of A Complicated Man
"This volume is an outstanding accomplishment. The Clinton that emerges is remarkably rich and three-dimensional: a protean and mercurial figure as likely to dazzle as he is to disappoint; his own worst enemy and his own best resource; a man of extraordinarily intense emotional need and extraordinarily impressive intellect and commitment. A historic contribution to the biographical record which will stand for generations."
— Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
"Packed with fascinating personal perspective and testimony, Michael Takiff's A Complicated Man wholly justifies its title. The book is far more than a kaleidoscopic oral biography of President Bill Clinton. Aspect by aspect, it guides us through the struggles of postmodern America, as the most ambitious baby boomer of his generation seeks to modernize the Democratic Party—and, as in a Greek drama, is fated to be destroyed. Veritably, an all-American saga, with a cast of thousands—favorable and unfavorable."
— Nigel Hamilton, author of American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush
Scholar and oral historian Takiff admits up front that this book won’t settle arguments about what kind of man former president Clinton is, whether liberal or conservative, brilliant or idiotic, empathetic or selfserving. What Takiff delivers is an astonishing collection of 171 interviews with Clinton’s friends, foes, admirers, and detractors as well as reporters and political analysts, collectively offering an intimate portrait of Clinton. The material is arranged chronologically to detail Clinton’s career from Hope, Arkansas, to Washington, D.C. Interspersed throughout are notes that provide context and clarity. Some interviews have a chatty, colorful, and personal feel, recalling little, telling moments in Clinton’s life and the larger moments—deciding what to do about the Vietnam draft, entering law school, getting married, and launching a political career and destroying it with an affair with a young intern. Others are more ponderous and analytical but still offer a personal perspective on a very complicated man, a liberal who enacted welfare reform and produced a budget surplus but failed to deliver on universal health care or come to the aid of Kosovo. Photographs enhance this astonishing look at a very complicated man indeed. Even readers who have glutted themselves on other Clinton books will enjoy the intimate feel of this one.
"This book is perfectly titled. Bill Clinton was and is, indeed, 'a complicated man,' one of the three greatest natural politicians among twentieth-century presidents, along with FDR and LBJ, but also strangely flawed. These testimonies by people who knew him well throughout his life and career delve into both the strengths and weaknesses of this fascinating figure."
— John Milton Cooper, author of The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Former President Clinton has become an admired elder statesman of the Democratic Party. Takiff’s (Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam) excellent oral history, which includes 171 interviews with people who worked with Clinton and admired or hated him, helps reveal the many sides of this controversial leader. All aspects of Clinton's life and political career—from his challenging childhood, terms as Arkansas governor, turbulent presidency, and the sex scandals that nearly drove him from office to his postpresidential humanitarian efforts in Africa and Haiti—receive evenhanded treatment. Although most of the interviews contain more favorable than negative views, remarks abound like former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s that Clinton “was the most successful adolescent I've ever known.”
This lively first-person draft of history will grab and keep the attention of readers fascinated or infuriated by Clinton, especially those who enjoyed Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes.
Christian Science Monitor
By Jordan Michael Smith
Since Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, polls show that Bill Clinton’s stock has been rising, both among Democrats and Republicans. Democrats recall a man who wasn’t afraid to take on Republicans, who always stood up to the bullying right-wing when it counted. Republicans, conversely, look back fondly on a centrist Democrat, one who understood that change must be gradual and rooted in American traditions.
Those seeking to correct this misplaced nostalgia would benefit from Michael Takiff’s new book, A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him. An oral historian and the author of a book on father and sons in wartime, Takiff reminds us that the Clinton administration was just as filled with alleged radicalism and expressed disappointments as that of the current president.
Takiff conducted a staggering 171 interviews for this book, with everyone from 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis to friends of Clinton’s family, though the Clintons themselves are notably absent, as are the Gores. Interviewees’ statements comprise most of the book, interrupted only by Takiff’s explanation and occasional commentary.
“A Complicated Man” recalls the Clinton presidency in minute detail, but also gives sufficient attention to other periods in the president’s life, from growing up in Arkansas to studying at Oxford to establishing the Clinton Global Initiative. It’s a valuable document because until now there has not been not a solid examination of Clinton’s entire life. “The Survivor,” John Harris’s fine 2005 book, attends only to Clinton’s presidency, while David Maraniss’s well-regarded biography, “First in His Class,” was written in 1996, before the 42nd president’s second term.
“A Complicated Man” is also timely in arriving at a moment when the Obama administration looks disturbed. Reading it reveals tremendous parallels between Obama and Clinton. “The Man from Hope” was Clinton’s campaign slogan, foreshadowing one of Obama’s favorite themes in 2008. And one of the three ideas on the sign Democratic strategist James Carville hung on his wall at 1992 campaign headquarters was “Change vs. more of the same.” That, of course, was the basic idea Obama ran on against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
More substantively, Bill Clinton countered the image of Democrats as tax-hikers, soft on crime, and the party of special interests. He neutered GOP race-baiting, while appealing to African-Americans. It is difficult to imagine America electing a biracial man with an exotic-sounding name had Clinton not dramatically improved race relations in the 1990s.
And yet, the tragedy of Bill Clinton is succinctly illustrated by the awkward subtitle of Takiff’s book, which replaced the original choice, “An Oral Biography of Bill Clinton.” It’s impossible to disagree with Takiff’s notion that “For all his accomplishments as president, Bill Clinton is stuck, fairly or unfairly, with the image of a sex-crazed dude who loves to party, an incorrigible lech who can’t resist [playing around] no matter how awkward or inappropriate or dangerous the circumstances.” The judgement is harsh but accurate. Forget welfare reform, or Kosovo, or the budget surplus. No, what Clinton’s presidency brings to mind is a stained dress. That may say something about human nature, but it says something about Clinton as well.
Takiff speculates on the reasons behind the weird hatred that Bill Clinton, consummate centrist, inspired among conservatives. He quotes Lucianne Goldberg, the woman who told Linda Tripp to tape her conversations with Monica Lewinsky, as saying, “I just didn’t like him. It was a visceral thing. You talk to any Clinton hater and they’re vague about it.” Vague indeed.
And yet Takiff’s book makes one wonder whether Clinton was actually a centrist, or a liberal, or a conservative, or anything else. He presents so many Clintons that identifying any of them as the real one becomes an exercise in futility.
But if Takiff does not solve the riddle that is Bill Clinton, he at least presents him in all his complicated splendor. The president’s best friends and worst (political) enemies are given equal time in the book, resulting in a comprehensive chronicle of the time. “A Complicated Man” does not exonerate Clinton nor overlook his many foibles. It is fair and balanced, which is more than can be said for some of Clinton’s critics. When dealing with someone as inspiring and infuriating as the 42nd president, that is no small feat.
Jordan Michael Smith has written for The Atlantic, The Boston Globe and Newsweek.