The importance of being earnest

Clinton's $8 million biography sold 200,000 copies its first day

It's been said that everybody has at least one good story to tell: the story of his or her life. Considering the life that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has lived, this is probably doubly or triply true. The twists and turns of the past decade have yielded excellent fodder for storytelling.

Unfortunately, very few of those stories made it into Senator Clinton's new memoir, "Living History." The book contains no real revelations about her time in the White House and offers precious little of the up-close-and-personal emotional confession some had hoped for.

In fact, "Living History" isn't one book at all; it's three very different books woven together: part a wonky discussion of issues, part a travelogue about the places Clinton went and the people she saw as first lady, and part a reliving of those thrilling days of yesteryear, the 1990s.

This is not to say that people won't find reasons to read or even like the book. Clinton's fans will enjoy hearing her talk about her unique time in the White House - and her enemies will surely relish the chance to discover new points to attack. But the rest of the reading public won't find much in these pages.

The scandals that hit the Clinton White House are replayed, and in truth, time has made them look a little different. When one rereads the stories behind the Whitewater investigation and the financial inquiries that led up to the Monica Lewinsky saga, it all does seem to be trifling, particularly when one compares them with the buying and selling of votes that goes on daily in Washington.

But Clinton's retelling is so full of sanctimonious wind that it's hard to take it all seriously. "The ongoing Whitewater investigation, despite [Special Counsel Robert] Fiske's findings, was about undermining the progressive agenda by any means," she writes. Maybe, or maybe it had something to do with the general climate that has overtaken Washington in recent years and the rise of media that tend to favor scandal over other forms of news.

People who buy "Living History" to learn what they can about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton's infidelities will be disappointed. Monica doesn't even make an appearance until the last hundred pages, and the best bits of this section have already been revealed by other media outlets: the crying, the yelling, the reconciliation.

Other womanizing stories or allegations are mentioned only in passing if at all. Gennifer Flowers is quickly referred to and forgotten, and Paula Jones is dismissed after a short discussion.

This isn't completely surprising. No one expected Clinton to wallow in these stories, but she touches on them so lightly it seems that the thought of her husband having an affair was the furthest thing from her mind.

The real problem with "Living History," though, is structural. There is no narrative to push the story along other than time. In the end, all stories need to be about more than the specific events that occur. They need to have some bigger pattern that draws the threads of the story together. "Living History" lacks that.

There are brief moments when Clinton steps back from the running story to add some context, offer some larger views on herself, her position, and Washington in general, but these moments are rare. More often, she tells stories that run into one another slapdash, and the many sections that deal with her travels abroad usually seem out of place in terms of tone.

For instance, Clinton writes that "Sheryl Crow, Sinbad and Chelsea and I flew Black Hawk helicopters to visit soldiers in forward positions" on a mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Three pages later, she jumps into a discussion of how The New York Times "chastised" Kenneth Starr for continuing his law practice while investigating the White House. There may be some metaphorical linkage, since the chapter is called "War Zones," but it's a stretch.

Leaving all those criticisms aside, however, there are some things that can be gleaned about Clinton by reading her book. She comes across as earnest, dedicated, hardworking, and smart - but also deadly serious.

There is little ironic detachment in these pages, little ability to poke fun at herself. Too much irony and detachment can be a curse, of course, but a small amount of it allows one the opportunity to pick up a few lessons while finding the humor in life's little dramas.

Early in "Living History," Clinton writes about her experiences in high school when there were tensions between cliques that often led to fights. In response, the school created a Cultural Values Committee, to which she was named, to bridge the gap between the factions. The group was such a success that some of its members appeared on a local television show. "This was both my first appearance on television and my first experience with an organized effort to stress American values of pluralism, mutual respect, and understanding," she writes.

There is obviously some truth here, but the tone of the passage reeks of Tracy Flick, the overachieving, overly serious high school student from the film "Election." Not to belittle the efforts of the Cultural Values Committee, but a brief aside to show that Clinton understands that high school sociopolitics is not exactly on par with race relations would be nice.

What everyone wants to know about "Living History" is whether it's Clinton's attempt to set the record straight or plan for the future. Like any midlife political memoir, it is of course both - with just enough to keep the followers happy and the book tour moving. If you want something else, you'll have to wait for the next installment.

Dante Chinni is a Monitor columnist who lives in Washington, D.C.

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