An overblown (and this is but the first volume, ending with the crushing defeat of Bush I), often out of tune, but oddly fascinating account of William Jefferson Clinton’s pre–White House life and career.
Hamilton, a British biographer (JFK: Reckless Youth, 1992, etc.) writing for a British audience (whence words like “podgy” and “gramophone”), seems uncertain about whether to scorn Billy Blythe (for so Clinton was born) as colonial white trash or to admire him for his many and evident gifts, and so his long narrative lurches between the poles of condemnation and approbation. Hamilton is also maddeningly given to sweeping psychologizing: young Bill Clinton, as he became along about August 1962 with his bohemian mother’s remarriage, was drawn to politics out of psychic necessity, born of the need to please and be loved, maybe to prove the schoolyard bullies wrong; he was shaped in equal measure by the Bible-solid town of Hope and the iniquitous den of Warm Springs; and so on. As grudging in his praise as Sidney Blumenthal is lavish, Hamilton nonetheless gives Clinton high marks for hard work, intellectual brilliance, mastery of political skills, and, well, persistence in overcoming, through charm or plain steamrolling, just about anyone who stood in his path. Along the way, Hamilton turns in any number of juicy, telling anecdotes: while at Oxford, for instance, Clinton offers his telephone number to the visiting firebrand Germaine Greer, “in case you ever decide to give bourgeois men another chance.” Hamilton also offers a refreshing outsider’s perspective on several issues that have divided American commentators, wisely observing that almost no politician of Clinton’s generation has clean hands on the matter of Vietnam (though he chides Clinton for not having lived up to his ROTC contract) and hinting that Clinton’s sexual drive should not particularly bother grownups (though the endless lying should). Yet Hamilton also scoops up innuendo, mostly on matters sexual, that will make serious students of the Clinton era cringe.
Still, for the moment it’s the most complete life yet of the man, and though it will at turns puzzle both fans and detractors of Clinton and his legacy, it’s well worth reading for all concerned.