The Clinton Book

Presidential memoirs are usually ho-hum affairs. But Bill Clinton was no ordinary president, and his memoir, the much-anticipated "My Life," is no ordinary book: a historic document (Clinton was the first two-term Democratic president since FDR), the Alfred A. Knopf book is also a publishing-industry phenomenon. "My Life" isn't officially released until Tuesday, but it's already No. 1 on Amazon.com. The press release of the former president's "60 Minutes" interview with Dan Rather promoting the book landed on the cover of both New York tabloids on Thursday.

The rollout is vintage Clinton--charming, down home and completely calculated. In speeches and interviews, the former president has coyly hinted at great revelations amid "My Life's" 957 pages. But it's a tease: he shows just enough leg to make you want to buy the book.

And indeed, "My Life" will give critics and champions alike plenty to ponder for weeks to come. The book confirms what we have long known: that Bill Clinton is a complex man given to nuanced, complicated thoughts about himself, about politics and about world affairs. After an epic and leisurely stroll through his childhood--Clinton doesn't even arrive at his presidency until page 476--he finally gets down to the subjects most readers are forking out the $35 for. He is, as ever, generous to his friends and ruthless toward his enemies. He denounces former independent counsel Kenneth Starr for his "unconscionable conduct," charges that former FBI director Louis Freeh "damaged our foreign policy operations" in order to curry favor with powerful Republicans and says he will "go to my grave being proud" of his battle against the "far right" forces that pushed his impeachment.

Clinton provides new details about a meeting, shortly before he left office, in which he advised incoming president George W. Bush what he believed Bush's five biggest security problems would be, in order--naming Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda first and Iraq last. He told Bush his own failure to get bin Laden was "my biggest disappointment."

Clinton also urged Bush to visit North Korea in an effort to seal an agreement that would get that nation to end its nuclear program. Clinton says Bush listened, then quickly changed the subject, according to a copy of the book obtained by NEWSWEEK.

Clinton acknowledges--as he has before--that his conduct with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was immoral and, while offering no details about it, links his behavior at one point to a private struggle to "hold the old demons at bay."

After finally confessing his relationship with Lewinsky--a development that forced him to spend more than two months sleeping on a couch--Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, entered a yearlong counseling program. During that time, he writes, he "came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry, or feeling isolated and alone, I was more than vulnerable to making selfish and self-destructive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed."

Yet Clinton never concedes any legal missteps. During his January 1998 deposition in the Paula Jones case, in which he denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky, Clinton writes: "I would have answered ... truthfully" if the Jones lawyer had asked the right, specific questions. Clinton was later found in contempt by Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided over the deposition, for giving what she called "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process"--words that aren't quoted in the book.

The book at times delves into the machinations of conservative Clinton enemies who concocted absurd accusations of drug smuggling and other nefarious deeds. Clinton rips into Freeh, the FBI director whom he appointed, for a number of serious mistakes--including the wrongful naming of Richard Jewell as a suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing case.

Clinton saves his most bitter venom for Starr. There are no fewer than 41 index entries for the former independent counsel, whom he accuses of illegally leaking to the news media and having a conflict of interest in pursuing the Jones investigation because Starr had once publicly claimed she had a constitutional right to sue a sitting president.

Clinton briefly defends his last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, insisting the Justice Department did not object and that he was in part acceding to a request from the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (The top Justice Department pardon attorney testified he had never been consulted about the pardon until just before it was issued, and National Security Council transcripts kept by White House note takers showed that it was Clinton, not Barak, who raised the Rich pardon in a conversation just before he left office.)

In what he clearly sees as a pivotal moment of his presidency, Clinton describes in detail an intense White House debate in late 1993 about whether he should bow to congressional and media demands to allow his attorney general, Janet Reno, to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater--the failed land deal that he and Mrs. Clinton had invested in as business partners with former savings-and-loan owner James McDougal and his wife, Susan McDougal.

While former presidential aides George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes urged him to allow an independent prosecutor to quell the political storm, Hillary Clinton contended it would "set a terrible precedent," and the then White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum was "distraught," warning that "whoever was appointed would be frustrated when nothing was there and would keep widening the investigation until he found something someone I knew" had done wrong.

Concluding "I had nothing to hide," and "completely exhausted and grieving" over the recent death of his mother, Clinton sided with his political advisers and asked Reno to name a special prosecutor for Whitewater, thereby spawning a probe that bedeviled him for nearly the rest of his time in the White House.

"It was the worst presidential decision I ever made," he writes.