Desperate to undo the damage of its first review -- Michiko Kakutani described Bill Clinton's book as "eye-crossingly dull" and "self-indulgent" -- the New York Times scrambled to post on its website a positive review of the book this week. The Times found for the task Larry McMurtry, a fiction writer, a spinner of tall tales like Lonesome Dove. In other words, a peer appropriate to Bill Clinton.
According to press reports, McMurtry's review wasn't supposed to appear until July, but the Times had to slap it up quickly to stop the bleeding from the Kakutani review. McMurtry hails the book as "the richest American presidential autobiography" ever -- a claim as convincing as McMurtry's saying, "I happen to like long, smart, dense narratives and read 'My Life' straight through, happily."
McMurty admits his speed reading didn't yield much insight into the man. He writes, "I may not know Bill Clinton any better than I did when I started, but I know recent history better, which surely can't hurt," faint praise that suggests McMurtry is faking his way through the review for an ideological ally.
Straining hard to talk about everything but the prose in the book, McMurty tries to romanticize Clinton for having written it in "longhand." "Had Clinton become our Balzac, working all night at his office up in Harlem…?" he wonders.
Yes, there Clinton was, quill in hand, itemizing his diet during his Georgetown days: "At lunch, I splurged to thirty cents. Half of it bought a Hostess fried pie, apple or cherry; the other half went for a sixteen-ounce Royal Crown Cola. I loved those RCs and was really sad when they quit producing them." (If Clinton has to fend off charges that the book was ghosted, he can always point to these lines about the passing of RC cola.)
Though other liberals have interpreted the book as permission to stop lying about Clinton's moral disorders, McMurtry is a holdout on the issue of Clinton's unruly appetites. "The one literary figure Clinton does not suggest is Don Juan," he writes. "From the massive evidence of this book he's still obsessed with politics, as he always has been. Undoubtedly he has occasionally made time for bedroom sports, but not much time." To buttress his case, McMurtry could point to page 70, where Clinton expresses moral distaste for coed college housing: "when Hillary and I took Chelsea to Stanford in 1997, it was still somewhat unsettling to see the young women and men living in the same dorm," Clinton writes, recalling that he didn't enjoy that option at his Alma Mater, Georgetown.
Clinton is a product of Jesuit education, a fact McMurtry thinks deserves more attention. Vatican II-era Jesuits, implies McMurtry, taught Clinton how to lie: "During the silly time when Clinton was pilloried for wanting to debate the meaning of 'is,' I often wondered why no one pointed out that he was educated by Jesuits, for whom the meaning of 'is' is a matter not highly resolved," he writes.
Bill Clinton, S.J. -- it might have been. On page 76, a couple of pages after Clinton writes of a trip to New York City where "I saw my first streetwalker," Clinton says a Jesuit took him out to a Howard Johnson's restaurant near Georgetown to ask if he would like to join the order. "He asked me if I had ever considered becoming a Jesuit. I laughed and replied, 'Don't I have to become a Catholic first?' When I told him I was a Baptist and said, only half in jest, that I didn't think I could keep the vow of celibacy even if I were Catholic, he shook his head and said, 'I can't believe it. I've read your papers and exams. You write like a Catholic. You think like a Catholic.'" Clinton missed his chance, and on such quaint grounds. It was very generous of him to think that inability to uphold the vow of celibacy and lack of belief in Catholic teaching posed insuperable barriers to the Jesuit order.
McMurtry concludes his review with an attack on Ken Starr's hometown, Thalia, Texas, which lies on the "Floydada corridor," a nickname popular with "local wits." "It's a merciless land, mostly, with inhabitants to match," McMurtry writes. "Proust readers and fornicating presidents will find no welcome there." McMurtry then oddly urges the Balzac of Harlem to visit the town. To learn more about his nemesis, he says, "Bill Clinton should check it out."
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