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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

My Life: Fourth 100 Pages

There's been somewhat of a shift in tone as Clinton progresses in describing the stages of his political career. The early stuff about his schooling, low-level campaign jobs, losing his 1974 run for Congress, serving as attorney general, and then being a governor who was kicked out after his first term all has the same tone. Clinton is reflecting on the lessons he learned coming up, openly admitting his failures and how he took lessons for his presidency.

But starting with his comeback victory in the 1982 governor's race, Clinton is much more sure of himself. There's more wonkishness about all of the policy programs he passed, how he got the legislature to go along, and praise for his aides and others he worked with. He also is very sure of himself in analyzing how his opponents in the 1990 race made political blunders. The start of the second stint as governor represents the time when Clinton really came into his own, and his success from then on spurred him on to a White House win a decade later. A lot of the ideas he began espousing in the 1980s, as his national stature grew, are closely linked to his two terms in Washington, so perhaps one could say that around page 300 or so the instinct to protect his legacy kicks in and Clinton's writing starts suffering a bit. Maybe the criticisms I've seen in reviews that the latter half of the book is weaker will turn out to be correct--we'll see.

As for the anecdotes, the part on his infamously interminable 1988 convention speech, the public reaction to it, and his self-mockery on the Tonight Show is pretty good, including details I didn't know previously. Another thing that stands out is how enamored Clinton is with Wal-Mart, on a few occasions citing how he got companies to keep factories open by convincing Sam Walton to stock their products (the buy-American emphasis was later abandoned, he notes), and praising Walton's business practices. But the most interesting bit is the account of how Clinton received a 1991 phone call from Bush I domestic policy advisor Roger Porter threatening that if he ran in '92 the GOP would seek to destroy him personally. Porter denies that the phone call ever occurred and it wasn't until I read the full context last night that I realized how central Clinton makes the Porter story to his account. He emphasizes how he didn't like to be threatened, and how he has used threats as motivation at various stages of his life. Brad DeLong has been covering this dispute with a transcript of the relevant passages of the book and a comparison with previous books' accounts, including David Maraniss, who says Porter wanted Clinton to become a Republican (by way of Bob Somerby--imagine an alternate universe in which the Clinton haters had elected him through their own party!). Upon reviewing this evidence, DeLong sides with Clinton over Porter.