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READING BILL CLINTON

12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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President Clinton has published a new book, Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century (Times Books, $ 16.95). By all accounts, it had a remarkably brief gestation, a few months from conception to birth. You can't blame him for wanting to get it out as quickly as possible. Presidential campaigns are traditionally heralded by books: Every four years the shelves at Crown and Borders fairly groan beneath the candidates' authorized biographies, their memoirs, their comprehensive statements of vision, the thin, paperbacked collections of their bon mots. But what would an earnest voter find today on a search for published Clintoniana? There's James Stewart's Blood Sport, an account of Arkansas land-flips and S&L hanky-panky. Or Bob Woodward's The Choice, which shows the president's wife channeling Eleanor Roosevelt, who used to be dead. Or Roger Morris's Partners in Power and R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.'s Boy Clinton, which implicate the president in drug-running and . . . well, worse.


To balance the scales against this mountain of abuse, the president now offers his little wisp of a book, weighing in at slightly less than a box of Raisinettes. It's 178 pages long, though if you adjust for typesetting inflation it is probably closer to 75, and if you further adjust for the inflationary effects of throat-clearing, repetition, and wheel-spinning, you can peg the final count somewhere below 50. On the dust jacket President Bill Clinton is listed as sole author, and the White House has circulated a photocopied page of manuscript, dark with presidential scratchings, to prove that the president labored over every word. In the acknowledgments he gives generous thanks to an improbably named "public policy consultant," William E. Nothdurft, "who was primarily responsible for helping to draft this book," and who, if I know the Clintons, will never be heard from ever again.


Between Hope and History is a politician's book -- part philosophizing, part policy-wonking. All politicians' books are ghostwritten nowadays, and so readers must strain to hear beneath the paid-for and polished prose the whisper of the putative author's true voice. But what is the president's true voice? The only piece of prose I know to be Bill Clinton's and Bill Clinton's alone is the famous 1969 letter to Col. Holmes, in which the future president thanked the old soldier for "saving me from the draft." It shows him to be a stylist of some gifts, a man who prevaricates with great elegance and even charm. But the voice we have grown used to over the last three years is the voice of his speechwriters. In his speeches, the president's original impulse toward straightforward prevarication is obscured by the mundane fudging and hedging of a committee of bureaucrats and political consultants and pollsters.


And this, alas, is the voice we hear in the pages of Between Hope and History. Some of the fudging can be credited to the president himself, of course. Note, above, the acknowledgment of William E. Nothdurft. Given the contretemps over the unacknowledged ghostwriter of Mrs. Clinton's book last year, the president was compelled to give Nothdurft's existence a nod. And you can easily imagine the sentence as it was presented to the president for editing: . . . William E. Nothdurft, who drafted this book. A simple declarative phrase, not imputing authorship but acknowledging essential assistance -- and a phrase, moreover, that's true. But perhaps it offended the vanity of a statesman who would prefer sole credit. So a presidential commendation: who primarily drafted this book. Better. But still too strong? After all, whose name is on the cover? Then this: who was primarily responsible for drafting this book. Hmmm -- a furrow of the brow, a bite of the lower lip. The fellow is getting paid, isn't he? What more compensation should he want? A few more scratches of the pen, and: Nothdurft, who was primarily responsible for helping to draft this book. And there the president let it lie. From a statement of fact to a phrase approaching the nonsensical: It is the Clinton style distilled to its essence.


But the book offers few fudges so small and straightforward as this. More often, the prevarications are multileveled, Escher-like, almost hallucinatory. It is the work of a committee of trimmers, each of them adding and subtracting, layering and revising in emulation of their boss and master. The result, as a matter of prose, will be familiar to students of Clinton's speeches. Lincoln brought to presidential utterance a lawyerly terseness with a twist of biblical eloquence. FDR brought the soaring platitude, Kennedy the annoying reverse parallelism. Bill Clinton will be noted for the overstuffed sentence -- the sentence as train wreck.