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What to Read Next (No. 283): The Clintons
Going all the way back to elementary and middle school, I’ve had a fascination with the Titanic. In those school-aged years, I read all the books I could find and once had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the ship (as much as possible for a 10-year-old kid, at least). So I’ve been following this week’s news about the Titan submersible somewhat obsessively.
Yesterday’s announcement confirmed another tragic chapter in the doomed ship’s story. Next week, I’ll have a Titanic edition of the newsletter with a variety of reads for all ages and interests.
For now, however, let’s move on to this week’s books.
It’s been a couple of years since my POTUS reading project wrapped up, but I’m still doing some reading and paying attention to the genre. It’s not a fascination that will go away anytime soon. Though not all of those books I read are worth sharing here in the form of full reviews, today’s newsletter covers one of the most exciting personalities to have taken residence in the White House: William Jefferson Clinton.
There is not yet a book that covers Bill Clinton’s early years and his political tenure. So, the two books featured today make for the best 1-2 punch if you want to understand the man who, in many ways, defined the America of the 1990s.
As a bonus, I also review Hillary’s What Happened, her highly publicized memoir of the 2016 election.
First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography)
Even from an early age, there's no doubt that Clinton molded his life around becoming politically successful. This is a guy who, to this day, lives and breathes politics and campaigning.
Over the course of ~450 pages, journalist and author David Maraniss gives us a detailed look at how Bill Clinton became that wholly political animal. By the end of the book, I certainly felt like I had a better understanding of Bill Clinton on a psychological level — he became human in Maraniss’s hands.
That doesn’t mean the portrait is flattering, though. Ultimately, I came away with kind of a gross, sleazeball feeling about our 42nd president, which isn’t too different from how I felt before. I now just have a better justification for it.
What makes the book eminently worth reading is Maraniss’s incredible storytelling. Just as with his long biography of Barack Obama, Maraniss explores how Clinton’s family tree, environment, and early experiences shaped the person and politician he later became.
We also get noteworthy dissections about his time in college, his relationship with Hillary, his stints as Arkansas’s governor, and, of course, the numerous and ongoing dalliances that would later haunt him.
It’s a deep dive but a very worthwhile one. For any fan of politics or presidential history, First in His Class is a great read.
The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John Harris
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Genre: Non-Fiction (Politics)
The ‘90s saw a monumental shift in the state of American politics. Kickstarted by the fiery Newt Gingrich, the media-fueled clash of personality and moral grandstanding became the norm. Though there were actual legislative battles (health care, crime, etc.), most of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office were spent fighting off personal issues and bitter partisanship.
John Harris, a longtime political journalist, masterfully covers it all in this insider account of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Perhaps the book's most striking feature is its depiction of Clinton’s political savvy and personal charisma. Harris captures his ability to endure numerous and varied setbacks. At his best, Clinton could outmaneuver a Ferrari if he had to. This (mostly) isn’t a sympathetic account, though. Harris doesn’t shy away from exposing Clinton’s weaknesses, including his tendency to favor conciliation over clarity, and his destructive appetites, both of which threatened to consume his presidency on multiple occasions.
Out of necessity, The Survivor also provides an intimate look at Clinton’s personal life, particularly the unique dynamic between him and Hillary. Their shared ambitions, ordeals, and mistrust towards many of the big-time players in Washington played a significant role in shaping their time in the White House and, somewhat oddly, pulled them closer together despite Bill’s recklessness and misconduct.
Overall, I enjoyed The Survivor and don’t hesitate to recommend it to those interested in the politics of the ‘90s. The soap opera of it all made for a surprisingly page-turning account.
What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
In 2016 — how can it possibly be seven years ago already? — I was happy to cast my vote for the first woman nominee of a major political party. And there’s no discounting Hillary Clinton’s tremendous achievements as First Lady, New York Senator, Secretary of State, and Democratic nominee for President of the United States. But her 2017 memoir, What Happened, fell flat.
Rather than presenting an authentic, honest portrait of a flawed candidate and campaign, What Happened mostly casts blame elsewhere. Hillary has often lacked self-awareness in her career and this memoir is no different.
I wish she had waited a little longer to write it. There were years of campaign and election analysis ahead, but Clinton put her thoughts out into the marketplace less than a year out from her loss. A couple more years of reflection would’ve perhaps sharpened her arguments; instead, the explanatory chapters often felt petty.
Parts of What Happened were absolutely worthwhile and earnestly reflective, but most of its 500+ pages seemed bloated and self-serving, meant more to burnish her legacy than anything else. I may try another of her books, but this one wasn’t for me.
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