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Hats Off to Larry

Honoring the perpetrator of a most notable act of political silliness -- Clinton related, naturally.

By 12.5.04

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WASHINGTON -- Every year before I deliver my term-end analysis of the Supreme Court I pause to pay tribute to a recent notable act of political silliness, extravagant pomposity, or reputational self-immolation. This is Washington, after all, and while those of us who live here tend to become rather blase about the breathtaking foolishness that occurs all around us virtually every hour, it seems wrong somehow to take it for granted. We have monuments to just about everything else in Washington. Why not at least a brief tribute to one of the qualities that make our city so special?

In this wholesome spirit, therefore, I take a moment or two each year to acknowledge at least one standout performance of exceptional self-absorbed grandeur that makes me proud to be an American.

This year, as in the past, there is an ample supply of eligible candidates. Not surprisingly, many of them have decided that they are authors. As a friend of mine once remarked, in Washington or Hollywood, you don't have to be a writer to be an author.

Apparently the same is true of movies. You don't need to be a film-maker to assemble celluloid propaganda.

The problem is that there are just too many of these new books and faux movies every week. Nearly everyone who passes through Washington seems compelled to bless us with one or the other or, in Michael Moore's case, both. And, I have discovered, the writers of most of these books, as distinguished from the authors, all seem to have been the same person. I know this because they all say basically the same thing: either a treatise on the intricacies of the right-wing conspiracy or something along the line that "if only those dunces with whom I enthusiastically associated for several years had listened to me, the world would be a better planet; mistakes would not have been made."

So I decided to honor not the writer of one of these Johnny-one-note books, but someone who not only claims to have read one of the books, but purports to have liked it, i.e., a book reviewer. This year's prize goes to Larry McMurtry, reviewing in the New York Times Book Review Bill Clinton's 999-page opus, My Life. That, by the way, is the actual number of pages, with illustrations, specified in the review. It seems out of character for Bill Clinton to have been able to stop himself at 999 pages. Unless, of course, there was something he wanted to leave out. Perhaps he simply wanted to be able to say that his $10,000,000 advance exceeded $10,000 per page. As for the illustrations, I don't even want to know.

The Clinton book has received spectacularly dreary reviews for its seemingly endless turgid imitation of the diaries of Florida Senator Bob Graham. The hostile reaction to this leaden book even included a surprisingly blunt appraisal on the front page of the New York Times itself. Perhaps to make amends, the Times Book Review commissioned Mr. McMurtry to take a break from writing novels -- he has cranked out 24 -- in order to give the Comeback Kid a chance for yet another comeback. Mr. McMurtry dutifully obliged by levitating well above the painfully uniform views of real critics. It may be hard to envision, but his review is so gushing that it might make even Mr. Clinton blush.

FORTUNATELY FOR MR. CLINTON, Mr. McMurtry claims to like "long, smart, dense narratives." Therefore, he says, he read the massive dissertation "straight through, happily." He must also have been inhaling. He declares that Mr. Clinton's tome is, "by a generous measure, the richest American presidential biography." He then proceeds to make a series of incomprehensible statements about the Clinton book and to compare its author, all at once, to Balzac, Thomas Wolfe, Gulliver, Tom Jones, and L'il Abner, who was not an author but rather a fictitious comic strip figure. What does he mean by this?

Mr. McMurtry even comes up with a new explanation for Mr. Clinton's fascination with metaphysics. Apparently the real reason that the president sparked a national political debate on "the meaning of 'is'" was the result of his education by Jesuits, "for whom," as McMurtry explained, "the meaning of 'is' is a matter not lightly resolved." How true that has turned out to be!

Mr. McMurtry concludes (and these are his words) that Clinton is "now up there with Madonna, in the highlands that are even above talent. In fact, he and Madonna may, just at the moment, be the only ones way up there, problems having arisen with so many lesser reputations." Perhaps he's right. Mr. Clinton and Madonna are both "performance artists," and both certainly have a lot in common. But how could Mr. McMurtry leave Paris Hilton off the list?

So, our award this year goes to Mr. McMurtry, with our gratitude not only for saving us the trouble of reading My Life, but explaining as well, all we need to know about Mr. Clinton, about Mr. McMurtry, and about the editors of the New York Times Book Review.

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About the Author

Theodore B. Olson is the former solicitor general of the United States.