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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.

By Jordan Michael Smith / November 16, 2010

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.

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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.

“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.

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