Clinton Needed a Ghost Writer

So says Reihan Salam in TNR:

When Clinton asked the assembled writers to name their favorite books, Fuentes chose William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Right then, García Márquez writes, “Clinton stood up and, taking long strides around the table, recited from memory Benji’s monologue from The Sound And The Fury–an astonishing but almost impenetrable passage.”

This anecdote underscores a point that’s been clear for some time now: Bill Clinton was, and is, a singularly strange man. That he is a political virtuoso is undeniable, and there’s reason to believe that he possesses a searing intellect of the first rank. So how could the same Bill Clinton, the borderline genius who bounded around the table to excitedly recite Benji’s monologue, produce such a banal, boring read? In the absence of a ghostwriter, that’s how.

My Life isn’t the worst book ever written. It’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read (or rather, skimmed). That distinction belongs to a book that elaborately outlined a planned transition from our contemporary industrial civilization to an antiseptic world in which all humans would become 4’10” and live in identical pods in an effort to conserve resources. And even that book was strangely compelling, something that can’t be said for My Life. To translate Clinton’s boundless energy, depravity, lunacy, and brilliance into writing requires feats of imagination that non-writers, Clinton included, simply do not possess.


“Let Clinton be Clinton,” you might say. But paradoxically, letting Clinton be Clinton–letting his ego get the better of him by allowing him to write his own memoirs–is not, in fact, letting Clinton be Clinton. It is letting Clinton be something he is not–a crashing bore who, shockingly, loved his mother, worked hard, and made some mistakes along the way. To truly let Clinton be Clinton, you need writing of epic scope and ambition. You need dark, languid tones. You need observations that strain credulity and prose that dazzles and sparkles until finally it blinds, causing anguished screams and frenzied trips to the emergency room. Mere realism won’t do the trick. Only magical realism, complete with mandolin-strumming macaques and pipe-smoking buttercups, comes close.

That sounds about right.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James Joyner says:

    I think the subtext of most of the criticisms is that the book is very longwinded and unfocused. That pretty much translates into boring.

  2. McGehee says:

    It is letting Clinton be something he is not — a crashing bore

    I beg to differ. A crashing bore is the real Clinton. He has a gift for being engaging and holding one’s attention, in person. But take away the effect of his presence and he makes people wish John Kerry would give him the hook and take over.

  3. Eddie Thomas says:

    Is there really reason to think “he possesses a searing intellect of the first rank”? Being able to produce long passages at memory is surely a remarkable mental capacity, but not really a sign of intellect, and actually doing so strikes as a sign of something else altogether.

  4. Jem says:

    Eddie, are you refering to autistic savants? Usually their skills run along one particular intellectual thread. Clinton can dissemble too, unbidden…which is more complex than just reciting like a parrot…

  5. James Joyner says:

    People mistake intelligence and judgment. Clinton is brilliant–not too many dull Rhodes Scholars, let alone from poor families–just reckless.

  6. Dman says:

    A Rhodes Scholar that never completed a class. One should never believe a title automatically makes a person fit the stereotype. I do agree though, many pathological people are very clever.

  7. Janis Gore says:

    Ten million in advance and they can’t take a lunch to come up with a better title than “My Life”? Even worse than “Living History”.