of A Complicated Man
In 2003 William Morrow (HarperCollins) published by first book of oral history, Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam, the first book to focus on these two wars and on the experiences of the two generations of warriors who fought them.
Seeking to continue my exploration of the oral-history form, I turned toward politics. The subject was a natural one for me—I’ve been a political junkie since I was nine years old, when I watched Lyndon Johnson crush Barry Goldwater. And for someone who loves American politics, there’s no more fascinating figure alive today than Bill Clinton.
It took a while before I came up with the idea to do an oral biography of our 42nd president, but once I did, it was the obvious choice for my next book. For one thing, no one has ever written a full-scale oral biography of him. For another, since he’s still relatively young, it’s possible to interview many people who knew him as a child. But most of all, President Clinton is an appealing subject for a biographer because of his complex and out sized personality—the largest in the White House since Lyndon Johnson, and because opinions of him, among the public and among the political classes, are so varied and so intensely held.
As I began interviewing, I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I spoke to 171 people, some by telephone but most in person—I traveled from my home in New York City to Georgia, California, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Twice I spent a week in Arkansas; I trekked to Washington, DC, perhaps 20 times. The final book contains spoken text from 148 of those individuals, plus 21 whose interviews were conducted by one or both of two archives in Arkansas (the Butler Center in Little Rock and the Pryor Center in Fayetteville). Appearing in the book are people who grew up with Bill Clinton, worked for him, worked against him, investigated him, defended him, reported on him, loved him, hated him. Everyone from the cousin who took took him to the Saturday afternoon Westerns in Hope, Arkansas, to a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, from classmates at every stage of his education to journalists like Sam Donaldson and Tom Brokaw, as well as over two dozen current or former members of Congress, from Democrats like Barney Frank and John Lewis to Republicans like Bob Dole and the late Henry Hyde.
The book is not inherently either favorable or unfavorable; rather, I believe, it is fair. People have been arguing about Bill Clinton as long as they have known about him—in Arkansas since his days as attorney general and governor, nationwide since the primaries of early 1992. A Complicated Man presents the multifaceted argument over this compelling, controversial, sometimes confounding American president. It contains recollections and analysis from boosters and friends, as well as from detractors and enemies. It recounts both his finest hours and his worst. Most of all, I believe it presents the fullest, most insightful, entertaining, and complete picture yet of the life and character of this extraordinary man.