Hamilton's Clinton biography -- intriguing, with a caveat

October 05, 2003|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Bill Clinton: An American Journey, Volume 1 -- Great Expectations, by Nigel Hamilton. Random House. 784 pages. $29.95.

Nigel Hamilton's biography of Bill Clinton from birth to 1992 contains more discussion of sex than any life study I can recall since, well, Nigel Hamilton's biography of John F. Kennedy's early decades.

As a biographer myself, I understand that my colleagues and I are attracted to our subjects for specific reasons. Does that mean Nigel Hamilton is obsessed with sex? Maybe. Or maybe not. A one-time student of history at Cambridge University, the British Hamilton has also chronicled the life of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery was a lot of things, but he certainly was not a sex-obsessed president of the United States.

Hamilton is persuasive that Clinton's mother was obsessed with sex, that the most likely candidate for Clinton's father (paternity is still less than 100 percent certain) was obsessed with sex, and that many of Clinton's early female partners couldn't get enough, to employ the vernacular. Hillary Rodham, the woman Clinton would marry, apparently is different in that regard. But her alleged physical coldness allows Hamilton new occasions to discuss the role of sex in the future president's rise to the White House.

If this review is sounding negative or glib, that is not my intention. Biographers usually find it difficult to learn much meaningful detail about a subject's parents, childhood and adolescence. By conducting large numbers of interviews and locating documents in unlikely places, Hamilton has overcome the hurdle impressively. He supplements the facts, rumors and gossip with frequent psychological analysis.

Hamilton is especially strong when reporting and ruminating about the role of social class in Clinton's rise from small-town Arkansas to the White House. It has not been the norm in U.S. history that a president began his life in a "white trash" setting. Hamilton is fascinating as he recounts how Clinton's mother refused to be put down by the white trash label applied to her, broke the rules for women of her low social standing, and got away with breaking the rules, thus helping destroy the structure that might have held her son down forever.

Lots of biographers are uncomfortable speculating what their subjects, whether dead or alive, thought at any given moment. Not Hamilton. He revels in psychoanalyzing Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and numerous other individuals who populate the first volume of a planned two-volume biography. At times, the psychological insights seem downright brilliant. At other times, they seem plausible. Sometimes, they seem farfetched. Rarely, however, are they boring.

Despite Hamilton's copious original research, at times he relies heavily on previous biographies of Bill Clinton. Given the wide range of reliability in those previous biographies, Hamilton does readers a disservice when his only citation is to a particular page in a book about Clinton written a decade earlier. Is the book by a political enemy? By a close friend? Is the citation on the page of the previous book based on first-hand observation, a carelessly reported newspaper account, or what? It is usually impossible to know from Hamilton's text.

Hamilton received no assistance from either Bill or Hillary Clinton, perhaps because they were writing their own books for multimillion-dollar cash advances. At a Little Rock, Ark., dinner during summer 2002, Hamilton met the former president briefly. The biographer turns even that fleeting encounter into something fraught with meaning, filled with "a certain psychological melodrama. Indeed, as biographer of Thomas Mann, I thought afterward how Mann, the great German ironist of the twentieth century ... would have been profoundly intrigued by it."

Yet, in Hamilton's telling, there is nothing particularly intriguing. At first, Clinton does not recognize Hamilton as his unwanted biographer. When recognition dawns, Clinton looks stricken, recovers quickly enough to discuss a recent book set in Cambridge, England -- an intellectual center known well to both Hamilton and the former president -- and then makes his exit.

Given such exaggeration, any biographer who has thought about ethical practice must have grave reservations about Hamilton's Clinton, just as grave reservations about Hamilton's young John F. Kennedy are warranted. That said, Hamilton's take on Clinton's life -- as well as the Arkansas, national and international milieus shaping the life -- are too tantalizing to be left unread.

The best advice a practiced biographer can give a non-practitioner of the craft is to feast at Hamilton's table, but think deeply about each bite before swallowing.

Steve Weinberg has written biographies of a 19th-century Iowa tycoon (Benjamin Franklin Allen), of a 20th-century international tycoon (Armand Hammer), and is at work on a life of Ida Tarbell (1857-1944), the first practitioner of documented investigative reporting. Weinberg is also author of a book about how the craft of biography is changing, and why.

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