It is the bookshop at the centre of the geopolitical world. Barnes and Noble on Washington DC’s 12th Street is a two-minute walk from the White House, and, as befits such proximity to the lodestar of global politics, the bestseller tables by the front door are piled chest-high with every current-affairs book a rational person might care to read, as well as one or two a rational person would go out of their way to avoid.
‘Books about the Clintons – pro, anti, whatever – have always been big sellers for us,’ says Sean Cummings, one of the store’s managers. ‘People in America are fascinated by them.’ Evidently so. But it is unlikely that Cummings and his colleagues have ever experienced the tidal wave of public fascination that will wash through their front door at 9am on Tuesday morning, when My Life , the autobiography of the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, finally goes on sale.
To say the book is hugely anticipated would be like saying Clinton has a moderate talent for public speaking. Cummings declines to reveal exactly how many copies he has ordered, although he admits it is ‘somewhere between three and five thousand copies’. ‘We’ve never ordered that number of advance copies for any book before. We’re hoping it’s enough,’ he says nervously. The original intention was to open the shop on the stroke of midnight, 22 June, but DC’s subway system (it shuts down at midnight) put paid to that idea, not that this minor disappointment matters anymore.
The more significant news is that Barnes and Noble has been selected to host a signing session by Bill Clinton, one of only 20 to be held around the country. ‘We’ve had calls from people in Ohio and from Iowa. They’re going to build their summer holidays around President Clinton’s appearance at the store,’ Cummings says, his voice straining with incredulity.
These days, one of the favourite debates at the dinner tables of Washington DC’s political salons revolves around the origins of the current pub lic frenzy over Clinton’s memoir. There are almost as many explanations as there are political hacks in this town: Americans are yearning for a President who can actually speak in whole sentences; they are nostalgic for a safer, pre-11 September era; there’s a vast left-wing conspiracy to rehabilitate the worst President in the history of the Union; it’s a perfect storm, where America’s obsession with celebrity meets Clinton’s undoubted star power (‘If you cloned Elvis and JFK, you would get Bill Clinton,’ a friend of the former President said recently); Ronald Reagan’s recent death has reminded people that Clinton, like his predecessor, had a sunny, optimistic demeanour and presided over a period of unprecedented economic boom.
Any, or all, of the above might be true, depending on your political point of view, but there is one explanation that everyone agrees upon: My Life has been the object of an utterly majestic marketing campaign.
When the publishers, Knopf, agreed to pay a $12 million advance for the former President’s memoirs (the highest sum ever paid for a non-fiction book) it was seen as an enormous risk. This weekend, that investment is seen as a bargain, thanks, in the main, to masterful nurturing of America’s curiosity about any presidential memoir. Clinton – no mean salesman – has been talking up the book (though not its contents, not least because he didn’t finish writing them until a few weeks ago) for months, as have his friends, his publishers and the book trade in general.
The result has been blanket coverage. For the past two weeks, the mainstream American press has been full of esoteric industry stories normally reserved for outfits like Publishers Weekly : Clinton speaks at a booksellers’ convention about My Life – queues form eight hours before he takes the stage! My Life tops Amazon’s bestseller charts weeks before publication! My Life publishers increase print run from one million copies to 1.5 million! My Life audio book set to outsell Harry Potter! AOL to stage internet ‘town hall’ meeting to mark publication of My Life!
This relentless campaign reached its apotheosis this week when Clinton returned to Washington for the unveiling of his official White House portrait, an event hosted by his successor, George W Bush. By the viciously partisan standards of modern American politics, it was a remarkable occasion. Bush and Clinton could scarcely be more different – politically, socially and intellectually – but there is an unspoken rule which says that Presidents do not criticise each other in public. However, there is nothing in the rulebook that says presidential acolytes cannot disparage, insult and smear each other’s boss until their poisonous hearts are content. For the last four years, the Bush and Clinton camps have done exactly that.
In such circumstances, the portrait unveiling might have been expected to be a fairly glacial occasion. In the event, it turned out to be, in the words of one American political commentator, ‘a lovefest’, thanks mostly to the warm and witty speech made by President Bush, who praised his predecessor for embodying the ‘forward-looking spirit that Americans like in a President’, before going on to detail the ‘extraordinary ride’ Clinton has taken from small-town Arkansas to the White House.
With perfect comic timing, Bush paused before adding: ‘I could tell you more of the story, but it’s coming out in all fine bookstores next week.’
It is unprecedented that a sitting President use his office to promote a former President’s upcoming autobiography, but there are some who insist that Bush’s bonhomie had nothing to do with personal warmth and everything to do with political calculation. Jonathan Schell, a columnist for the Nation magazine and a 30-year observer of the American political landscape, is among them. ‘I would bet my last dollar that Bush’s people did polling on what he should say in his speech and that the message came back that if he wanted to gain some credit with the American public, then he’d better say nice things about Bill Clinton – or else,’ Schell says. ‘How times have changed.’
There is an argument for saying that no modern President has been so vilified by his political opponents as Bill Clinton, but there can be no dispute that none suffered as much abuse in the immediate aftermath of leaving office. This was, as he has acknowledged, at least partly his own fault, the consequence of granting a presidential pardon to Marc Rich, the former husband of a Democrat campaign donor who had fled the US after being charged with tax avoidance. ‘It was terrible politics – not worth the damage to my reputation,’ Clinton said.
But if the Marc Rich pardon merited opprobrium, most of the other problems that followed Clinton out of the White House did not. The supposed ‘trashing’ of the White House by Clinton’s staff (untrue), the ‘extortionate’ costs of his proposed new offices in uptown Manhattan (he eventually moved to Harlem) and the alleged ‘theft’ of presidential gifts given to Clinton while in office (a genuine misunderstanding) were, like Whitewater, Troopergate and the other so-called scandals that dogged him in office, piffling affairs, hyped beyond any semblance of reality by Republican apparatchiks and their friends in the right-wing media.
Nevertheless, the coverage damaged Clinton’s standing with the public and, according to his friends, dented his confidence at a time when he was feeling particularly vulnerable. Leaving the cocoon of the White House – the power, the influence, the perks – can be a traumatic experience for any President.
For Clinton, the misery was compounded by the media onslaught and by his separation from Hillary Clinton, who had gone off to Washington to take up her position as the newly elected junior senator for New York, and his daughter, Chelsea, who had moved to Oxford to study for a post-graduate degree. Clinton was left to fend for himself in Chappaqua, the upstate New York town where the couple had bought a $1.5m home in anticipation of leaving Washington DC.
There were stories of a lonely former President calling friends late at night to complain about the way he’d been treated (‘I just wanted to go out there and do what other Presidents have done but the Republicans had other plans for me’) and wandering into a downtown bar, sipping non-alcoholic beer and shooting the breeze with the regulars.
In one famous tale, he supposedly tried to withdraw money from the cash machine outside a local bank. ‘I know there’s a million dollars in there,’ he said when the machine refused to dispense cash, unaware that in order for his freshly minted bank card to work he needed a PIN number.
Eventually, Clinton emerged from his post-presidential ennui, partly because his natural ebullience wouldn’t allow him to wallow – ‘Being angry or resentful is totally destructive. I’ve got to let it go,’ he said at the time – and partly because there was business to attend to. The countless White House battles had left the Clintons facing $10m in lawyers’ fees, and the bills needed to be paid. There was also the small matter of the $200m needed to build a presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Despite the temporary setback caused by the Rich affair, Clinton was able to command staggering fees on the public-speaking circuit. According to the congressional record of Hillary Clinton’s financial affairs, in his first year out of office her husband made $9.2m from 59 speaking engagements – from a low of $28,000 paid for a speech at the London School of Economics, to $350,000 paid by the National Advertising Council in Italy for a speech in Milan. The Jewish National Fund paid him $400,000 for three speeches in the UK. Some of his other high-paying audiences were neither as serious nor as distinguished: Success Events International, a Florida-based ‘personal motivational’ company ($250,000); an executive search firm in Spain ($125,000); Colonial Life Insurance of Trinidad and Tobago ($200,000).
There has been a long tradition of former Presidents hoovering up cash on the public-speaking circuit – Ronald Reagan famously pocketed $3m for a 20-minute speech in Japan – but Clinton’s Republican enemies, who hold him to higher ethical standards than they do their own political kin, complained that his behaviour demeaned the office he once held.
Clinton’s allies pointed out that he turned down hundreds of engagements as well as countless offers to endorse commercial products. Nevertheless, some of them privately longed for the day when his legal bills would be paid and he could get off the circuit. ‘I’m not sure he’s actually addressed the New Jersey Beer Distributors, but he’s addressing groups like the New Jersey Beer Distributors,’ a former official in the Clinton White House told Atlantic Monthly magazine in early 2002.
By the end of that year, Clinton, his debts wiped out by the $12m advance for his own book and the $8m Hillary received for her memoir, Living History, curtailed the number of speaking engagements he undertook and concentrated on raising funds for his library. He also immersed himself in domestic US politics, raising money for Democratic Party congressional candidates and dispensing advice to party leaders on how to regain control of both Houses of Congress from the Republicans.
Speculation that he was planning to run for mayor of New York was quickly brushed aside, though rumours that he was angling for Hillary to run as the Democratic Party candidate against Gorge W Bush in 2004 were harder to dismiss. It now seems that he was much keener than his wife, not least because she had promised the voters of New York she would serve her full term, through to 2006.
Once Hillary had rebuffed his efforts to press-gang her into running for the White House, he was forced to find another candidate upon whom to bestow the Clinton mantle. He settled first on the South Carolina Senator John Edwards, and then on General Wesley Clark. That neither man was able to beat John Kerry for the Democratic nomination, as well as the party’s failure to win the mid-term elections in 2002, compounded the sense that the Clinton post-presidency was drifting aimlessly, without purpose or, indeed, influence. ‘It wasn’t that different from his first couple of years in the presidency. He can’t go to the buffet without trying a little piece of everything, literally and figuratively; you try everything, so, in effect, you do nothing,’ a former senior White House aide said recently.
For his part, Clinton affected indifference to his political setbacks (‘So we lost a couple of elections – big deal’) and contempt for the suggestion that he had been unable to define a useful role for himself since leaving office. As a diligent student of American political history, he had studied the post-presidential careers of all his predecessors, from the political activism of Theodore Roosevelt (who ran a failed attempt to regain the office) to those who found another way to serve the nation (Herbert Hoover, who, in his 70s, chaired a commission on the reorganisation of government, and William Taft, who became the chief justice of the Supreme Court).
But of all of the former Presidents, Clinton chose Jimmy Carter as his role model. ‘I had to reconvene my life when I got out. I’d been in one vein for 30 years. I didn’t want to go back to elective office. I didn’t want to be a judge. And I wanted to be more active than Hoover. That’s why I mainly thought Carter,’ he said back in 2002.
At that time, the comparison with Carter was deemed to be self-serving at best and deluded at worst. While Clinton was accused of frittering away his presidential legacy, Carter had used his time out of office to reinvent himself, both globally as a fairminded arbiter of international disputes and domestically as a bestselling author of a series of non-fiction books. While Carter’s successful post-presidency had led to a positive re-evaluation of his years in the White House, Clinton’s period out of office was in danger of damaging his achievements while he was President.
Yet over the last 18 months or so, Clinton has finally got down to the serious business of being a worthy former President. He still makes the occasional appearance in the tabloid gossip columns, accused of making eyes at a pretty woman (much to the frustration of friends, who swear the Clinton marriage remains rock solid but despair at Bill’s capacity for putting himself into compromising situations).
However, these days his name is just as likely to appear in the American press in connection with his work on HIV and Aids issues.
The goal of the Clinton Foundation HIV/Aids Initiative, founded in late 2002, is to advance the treatment of HIV and Aids in the Third World by raising money to buy medicines, encouraging governments to acknowledge the problem and by seeking out ways to reduce the cost of treatment. By general consent, it has succeeded on all counts. Clinton personally called in favours from overseas heads of government, generating $475m in funding. His constant lobbying on the issue was seen as the driving force behind George W Bush’s announcement of a $15 billion HIV/Aids initiative in his 2003 State of the Union address. At the same time, the Clinton Foundation secured agreements with drug companies to provide cheap generic drugs to 13 countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
The most significant breakthrough came last summer when Clinton persuaded South African President Thabo Mbeki that treatment of the HIV/Aids epidemic in his country was not only imperative but affordable.
If Clinton devoted his entire life to tackling HIV/Aids, he could, one friend recently told Vanity Fair magazine, ‘save the world’. The problem was that the former President had other projects as well. Most notably, he had his book.
By all accounts, writing My Life was a tortuous process, hampered by the subject’s hectic schedule and his renowned verbosity. ‘He just writes and writes and writes. I think he’s going to have a 25-volume series like Winston Churchill,’ one friend said. Clinton admitted he’d had problems with the manuscript.
‘With every paragraph, there were choices to be made,’ he told an audience of booksellers in Chicago last week. ‘You can’t put every fact in, you can’t put every conversation in. In a way, having more material is worse than having less.’ Yet, with the help of his editor, Robert Gottlieb, he made the deadline for publication on 22 June. In the end, the book was delivered at 957 pages. Gottlieb is said to have been ‘enthralled’ and ‘amazed’ by what he read. Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor who was allowed to read the manuscript before interviewing Clinton for a TV special to be aired in the US tonight, said he found it remarkably candid. They would say that, wouldn’t they. Close friends of Clinton say that some of the most compelling parts are the chapters about his childhood. There are stories about his early life that even his inner circle didn’t know.
He’s also more revelatory than was expected on the subject of Monica Lewinsky, his subsequent battle to remain in the White House and on the troubles in his marriage. ‘For someone publicly to be this introspective, reflective and critical of himself is pretty remarkable and rare,’ Rather says, adding that he gave the book ‘five stars’.
For his part, Clinton is making more modest claims. ‘When I was a young man getting out of law school, I said one of the goals in my life was to write a great book,’ he told the booksellers. ‘I have no earthly idea if this is a great book, but it’s a pretty good story.’
In Chicago, on 12th Street in Washington DC, or anywhere else on the global compass, it would be hard to find someone to disagree that the life of William Jefferson Clinton is the very definition of a pretty good story. The good news for fans of political drama is that it’s nowhere near completion.