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That ’90s show
Its dubious literary merits aside, Bill Clinton’s My Life sparks nostalgia for a decade of peace, prosperity, and presidential sex

LATER THIS MONTH, VH1 will take the wrapper off a new series called I Love the 90s. So soon? The ’50s, after all, weren’t that big until the ’70s. That ’70s Show didn’t make it on the air until the ’90s were nearly over. Isn’t it a tad early to start feeling nostalgic for a decade that only just ended?

On the other hand, why not? The current decade has brought terrorism, war, and a sputtering economy. It has also brought us a president we didn’t elect, whose arrogance, aggressive incompetence, and arm’s-length relationship with the truth make him at least an even bet to become the first one-term president since — well, since his father was defeated nearly 12 years ago.

The man who engineered that defeat, Bill Clinton, presided over a decade of peace, prosperity, and oral sex, three things that are always popular and never go out of style. Which brings me to Clinton’s autobiography, the much-hyped, much-panned My Life (Knopf), all 957 pages of it. The buzz surrounding this cinderblock of a book resembles the Clinton presidency in miniature. Just as his two terms in office were defined by fearsome attacks in the press and high job-approval ratings from the public (higher than those of the recently departed Ronald Reagan, I might add), so has My Life been received with critical pans and popular acclaim.

No one is likely to top Michiko Kakutani’s front-page review in the New York Times of June 20, in which she called My Life "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull." As the Times’ public editor, Daniel Okrent, later wrote, for any author other than Clinton, "it would have been the review from hell." Within days, almost as an act of atonement, the Times posted on its Web site a reverential review ("the richest American presidential autobiography") by the novelist Larry McMurtry, which was, finally, published in the Times Book Review on July 4. Rushing McMurtry’s review onto the Web was a make-up call, as blatant as an umpire calling a ball a strike right after calling a strike a ball.

If Kakutani’s review represents a one for My Life and McMurtry’s is a 10, most of the other reviews fall in at around a two or a three. Not that it matters to the public. Some 400,000 copies flew out the door within one day of its June 22 release, making Clinton’s the fastest-selling nonfiction book in history. Even assuming most of those were sold at a heavy discount from the $35 cover price, that’s a lot of books. It’s hard to imagine that many of those crowding around Clinton at book-signings and snapping the tome up at stores will read it. Even if they try, they’ll find that My Life really is a bad book — not to mention the length of three or four books to which they could more profitably devote their summer. But it doesn’t matter. They all want a piece of Clinton. They all want a piece of the ’90s, when the World Trade Center was still standing (despite an attack early on Clinton’s watch), when Osama bin Laden was just the name of another semi-obscure Middle East terrorist, when the stock market was going to rise forever, and when the biggest ongoing story was whether Clinton would be removed from office because he’d lied about carrying on with Monica Lewinsky in that little room with the sink just outside the Oval Office.

In Time magazine a couple of weeks ago, Joe Klein wrote that the release of My Life "will be a brief return to the noxious ’90s, a brouhaha for which not many people are nostalgic." Imagine: Joe Klein, who fell hard for Clinton early on, and whose subsequent disillusionment became the subject of his anonymously written (for a while, anyway) roman à clef, Primary Colors. The ’90s were very good for Klein, as they were for most of the folks who are buying copies of My Life today. If Klein’s not nostalgic, well, why isn’t he?

We all loved the ’90s. And though our feelings about the president who dominated that decade may be considerably more ambiguous, is there any doubt that a majority of us would take him back tomorrow? George W. Bush’s supporters lecture us, endlessly, that W. restored "dignity" to the White House. When you think about the flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, or the torture memos that preceded the horrors of Abu Ghraib, or the unfortunates who have disappeared into John Ashcroft’s gulag, you don’t know whether to cry or to scream.

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Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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