It’s a traditional trend in the Western world that when leaders retire they immortalize their reigns by writing memoirs , biographies or autobiographies where they explain the behind-the-scene machinations of their time in office and why they made certain key decisions.
So with Kenya playing host to former US President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea when he visited to inspect projects under Bill Clinton Foundation we take a look at his captivating book My Life: The Presidential Years.
Although the book is the second volume, one does not need to have read My Life: The Early Years, which deals with his childhood, to understand this book.
From the 68 year-old’s budget fights with the Republicans, dealing with Haiti’s internal political turmoil, his relation with post-communism Russia, the Bosnian war and efforts to bring together iconic Middle East leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat the book is a walk through the American history of the 1990s.
Besides taking the ordinary reader behind the scenes to explain how major events were shaped and influenced, My Life: Presidential Years is a good read for Kenyan political leaders, particularly President Uhuru Kenyatta, since it explains how one of the most successful politician in modern America made his decisions.
“One of the most important decisions a President has to make is when to take the advice of the people who work for him and when to reject it,” Clinton explains. “Nobody can be right all the time, but its a lot easier to live with bad decisions that you believed in when you made them than with those your advisors says are right but your gut says are wrong”.
There are also many incidences where self-criticizes and regrets ever making certain decisions like failing to intervene before the Rwanda genocide the claimed almost a million lives, getting too cozy with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and lying about it.
The book is also full of humour, one of Clinton’s unknown gifts, which he sometimes humourized serious issues to unsettle his opponents and, he says, make decision-making easier and fun.
“It was unthinkable that two great countries (Greece and Turkey) with a real dispute over Cyprus would actually go to war over ten acres of rock islets inhabited by a couple of dozen shop,” Clinton writes of the two countries’ dispute over the Imia/Kardak Islands. “I couldn’t help laughing to myself at the thought that whether or not I succeeded in making peace in Middle East, Bosnia, or Northern Ireland, at least I had saved some Aegean sheep”.
The book delves into the details about the two controversies that not only threatened his presidency but also his marriage to Hillary; the Whitewater Scandal and the Monica Lewinsky issue.
While he believes the Whitewater was a scandal that never was promoted by his chief Republican rivals Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, Clinton admits that he was as guilty as charged in the issue of Lewinsky.
“What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it and I didn’t it come out,” the former US President writes. “I was trying to protect my family and myself from my selfish stupidity. I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring, when I saw her again (daughter Chelsea), I told her that it was wrong for me, wrong for my family, wrong for her, and I couldn’t do it any more”.
Clinton says he was surprised when Hillary, who he admits never spoke to him for a month during the debacle, supported him publicly, failure to which would have ended his presidency prematurely. He also reveals that his emotions were in such a turmoil that he engaged the counseling of three pastors and experienced frequent anger outbursts.
“I was grateful that she was brave enough to participate in the counseling. We were still each other’s best friend and I hoped we could save our marriage,” the former US President explains. “Meanwhile I was still sleeping on the couch, this one in the small living room that adjoined our bedroom. I slept on that couch for two months or more…the couch was pretty comfortable, but I hoped I wouldn’t be on it forever”.
In The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House former White House reporter Kate Anderson not only confirms that Hillary condemned the former president to the couch for months during the Lewinsky saga but hit him with a book on the head.
“The rumour backstairs at the White House was that she clocked him with a book, and there were bunches of books on her bedside table, including the bible,” Anderson says. “They(household staff) heard Hillary Clinton yell, ‘you bastard’ and throw some heavy objects across the room. They all thought it was a lamp”.
Admitting to family friend Diane Blair that she forgave her husband because Lewinsky was a “narcissistic loony toon” Hillary, who recently declared her entry into the race to succeed President Barack Obama, avoided this thorny issue in his latest memoirs Hard Choices.
But despite all these Clinton still finds some nice words about his long time wife, who suffered a lot of flak from the media during the saga.
“Because I was helpless to stop them, all I could was stand by her, telling the press that America would be a better place “if everybody in this country had the character my wife has,” the ex-president said. “My consolation was the sure knowledge, rooted in twenty-five years of close observation, that she was a lot tougher than they would ever be. Some guys don’t like that in a woman, but it was one of the reasons why I loved her”.
One critical lesson that the Kenyan society can learn from My Life: The Presidential Years is the fact in America no one is above the law, including the President. Clinton explains his grilling by private prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the numerous senatorial committees he had to face.
The book should also stir retired Kenyan politicians, or writers, to cultivate the culture of writing memoirs, biographies and autobiographies where they explain why they made certain decisions while in power for posterity. This, if sustained, might just infuse some sense of integrity and responsibility among those in power.
He also eulogizes great friends and colleagues who died during his reign like Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was assassinated for his support of Palestinian-Isreal peace initiative in 1995, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown whose plane crashed in Croatia in 1996 and Deputy White House Council Vince Forster who committed suicide in 1992.