KAKUTANI (6/20/04): In fact, ''My Life'' reads like a messy pastiche of everything that Mr. Clinton ever remembered and wanted to set down in print; he even describes the time he got up at 4 a.m. to watch the inaugural ceremonies for Nigeria's new president on TV. There are endless litanies of meals eaten, speeches delivered, voters greeted and turkeys pardoned. There are fascinating sections about his efforts to negotiate a Middle East peace agreement (he suggests that Yasir Arafat seemed confused, not fully in command of the facts and possibly no longer at the top of his game), but there are also tedious descriptions of long-ago political debates in Arkansas over utility regulation and car license fees. There are revealing complaints about missteps at the F.B.I. under Louis J. Freeh's watch, but also dozens of pointless digressions about matters like zombies in Haiti and ruins in Pompeii.Poor Kakutani! In that section about car license fees, she had been forced to learn how Bill Clinton, a future president, was turned out of office at age 34 after one term as Arkansas governor. More to the point, she was forced to learn that, in a state like Arkansas, American citizens face such financial struggles that they will punish a public servant they like for raising their car license fees seventeen dollars. Yes, its true: In this tedious passage, Clintons readers are forced to learn about the lives of actual Americans—those famous, sometimes low-income people who work hard and play by the rules and vote people in and out of office. On a certain east coast island, of course, this is considered unusual punishment, and Kakutani hurried to the front page to tell Times readers what they were in for. Tedious, the Times savant said. Watch out for the pointless digressions.
As noted, Kakutanis points about the eye-crossing tedium were bruited about, far and wide. Like you, were suggestible here at THE HOWLER, and yes, well admit that we actually thought the book might turn out to be deadly. But surprise! When we read the book, sipping drinks by the pool, we found ourselves more than a bit surprised. Some of its passages were pure revelation. Most revealing, in fact, was the section which began with that pointless digression about Haiti—the section of the book in which Clinton schools Dems about matters of religion-and-politics.
Why did Clinton discuss his 1975 Haiti trip, during which he witnessed a zombie ceremony? Kakutani wont tell you, but Clinton did. Heres what the trip meant to a man whose horizons werent defined by Manhattan cocktail-party chatter:
CLINTON (page 237): I describe my brief foray into the world of voodoo because Ive always been fascinated by the way different cultures try to make sense of life, nature, and the virtually universal belief that there is a nonphysical spirit force at work in the world that existed before humanity and will be here when we all are gone. Haitians understanding of how God is manifested in our lives is very different from that of most Christians, Jews, or Muslims, but their documented experiences certainly prove the old adage that the Lord works in mysterious ways.Working from this introduction, Clinton enters the most interesting part of his book—the part that helps explain how he won the White House, and the part of the book that Dems should study in the wake of the recent election. To Kakutani, of course, this is all pointless tedium. For Dems, its a helpful way out.
Clinton returns from his trip to Haiti to campaign for attorney general of Arkansas. As I traveled the state, I had to contend with the rise of a new political force, the Moral Majority, founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, he writes. In any part of the state, I might find myself shaking hands with someone who would ask if I was a Christian. When I said yes, I would be asked if I was a born-again Christian. When I said yes, there would be several more questions, apparently supplied by Falwells organization. Faced with questions designed to trip him up on religious grounds, Clinton puzzles about how to proceed. I didnt know what to do, he writes. I wasnt about to answer a question about religion falsely, but I didnt want to keep losing votes. In New York, of course, Kakutani was shifting uncomfortably, vexed by the tedium she was forced to endure. In his book, meanwhile, Clinton describes some advice he sought and received from Dale Bumpers, and he goes on to win the election. And he describes his experiences once in office—experiences which Dems should study hard in the wake of the Bush-Kerry race.
I got around the state as much as I could, Clinton writes, to broaden my contacts and strengthen my organization for the next election. Soon, hes attending a black church event in which the Reverend Robert Jenkins is inaugurated as pastor of Morning Star Baptist:
CLINTON (page 249): As Robert got into his sermon, the temperature seemed to rise. All of a sudden an older lady sitting near me stood up, shaking and shouting, seized by the spirit of the Lord. A moment later a man got up in an even louder and more uncontrollable state. When he couldnt calm down, a couple of the churchmen escorted him to a little room in the back of the church that held the church robes and closed the door. He continued to shout something unintelligible and bang against the walls. I turned around just in time to see him literally tear the door off its hinges, throw it down, and run out into the churchyard screaming. It reminded me of the scene at Max Beauvoirs in Haiti, except that these people believed they had been moved by Jesus.Yes, these are the early political experiences of the man who would become the 42nd president. Remember, this is the part of his book that is so tedious that Kakutani ran to the Times front page to warn readers not to go near it.
But Clinton wasnt done with his review of religion-and-politics in Arkansas. Not long afterward, I saw white Christians have similar experiences, he writes, when my finance officer...invited me to the annual summer camp meeting of the Pentecostals in Redfield, about thirty miles south of Little Rock. Clinton describes a life-long interest that grew from that first experience. I made that summer camp meeting every summer but one between 1977 and 1992, he writes. Every year I witnessed some amazing new manifestations of the Pentecostals faith. But for Clinton, it wasnt the ecstatic experiences of these people that mattered the most. In the following passage, Clinton reveals the breadth of spirit and curiosity that help explain how he got to the White House:
CLINTON (page 251): Far more important than what I saw the Pentecostals do were the friendships I made among them. I liked and admired them because they lived their faith. They are strictly anti-abortion, but unlike some others, they will make sure that any unwanted baby, regardless of race or disability, has a loving home. They disagreed with me on abortion and gay rights, but they still followed Christs admonition to love their neighbors.They disagreed with him on abortion and gay rights—but Clinton admired the way they lived their beliefs. (Of course, to the withered minds of the rubes at the New York Times, such a passage—it anyone had actually bothered to read it—would have been rendered thus: Who amongst us doesnt love Pentecostals?) While Kakutani stamps her feet at the tedium shes forced to endure, Clinton continues to explain his view of these inspiring Arkansans. Besides being true to their faith, the Pentecostals I knew were good citizens, he writes. They thought it was a sin not to vote. After describing a compromise he reached with Pentecostal ministers about the licensing of church-run child-care centers, Clinton concludes the rumination that began with that pointless digression on Haiti:
CLINTON (page 252): Knowing the Pentecostals has enriched and changed my life. Whatever your religious views, or lack of them, seeing people live their faith in a spirit of love toward all people, not just your own, is beautiful to behold. If you ever get a chance to go to a Pentecostal service, dont miss it.Whatever your religious views—or lack of them. Here at THE HOWLER, we dont have religious views, but we know a fascinating bit of history when we see it, even if it makes us consider the lives of actual people who may live very far from Manhattan, and even if it helps us understand how one Big Democrat got to the White House. If Kakutani convinced you to skip this book, we invite you to let its far-seeing author take you on a brief trip to Haiti—and even to the hills of darkest Arkansas, where real Americans live real lives and consider it a sin not to vote.
TOMORROW—BORN TO LOSE! If Democrats want to lose every time, a Times writer knows how to do it. (To study the text for tomorrows lesson, you know what to do—just click here.)
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: When Kakutani reviewed Earth in the Balance, she couldnt stop thinking about Naomi Wolf! How provincial is the Times greatest critic? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/1/99 and 12/2/99, for two parts of a four-part report.