Molly Ivins


I like Bill Clinton’s book. I feel as though I should immediately apologize for saying that. I mean, it’s gotten a bunch of bad reviews—all sorts of superior people have peed all over it and pointed out he shouldn’t have said this, or he should have said that.

Let me get my claim to intellectual superiority in here right away: I was prepared to dislike the book. I was prepared to find it self-serving, inadequate, insufficiently groveling, and all that other good doo. Actually, I think it’s well written, interesting, and informative. I’d recommend it to almost anyone who’s interested in politics, including young people with any inclination toward public service.

I started reading it just to make sure Bill Clinton is who I always thought he was. Yep, same guy. Superb politician with a zipper problem. Interesting case. But even I learned quite a bit along the way.

There’s two reasons I’m an easy target for this book. One is I love political stories, and Clinton, who is a pol-to-the-bone, does, too. The Arkansas stuff alone is worth the price of admission. Doesn’t matter who you are or what your politics are, if you are interested in how it works and what it takes, you cannot afford to miss the first part of this book.

Furthermore, I don’t care who you are, you have to just stand back and admire the sheer American dream arc of this hopelessly hillbilly kid. Now that I think about it, Clinton might resent that—and he might be right. He became governor and then president in the most meritocratic way: He was smart enough. No money, no privilege, no entitlements, no big-deal family, no ticket into Yale. His description of his intellectual development is fascinating and should be well noted by those who have debated the merits of the Japanese and the American systems.

The most pleasant thing about Clinton’s recounting of all this is that he’s just as amazed as you are. “Gee,†he more or less says as he wanders along, “Lookit this.â€

Perhaps the nicest thing about him as a human being is that he never tried to pretend he was anything other than who he was. I went to school in the East from the Boonies myself and spent a lot of time trying to fake stuff, like I knew who Edith Piaf was and how to eat artichokes.

Probably my favorite anecdote in the book may look self-serving, but I think it’s one that just stuck with him. As a penniless college student, he went to New York City, splurged at a steakhouse for $1.99 but actually rose and left the precious steak before he had even finished because he was so upset by the conversation at the next table. Just a teenage kid bitching at his mom because she thought she had bought him what he wanted, a turntable, but what she got was not “the nice kind,†it was “the cheap kind.â€

Now if there’s one thing everyone will have to admit about Clinton, it’s that he adored his mom (shrinks, hold forth). And it was clear to him this kid’s mom had worked her ass off to buy the kid “the cheap kind,†and Clinton was so upset by the ingratitude he can still recall the conversation word-for-word 40 years later.

The second reason I’m a sucker for this book is I’m interested in public policy—unlike, for example, the current president. I don’t consider myself a wonk, but I’m genuinely interested in how public policy shapes people’s lives. Fascinating field.

As a procrastinating writer myself (my spices are in alphabetical order), I can understand why Clinton was late on deadline. But the book almost cries for a rewrite, a re-edit, and a polish—the travel diary should have been broken down into themes and principles. Might have produced a genuine classic if the publisher had been more patient.

Both praise and blame on a final point. Bill Clinton’s manners are so much better than those of everyone who has ever trashed him, it’s a monument to his momma. In fact, this book is written with such a forgiving spirit, it’s a shame.

I would have loved to have heard Clinton’s unbridled opinion of the impeachment-Republicans and their hypocrisy. With one notable exception, he is too, too forgiving. He does not like Ken Starr.

He will not like Ken Starr. And he will tell you exactly why.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her new book with Lou Dubose is Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House).