced the original choice, “An Oral Biography of Bill Clinton.” It’s impossible to disagree with Takiff’s notion that “For all his accomplishments as president, Bill Clinton is stuck, fairly or unfairly, with the image of a sex-crazed dude who loves to party, an incorrigible lech who can’t resist [playing around] no matter how awkward or inappropriate or dangerous the circumstances.” The judgement is harsh but accurate. Forget welfare reform, or Kosovo, or the budget surplus. No, what Clinton’s presidency brings to mind is a stained dress. That may say something about human nature, but it says something about Clinton as well.

Takiff speculates on the reasons behind the weird hatred that Bill Clinton, consummate centrist, inspired among conservatives. He quotes Lucianne Goldberg, the woman who told Linda Tripp to tape her conversations with Monica Lewinsky, as saying, “I just didn’t like him. It was a visceral thing. You talk to any Clinton hater and they’re vague about it.” Vague indeed.

And yet Takiff’s book makes one wonder whether Clinton was actually a centrist, or a liberal, or a conservative, or anything else. He presents so many Clintons that identifying any of them as the real one becomes an exercise in futility.

But if Takiff does not solve the riddle that is Bill Clinton, he at least presents him in all his complicated splendor. The president’s best friends and worst (political) enemies are given equal time in the book, resulting in a comprehensive chronicle of the time. “A Complicated Man” does not exonerate Clinton nor overlook his many foibles. It is fair and balanced, which is more than can be said for some of Clinton’s critics. When dealing with someone as inspiring and infuriating as the 42nd president, that is no small feat.

Jordan Michael Smith has written for The Atlantic, The Boston Globe and Newsweek.

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