I have been a sometime fan of Larry McMurtry’s fiction and a reader of McMurtry’s occasional essays in the New York Review of Books. McMurtry is a prolific and successful novelist (Anything for Billy is the title of his 2001 novel about Billy the Kid), but when politics intrudes even his literary judgment is unreliable.
This coming Sunday’s New York Times Book Review features McMurtry’s review of Bill Clinton’s memoirs. To say he likes the book is something of an understatement: “Confessions of a policy wonk.” Here are a few excerpts of the review:
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. Clinton had the good sense to couple great smarts with a solid education; he arrived in Washington in 1964 and has been the nation’s – or perhaps the world’s – No. 1 politics junkie ever since. And he can write – as Reagan, Ford, Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, to go no farther back, could not.
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. In their anxiety lest this somehow happen they have not accurately considered either book…
Dreiser is the novelist who would best have known what to do with Clinton, although it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that “of all natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one.”
Clinton has the vitality, but with it the inwardly angled gaze of a man who sees too clearly the crack in reality, the difference between what is and what might be, a sense born of all those normal things – the Cardinals, fishing, the Christmas tree and the out-of-state vacation – that somehow were never to occur again…
One of the appealing things about Bill Clinton, at least to literary types like me, is that he frequently reminds me of authors or their characters – for instance, there’s Thomas Wolfe, the big ghost from the other side of the South. Bill Clinton looks homeward often, to laud his angel mother, Virginia Kelley. But why stop there? You can have Clinton as Gulliver, pricked by the Boss Lilliputian, Kenneth Starr; you can have him as Tom Jones, eternally seeking his Dad; you can have him as L’il Abner, wooing his Daisy Mae in the unlikely purlieu of Yale Law School; though to his gnatlike cloud of enemies he will always mainly be the Artful Dodger, the man they’re convinced is getting away with something, even if, as is often the case, they can’t figure out what.
The one literary figure Clinton does not suggest is Don Juan. From the massive evidence of this book he’s still obsessed with politics, as he always has been. Undoubtedly he has occasionally made time for bedroom sports, but not much time. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky may be three of the nicest ladies in America, but their “conquest,” however we are to understand that term, does not make Clinton the world’s No. 1 ladies’ man, or even the No. 1 ladies’ man of northwest Washington. From my observation, which has been long and searching, the people who are doing most of the messing around in our lovely capital – les hauts journalistes – are still unable to manage a mature tone when dealing with presidential sex, when there is any…
And somehow, vaguely, it all has to do with sex – not necessarily sex performed, just sex in the world’s head. I doubt myself that Bill Clinton’s sex life has been all that different from anybody else’s: pastures of plenty, pastures of less than plenty, pastures he should get out of immediately, and not a few acres of scorched earth.
During the silly time when Clinton was pilloried for wanting to debate the meaning of “is,” I often wondered why no one pointed out that he was educated by Jesuits, for whom the meaning of “is” is a matter not lightly resolved.
The review concludes in the Jesuit/Clinton spirit with a parting shot at Kenneth Starr.