FIRST IN HIS CLASS: A BIOGRAPHY OF BILL CLINTON By David Maraniss; Simon & Schuster, 512 pp., $25.
THE biographical times are out of joint. It used to be that we would wait for years to learn what a president had been all about. In our fast-forward generation, we get, to start with, three books about President Clinton's early tenure (Elizabeth Drew's ``On the Edge,'' Bob Woodward's ``The Agenda'' and John Brummett's ``High Wire''). Now, press reverse for a comprehensive biography taking us from Bill Clinton's childhood until the 1992 announcement of his candidacy for the presidency.
``First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton'' is exhaustively researched, absorbingly written - and troubling. It is an example of the popular genre that makes the reader a witness at private events, including family quarrels. It plumbs the Clinton inner psyche, the drive that propelled him from a troubled family to the presidency, using charm and empathy as tools of his ambition.
Despite some 400 interviews and mountains of documentation, much must be accepted on the word of the author. So it is well to know where he stands. In his preface, he asks himself whether he likes Bill Clinton, but the answer is inconclusive, ``I came to like him even when I disliked him and dislike him even when I liked him.''
It would appear to an outsider that Maraniss likes his subject -
who, with the first lady, declined to be interviewed for this book - a lot less than he did in his upbeat Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post series about the 1992 Clinton campaign. Then Clinton emerged as a man of high mission, a conciliator with a sense of purpose. Now he comes off as keenly intelligent, but a charming and affable liar, a manipulator of people, a glutton for food, women, and politics.
The book is sprinkled with episodes of how Clinton used his boyish charm: to win over a stern porter at his Oxford University residence and be the only student who could have a female guest overnight; to talk a resistant Arkansas politician into switching his endorsement from another candidate to him.
All the Clinton scandals are spelled out - his avoidance of military service, the extramarital affairs, Hillary Rodham Clinton's financial speculations - and rarely do the Clintons get the benefit of any doubt. The author demonstrates, fairly convincingly, that Clinton did pull strings to save himself from the draft, later was not straightforward about whether he ever received his draft notice, and did try to have the letter in which he confessed his manipulations destroyed in an effort to maintain his ``political viability.''
But little weight is given to Clinton's professions of an agonizing inner conflict between the obligation to serve and resistance to the Vietnam War. In Maraniss's rendering, it comes out this way: ``In a situation where Clinton once thought all his options were bad, he had avoided everything he did not want to do. He did not want to resist the draft, and thereby imperil his political dreams. He did not want to get drafted and fight in Vietnam.... `It was just a fluke,' Clinton would say later.... But of course, it was not a fluke.... He fretted and planned every move.''
On only one count of the familiar litany of Clinton misdeeds does the author come down fully on Clinton's side. According to others present at the time, ``he absolutely could not inhale,'' but rather choked when he tried to smoke a marijuana cigarette during his days at Oxford.
At times, the author's effort to read Clinton's mind becomes objectionable. For instance, when advised in 1984 that his brother, Roger, was under investigation as a suspected cocaine dealer, ``Clinton's private reaction to the news was a mixture of guilt and dread.'' Or, alone with Hillary or his chief of staff Betsey Wright, he would ask, ``Do you think they are ever going to finish this?'' The author lists Betsey Wright as a source, but how does he know about ``alone with Hillary''?
Relying on secondary sources, trying to discover the inner Clinton from the impressions of others, can have its perils.
It is clearly a given among the Clintons' friends that he has conducted multiple affairs, that their married life was sometimes stormy and may, at least once, have come close to divorce. Yet Maraniss's most sensational episode in this connection raises a serious question about second-hand reporting.
Betsey Wright is cited as authority for the story that when Clinton was considering running for president in 1988, she confronted him with a list of women mentioned as having had liaisons with him. She demanded to know the truth about each one and suggested that ``he owed it to Hillary and Chelsea'' not to get into the race. And, the story goes, because of the special attachment to Chelsea of a father who had never know his own father, Clinton, at the last moment, scrapped the plan to announce his candidacy.
It is an affecting story, but the only source for it is Wright. And she broke with Clinton in a dispute about money in 1992. Furthermore, after this excerpt was ballyhooed in a front-page article in the Washington Post, she said that the author had misunderstood her, that she had not talked about actual affairs, but only rumored affairs - ``bimbo eruptions,'' of which 99 percent were untrue, she said.
Maraniss denies that he misrepresented what Wright told him, but there we are - an explosive episode in a presidential biography reduced to a dispute between the biographer and his source.
My larger problem with this biography is that, beyond Clinton's personal ambition and human frailty, the author conveys little sense of any greater purpose in Clinton's life. We become aware that Clinton had his eye on the prize since childhood, that he collected thousands of index cards of his contacts. We learn that, defeated for reelection as governor in 1980, he was induced to make a public apology for mistakes - but only as a cynical tactic to start his next campaign.
``You do what you have to do to get elected,'' he is quoted as telling a campaign consultant. And, to a University of Arkansas student who asked why he had chosen politics as his profession, he said, ``It's the only track I ever wanted to run on.'' One chapter of this book is titled, ``The Permanent Campaign.''
But is running, winning, losing, rebounding to run again all there is to Bill Clinton? Almost as an afterthought the author summarizes some of his accomplishments in Arkansas - education reform, racial integration, environmental protection. But we are left with the flawed personality - the coexistence of the ``indefatigable, intelligent, empathetic and self-deprecating'' politician with the part of him that is ``indecisive, too eager to please and too prone to deception.''
President Clinton may not be a model statesman, but he is more than would appear from this fascinating, but flawed psychobiography.