Michael Portillo recommends

Bill Clinton: an American journey

Nigel Hamilton <em>Arrow Books, 784pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0099461

Bill Clinton does not know who his father was. The ex-president started life as William Jefferson Blythe IV, named after his mother's husband at the time of conception. Billy grew up in a wretched place, the inappropriately named Hope, Arkansas. He chose to be known as Clinton after managing to ease a stepfather of that surname out of the household.

In Nigel Hamilton's biography, Clinton emerges as charming and highly intelligent. He could have excelled at the Bar, as an international relations professor or even as a saxophonist. When he started his political career, he had chosen the only field where his addictive sexual promiscuity threatened ruin at any moment. His amorous adventures were so breath-takingly dangerous that this book has the feel of a thriller. His character flaw reflects an inferiority complex, a need to be accepted, even a fear that he is white trash.

Hamilton generally finds Clinton endearing, but is sometimes at a loss to defend his behaviour. You have to be impressed by a society in which a man can travel from the humblest social origins to the White House, and you have to admire Clinton for winning two terms.


"Moreover, it was not just [his friend Frank] Aller's suicide and the legacy of Vietnam that was tormenting Bill. Life with Hillary was undoubtedly the most 'disturbing undercurrent' at the time. Hillary Rodham was already a star, one who was rising all the faster because the Seventies, quite clearly, were set to become the decade of women . . . He was in a 'relationship', a quasi marriage - which was tough. Cohabitation entailed myriad decisions that were, themselves, political in a domestic context . . . It was, in embryo, a vibrantly modern relationship, in a modern world, involving two equally strong ambitions operating in the same three fields of power: the home, the law, and politics . . . cohabitation was one of the most radical efforts Bill Clinton undertook at the end of the 'long Sixties'. Not having taken time out between Wellesley and Yale Law, Hillary Rodham was already a year ahead of Bill Clinton . . . For the first time in his life, despite his two years at Oxford and his travels behind the Iron Curtain, Bill found himself intimidated by a woman . . . Hitherto Bill had woven intricate webs of romance, deceit and betrayal in his encounters with the opposite sex: encouraging, tantalising and seducing with a veritable firework display of charm. Like Queen Victoria, Hillary would not be amused by such antics. 'Hillary is not easily charmed,' a fellow Yalie reflected. 'I don't believe she was charmed by Bill' . . .

No longer was he simply the brilliant young man from backwards Arkansas, gifted as musically as he was academically, blessed with a photographic memory and an extraordinary ability for multitasking. He was now Hillary's partner: the man whom she had designated as being capable of changing the world."

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