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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Clinton Biographer Hams It Up at University Club

Nigel Hamilton is a Scotsman with an impressive resume as a biographer. Having previously authored an in-depth, multi-volume bio on esteemed World War II allied Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery (collectively titled, Monty: The Battles of Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery), as well as single books on Thomas and Heinrich Mann (The Brothers Mann: The Lives of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1871-1950 and 1875-1955), and President John F. Kennedy (JFK: Reckless Youth), Hamilton’s latest endeavor is his first attempt to catalog the experiences of a still-living individual, namely former president William Jefferson Clinton. In honor of the release of Bill Clinton: An American Experience-Great Expectations, the first part of what is to be a three-volume documentation of Clinton’s rise from a fatherless southern household to a scandal-ridden 8-year tenure in the White House, the McCormack institute at UMB (where Hamilton first came in 1989 as the Kennedy Scholar) invited the author for a talk and book signing at the Healey Library’s University Club on Thursday, October 23.

After a lengthy reception, Hamilton took the podium, having been introduced as a man “passionate, as well as skilled in biographing” by McCormack Institute director Edmund Beard. Hamilton spoke initially, and at length, about the virtues of being a biographer in the United States, where it is now virtually impossible for an American public figure to sue for libel, as opposed to the Eastern world, where, as he put it, “The line between criticism, blasphemy and treason is dangerously thin.” The biographer went on to describe how difficult it was at times to unearth intimate details on the ex-president, noting that Clinton had had all his files removed from Arkansas public archives when he ceased to be governor of that state. “I interviewed people ranging from the man who had ghost-written Bill Clinton’s mother’s autobiography, to his nursery school teacher, to the woman who had in many ways kept his ship afloat in turbulent times when he was both the governor of Arkansas and the president of the United States, former chief of staff Betsy Wright,” Hamilton recalled.

In writing Bill Clinton: An American Experience, Hamilton attempted to frame the life of the former president in the context of the kinds of changes that had taken place in America since the dawn of Clinton’s generation (as well as Hamilton’s own), the baby boom. “Understanding Bill Clinton’s times,” Hamilton suggests, “is crucial to understanding where we are in the West and in the world.” The author concluded his prepared presentation by reading an excerpt from his book-specifically, a segment of an interview with Frank White, the man who defeated Clinton for the Arkansas governorship in 1980, after switching over to the Republican party (having previously been a lifelong Democrat) in order to give himself more time to devise a strategy for defeating the young incumbent. In reading the excerpt, Hamilton assumed a faux-Southern drawl to impersonate White. He discussed how Clinton’s youth, temperament and immaturity had put him under constant scrutiny during his first term and how his raising of Arkansas state tax on automobile title transfer to the highest level in the country in order to help pay for the state’s new highway system had ultimately won White the election.

A question-and-answer session followed Hamilton’s talk. One audience member raised the issue of a rather brutal New York Times review of the new biography that, as it later turned out, had been written by the husband of Clinton’s White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. Another observer asked whether the mindset Hamilton had adopted when he began doing research on Clinton’s life had changed at all as he worked on the first volume. To this, the biographer responded that what had most significantly altered his perspective on the ramifications of Clinton’s morality flaws was, in fact, the actions of the current administration since the events of 9/11. “The consequences of the lies of our current president,” Hamilton lamented, “are far more dire than any moral qualms we would have had during the Clinton years.” When asked whether the recent election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California gubernatorial race despite a less-than-wholesome personal history was in any way a byproduct of the public being desensitized to private misdeeds by public officials since the Clinton impeachment, Hamilton retorted that the simple need for leadership that the United States as a whole has experienced since 9/11 was the most prevalent factor that created the opportunity for Schwarzenegger’s election.