Take 2 at the Times: McMurtry sets sights on Kakutani

Published June 24, 2004 3:01PM (EDT)

Funny what happens when the New York Times gives Clinton's memoirs to a reviewer who isn't a) on staff and b) part of the media Beltway culture. Instead of an A1 takedown of "My Life," which the Times published on Sunday, readers get a rave. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry reviews "My Life" for the New York Times Sunday Book Review in the issue dated July 4, but the paper posted the review on its Web site last night.

And unlike Michiko Kakutani, the Times staff critic who panned the book in a strangely personal attack that seemed to channel the paper's peculiar decade-long, institutional dislike for the Clintons, McMurtry writes, "William Jefferson Clinton's My Life is, by a generous measure, the richest American presidential autobiography -- no other book tells us as vividly or fully what it is like to be president of the United States for eight years." He also notes, "[Clinton] can write -- as Reagan, Ford, Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, to go no farther back, could not."

Then to make things interesting, McMurtry sets his sights on Kakutani. In her dismissive review, she wrote "Dan Rather, who interviewed Mr. Clinton for 60 Minutes, has already compared ["My Life"] to the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, arguably the most richly satisfying autobiography by an American president, My Life has little of that classic's unsparing candor or historical perspective."

McMurtry, without actually typing Kakutani's name, fires back at the Times critic: "In recent days the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant have been raised as a stick to beat Clinton with, and why? Snobbery is why. Some people don't want slick Bill Clinton to have written a book that might be as good as dear, dying General Grant's."

Kakutani labeled My Life "often eye-crossingly dull." McMurtry returns the volley: "I happen to like long, smart, dense narratives and read My Life straight through, happily."

And whereas Kakutani failed to inform readers that My Life often dealt with the press, and specifically the New York Times' treatment of the first family, McMurtry doesn't shy away from stating the obvious: "The press's much extended pursuit of Clinton -- or both the Clintons -- is half the story." He adds, "The very press that wanted to discredit him and perhaps even run him out of town instead made him a celebrity, a far more expensive thing than a mere president."

Maybe that's what the Times is so sore about.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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