His life


Geraldine Sealey
June 21, 2004 7:22AM (UTC)

Those of us who watched 60 Minutes tonight saw and heard Bill Clinton speak more candidly than he ever has in public about the day he calls the worst of his presidency. Clinton, sleepless from angst and dread, woke his unsuspecting wife from slumber, sat on the edge of her bed, and confessed he had indeed lied about having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton, describing this moment in My Life, writes that his wife looked at him as if he had punched her in the gut. Clinton told Dan Rather he didn't want to go into more details of that conversation, one of the most painful of his marriage.

And so the terms of the Clinton confessional seem to be: I'll talk about the private stuff generally, but you're not getting all the way in. As it should be. Clinton described another painful time: How Hillary felt before their joint interview on 60 Minutes in 1992 during the Gennifer Flowers scandal hype. She thought if she was going to shoot me that it should be off camera. And she didnt think that anybody else ought to be loading the gun," he said. Why did he repeat the same dumb mistake again -- with so much at stake -- with Lewinsky, Rather asked? There is no explanation which is an excuse. I want to make that clear. I don't make any excuses for myself in this book," Clinton said.

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From Clinton's interview with Rather and leaked excerpts of his memoirs, My Life will be far less racy than the Starr Report, sparing us the gross-out details of his sex life Ken Starr wouldn't. And while being far more revealing about his marriage and inner demons than any president before him -- and more than he needs to be frankly, Bill Clinton's mea culpas may not be enough for those still hungry to hear him discuss the most intimate details of his life and, preferably, publicly flog himself over them as well. Michiko Kakutani's review of "My Life" in the New York Times, for example, rapped Clinton's book for lacking the "unsparing candor or historical perspective" of Ulysses S. Grant's -- and observes that "Mr. Clinton takes more responsibility in these pages for his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, his lies about that affair and the damage those actions inflicted on his family and his presidency than he has in the past. But he still spends a lot of time -- like his wife did in her book -- assailing right-wing enemies for his woes over Whitewater, the Paula Jones case and impeachment." Yet Kakutani also notes the otherworldly cast the Starr probe takes on in the post-9/11 era. "Lies about sex and real estate, partisan rancor over 'character issues' (not over weapons of mass destruction or pre-emptive war), psychobabble mea culpas, and tabloid wrangles over stained dresses all seem like pressing matters from another galaxy, far, far away," she wrote. The message seems to be: Clinton's personal life seems so irrelevant now. Tell me more.

A BBC interviewer, also hungry for dirt, reportedly pressed Clinton so hard on the Lewinsky matter, getting Clinton visibly angry, that the network is advertising the interview, which will air on Tuesday, as "memorable television which will give the public a different insight into the President's character. It will leave them wondering whether he is as contrite as he says he is about past events."

There were no such fiery moments in Clinton's talk with Dan Rather, although Clinton's face did redden a bit at the end when Rather asked him how he felt about having "impeachment" in the first paragraph of his obituary. "As I said in my book, I will always regret the personal mistake I made. But I will always be proud that when they moved on impeachment, I didn't quit, I never thought of resigning and I stood up to it and beat it back," he said. "To me, the whole battle was a badge of honor. I don't see it as a great stain. Because it was illegitimate. On the day I die, I'll still be glad I fought them. And I'll still be glad that I beat them. And I'll still believe that it was a bogus, phony deal."

This answer will likely rile Clinton-haters and critics who want him to shoulder all of the blame for his philandering and not finger the bizarre and abusive investigation that led to his impeachment. But it will also ring true for a lot of Americans who, especially now, two wars and a major homeland terrorist attack since Clinton left office, can see better than ever that Ken Starr's sordid crusade was vindictive, designed to destroy Clinton's presidency on any possible grounds, and wasteful of the government's time and resources given the world's real problems.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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