What Clinton's Autobiography Reveals
David Maraniss, one of Clinton's biographers, has a piece in the WaPo that examines Clinton's autobiography for what it could tell him about Clinton's innerlife. As Maraniss says, one of the challenges for a biographer is to try to get inside the heads of his subjects and understand not just what they did, but why they did what they did. And as Maraniss admits, this is an essentially impossible task as we all have thoughts and reactions we never reveal to another. Yet, Maraniss found Clinton's autobiography fascinating and it added to his sense of the man. He said that it changed his belief that Clinton was naturally optimistic, to seeing that this was more of the public face, and not the internal reality for Clinton.
One summer night during the 1992 presidential campaign, when I was interviewing Clinton about spiritual questions, he said that what he yearned for most, but had great difficulty achieving, was a feeling of integration of mind, body and spirit. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant. After reading his memoir, I think I have a better idea. At various points in his book, he says during his teenage years, when he was living with his abusive, alcoholic stepfather (Roger Clinton, his mother Virginia's second husband), he began to understand that he was leading parallel lives. His gregarious public life of "friends and fun, learning and doing" hid a secret internal life "full of uncertainty, anger and a dread of ever-looming violence."
This interpretation, a prominent theme in his promotional interviews with Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey, resonated with me. Without using the specific term in my biography, I often cited this duality as the reason he could perform so well on occasions when most people would crumble; for example, how he could deliver a State of the Union address unflappably only a few days after the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal broke. But for the most part, I thought of his parallel lives as a means of helping him keep going during difficult times, and I underestimated the depth of his self-doubt. It was not some Zen-like state of grace that Clinton longed for when he talked about integrating mind, body and spirit. He just wanted to believe that he could be a good person, someone approximating the image he tried to present to the world.
Reading Clinton's autobiography has made Maraniss view Clinton as a more complex human being struggling to find a way to see himself as a good person. Perhaps this was one of the reasons Clinton was so empathetic and so believable when he was relating to other people. When someone questions his/her own inherent goodness and still strives to do better without hating his/her own nature, one is able to provide the same grace for others who are also struggling. This is the essential nature of compassion. Forgiving and loving others for who they are, as you would have them do unto you. Self-doubt without self-hate is perhaps one of the most important traits that allow us to be truly human.
Boy, I miss Bill Clinton's America where compassion was still a value we held dear.