New Bill Clin­ton bi­og­ra­phy de­serves more credit

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Gene Lyons Gene Lyons

Any way you look at it, Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton are among the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble won­ders of the po­lit­i­cal world. Read­ing my friend and for­mer co-au­thor Joe Cona­son’s new book, “Man of the World: The Fur­ther En­deav­ors of Bill Clin­ton,” one thought re­curred: Is it even pos­si­ble to grasp the essence of this bril­liant, mer­cu­rial, many-sided man, and his equally enig­matic and deeply am­bi­tious wife -- much less to fully com­pre­hend their pas­sion­ate al­liance?

Maybe not. In­deed, read­ing a peev­ish, small-minded Wash­ing­ton Post re­view of Cona­son’s book by one Carla Anne Rob­bins, I won­dered if the jour­nal­is­tic phe­nom­e­non I call “The Clin­ton Rules” isn’t mainly a de­fen­sive re­ac­tion.

See, if the for­mer pres­i­dent of the United States, aged 70, can de­vote his time be­tween heart surg­eries to ex­haust­ing tours of re­mote African vil­lages check­ing on the Clin­ton Health Ac­cess Ini­tia­tive’ progress in sav­ing mil­lions of chil­dren from the rav­ages of HIV/ AIDS, then what’s your ex­cuse?

Far bet­ter to main­tain your moral su­pe­ri­or­ity with sniff­ish ref­er­ences to Mon­ica Lewin­sky, Hil­lary’s ac­cursed e-mails, and -- as Rob­bins oddly ob­serves -- “Bill Clin­ton’s chummy re­la­tions with bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropists who may or may not be spe­cial plead­ers.”

What­ever that’s sup­posed to mean. Ap­par­ently, writ­ing com­pre­hen­si­ble prose isn’t among the re­quire­ments for serv­ing as a mem­ber of the New York Times ed­i­to­rial board, as Rob­bins did be­tween 2006 and 2012. Which may ex­plain quite a lot, ac­tu­ally.

Rob­bins fur­ther com­plains that, “At a time when the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion’s many good works are dis­missed as merely pay to play, Cona­son’s ha­giog­ra­phy won’t cor­rect the record.”

A ha­giog­ra­phy, of course, is a saint’s life. The in­sin­u­a­tion is that be­cause Cona­son clearly ad­mires Bill Clin­ton’s phi­lan­thropy, he wor­ships the man and is in­ca­pable of crit­i­cism. This al­lows Rob­bins to pre­tend that such bal­anced crit­i­cisms as Cona­son does of­fer con­sti­tute un­al­loyed praise.

Con­cern­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton’s speak­ing fees, for ex­am­ple, Cona­son writes that, like her hus­band, “she felt such con­fi­dence in her own pro­bity that she was un­able to imag­ine how oth­ers might view her ac­cep­tance of enor­mous sums of money from spe­cial in­ter­ests.”

Now a na­tive speaker of English would grasp that the au­thor is de­scrib­ing a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion. Sub­se­quently, Cona­son de­scribes Hil­lary’s “fail­ure to com­pre­hend” how work­ing fam­i­lies might re­act to such “buck-rak­ing,” and how her seem­ing smug­ness has hurt her po­lit­i­cally. Mother Theresa, she’s not. Sim­ply by writ­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive im­plic­itly from the Clin­tons’ per­spec­tive, then, Cona­son must be dis­missed as a syco­phant, if not a heretic. Mim­ick­ing jour­nal­is­tic crit­ics of the Clin­ton Global Ini­tia­tive, Bill Clin­ton de­scribed to the au­thor how such crit­i­cism in­vari­ably works:

In­deed, he could. How­ever, Bill Clin­ton’s com­pas­sion and moral imag­i­na­tion are ev­ery bit as deep as his fath­om­less need for at­ten­tion. Does glo­be­trot­ting with Mick Jag­ger, Bono and Nel­son Man­dela make Bill Clin­ton feel like the King of the World? No doubt. But im­pov­er­ished, HIV-af­flicted chil­dren all over the world are alive be­cause of that need. Hil­lary’s, too. One of the best things in Cona­son’s book is a long, witty de­scrip­tion by for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush of ac­com­pa­ny­ing Bill Clin­ton across Asia on a fund-rais­ing mis­sion for Tsunami re­lief.

“You can­not get mad at the guy,” Bush con­cluded. “I ad­mit to won­der­ing why he can’t stay on time, but when I see him in­ter­act­ing with folks, my won­der turns to un­der­stand­ing.” Arkansas Times colum­nist Gene Lyons is a Na­tional Mag­a­zine Award win­ner and co-au­thor of “The Hunt­ing of the Pres­i­dent” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

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