David Maraniss’s “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton” was published in 1995 and remains one of the most popular biographies of Clinton. Maraniss is an author and journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1993; he was a Pulitzer finalist in 1996, 2002 and 2004. Among his other books are biographies of Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi.
Written during the early years of the Clinton presidency, this 464-page biography covers his first forty-five years (to his announcement he was running for president). Coverage is generally vivid and thorough, but Maraniss warns readers to expect relatively little coverage of the Whitewater controversy and Clinton’s personal indiscretions. Nevertheless, one need not look very hard to see the shadows of his numerous former girlfriends and casual flings scattered throughout the narrative.
Much of the book is based on Maraniss’s reporting during Clinton’s presidential campaign (for which he received the Pulitzer). But while neither Bill nor Hillary were interviewed for the book, Maraniss did speak with nearly four-hundred of Clinton’s friends and colleagues who provided a robust collection of diaries, letters and oral histories. It is hard to imagine any future Clinton biographer unearthing a comparable cache of new material.
Given his subject’s polarizing personality, Maraniss demonstrates remarkable objectivity and balance. And despite prescient foreshadowing by several of Clinton’s childhood acquaintances, the image of him which emerges from these pages is not one of obvious presidential timber. Instead, Maraniss’s portrait incorporates a complex and contradictory combination of characteristics: intelligence, extroversion, compassion and a tireless energy but also amorality, extreme duplicity, an odd indolence…and irrepressible ambition.
Although the book is essentially a classic presidential biography, it represents the confluence of traditional biography, political biography and character analysis. Almost every major event in his early life is well-covered, wonderfully described and keenly analyzed. Background and context are rarely forgotten and only occasionally does the reader find him- or herself so close to the action that the “big picture” becomes hazy.
The best aspect of the biography is probably its coverage of Clinton’s first three decades – the years preceding his political career in Arkansas. Readers get to meet an enormous number of Clinton’s influential friends, teachers and other mentors. And many of these figures receive colorful, captivating introductions of their own.
This book may well provide the best coverage of a subject’s pre-presidency I’ve read since LBJ (Caro) or JFK (Nigel Hamilton). The reader almost gets a sense of having walked the high school halls with Clinton, spied on him during bull sessions at Georgetown and journeyed with him across the Atlantic during his travels to Oxford.
Hillary is integrated into the narrative with a perceptive and revealing fifteen-page mini-biography which astutely captures her personality and attempts to decipher their mutual attraction. But Maraniss does not treat her as just any supporting character; given the nature and import of their “pragmatic partnership” Hillary appears regularly throughout the last half of the book.
Maraniss provides the most detailed and nuanced analysis of Clinton’s determined efforts to avoid the military draft that I’ve ever read. Like an accomplished prosecutor, Maraniss establishes the facts and then carefully dissects the mishmash of contradictory and dishonest statements Clinton later made regarding these events.
There is little about this biography which is not “first class.” But given the excellent roll-out which characters such as Robert Reich and Hillary Rodham receive, I would have expected a more compelling introduction to Dick Morris. And Clinton’s lengthy career of public service in Arkansas, which includes large stretches where nothing seems to happen, is comparatively dull and its timeline is somewhat murky.
Overall, however, David Maraniss’s 1995 “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton” provides a wonderful introduction to this president-to-be. It is regrettable Maraniss has not yet followed up with a volume covering Clinton’s life in the White House. But anyone hoping to learn about Bill Clinton’s formative years needs look no further; “First in His Class” is the perfect place to start.
Overall rating: 4½ stars