From my very first impression of Bill Clinton to my most recent he has always struck me as the quintessential politician – for better and for worse.
But that – as JFK, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and others have proven – can be the perfect recipe for a great biography.
Almost two decades have passed since Clinton’s presidency ended but the Clinton “aura” has never quite faded. Since he left office, his wife has served as a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. For nearly thirty years they have been hard to miss and uncommonly controversial.
I read three biographies of Clinton – each of them remarkably balanced – and was delighted to find a combination of two that provide excellent insight into his childhood and political career, up through his two-term presidency. But if anything about his life is abundantly clear, it’s that not nearly enough time has passed for the definitive biography of his entire life to have been written. So stay tuned…
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* “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President” (2016) by Patrick Maney
With just 273 pages, Maney’s book does an admirable job efficiently covering Clinton’s life from his birth through the early part of Barack Obama’s presidency. But Maney’s clear focus is with the Clinton presidency; other aspects of his life are covered quickly and often without much depth or detail.
Maney’s strength (and, presumably, interest) is exploring the various policy issues which Clinton and his administration faced. These sections of the book are informative but sterile and sometimes “wonky.” The various scandals faced by his administration are dealt with crisply and with only slight evidence of the accompanying drama.
In the end, this is more a political than traditional biography and, even then, resembles a “souped-up” volume from The American Presidents Series more than anything else. For a time-starved reader seeking an introduction to Clinton’s life it should prove more than adequate, but for nearly everyone else it will likely fall short of expectations — 3½ stars (Full review here)
* “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton” (1995) by David Maraniss
Maraniss’s 464-page biography covers the first forty-five years of Clinton’s life, up through his announcement in 1991 that he was running for president. The book is based on the author’s reporting during Clinton’s presidential campaign and often seems to be as much a character analysis as pure biography.
The best feature of the book is its coverage of the three decades preceding Clinton’s political career in Arkansas, but Maraniss does an excellent job throughout the biography introducing important supporting characters and providing insight into Clinton’s mindset and behavior.
Given the breadth and depth of research Maraniss undertook while researching this story, it is hard to imagine any biographer uncovering new, revealing material on this part of Clinton’s life. And overall, “First in His Class” proved to be one of the best biographies of a pre-presidency that I’ve ever read — 4½ stars (Full review here)
* “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House” (2005) by John F. Harris
This 437-page biography picks up almost exactly where Maraniss’s leaves off, covering Clinton’s two-term presidency with exceptional insight. The author’s writing style is extremely engaging and his narrative is exceptionally balanced. Like “First in His Class,” this biography is written in a way that reveals its author’s background as a gifted journalist.
Most notable about this biography is the fact that it provides readers with the impression of seeing Clinton’s presidency up close – if not quite through Clinton’s own eyes, certainly from an extremely well-informed “fly-on-the-wall” perspective. But this is also the book’s greatest drawback – it observes Clinton and his surrounds from such close proximity that it sometimes has difficulty stepping back and seeing the big picture.
Nevertheless, John Harris’s “The Survivor” provides a dynamic, informative and undeniably engrossing journey through Bill Clinton’s eight tumultuous (and often quite productive) years in the White House — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Bill Clinton: ***Too early to call***
Excellent “One-Two” Punch: Maraniss’s “First in His Class” followed by Harris’s “The Survivor”
Only two things are missing from this combination of biographies: a detailed exploration of Clinton’s presidential transition / planning period (alluded in these books but never dealt with head-on) and his post-presidency and legacy (touched upon briefly in Harris’s biography but without the benefit of enough distance to be more than a placeholder).
– “Bill Clinton: The American Presidents Series” by Michael Tomasky