Although I’ve written on this blog of my appreciation for book recommendations, I can say that I’ve never actually immediately read and reviewed something simply because someone told me to—until now.
In the interest of savoring Steve Jobs (which is still so very very good), I took a little break from Walter Isaacson’s opus this week for a 200-page detour with Bill Clinton. Yes, gigantic nerd that I am, I actually read Clinton’s oh-so-enticingly-titled Back to Work. (You’re welcome, Aunt Mary.)
Although I suspected this book would be far from riveting, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go into it intrigued. After all, imagine being Bill Clinton these days. Not recovered-from-heart-surgery Bill Clinton, or my-wife-is-the-secretary-of-state Bill Clinton, or OK-maybe-I-did-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman Bill Clinton. I mean imagine being the Bill Clinton who left the economy in relatively good shape, with a surplus no less, only to watch it slowly—and then rapidly—deteriorate in the decade after you leave office. Imagine spending eight years building an amazing sand castle, only to have a linguistically challenged Texan come along and stomp on it, send a bunch of sand to Iraq and Afghanistan and then remain notably silent as his cohorts tell everyone that the government sucks at building sand castles anyway, that the entire sand business should be left to the free market, which would never—never—be unfairly advantageous to sand purveyors at the top, at the expense of those at the bottom.
(That analogy didn’t really work but I was committed to it.)
In Back to Work, Clinton doesn’t bother demonizing the right, or approaching the issues with any of the sardonic commentary that Thomas Frank used (hilariously) in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Rather, he spends the slim volume outlining in straightforward language (with charts!) what’s happened to the economy over the last 30 years, where it started, who is objectively responsible and what the options are for fixing things. The book is divided into clear chapters—with names like “Why We Need Government” and “How Are We Doing Compared with Our Own Past and with Today’s Competition?”—that highlight how accessible it is, although Clinton does betray his own intelligence with a few detailed descriptions of the national debt and the economics of our energy policy.
In fact, it’s rather nice—in the same month that I watched my 6,000th
Rodeo of Buffoonery GOP debate, and the Congressional supercommittee revealed its distinct lack of superness—to see some real talk from a politician, even a former one. Clinton doesn’t shy away from admitting areas of his own governance that might have been improved, and obviously the man will always live in a bit of infamy, but let’s be honest—compared with Bush’s eight years and our current clusterfuck, it’s hard not to feel like getting a voluntary BJ from an intern is suddenly the least of all evils. Dude, just admit to it next time.
So what exactly are Bill Clinton’s ideas to save the economy? There are a lot of them—an infrastructure bank, retrofitting foreclosed-upon homes for energy-efficiency, reducing taxes on corporate income earned overseas—but nothing particularly revolutionary, or entirely new. In fact, so far gone are we that Clinton only spends half the book even talking about what the government can and should do to get us out of the mess we’re in. The first half is simply a defense of government’s right to exist. Apparently the conversation has moved so far to the right (or whatever this is) that former President Bill Clinton has to spend 100 pages just outlining the reasons government needs to continue being a thing.
Even though Clinton does present a lot of ideas for improvement, it would be a mistake to say Back to Work is the kind of book that makes you wish he were still president because things would be different. He acknowledges that Obama is in a bit of a pickle, fighting against an anti-government right that doesn’t seem interested in compromise, something Clinton didn’t have to deal with during his two terms. For the most part, Clinton spends his time endorsing, or at least outlining, some of the proposals already on the table—from CEOs, from policy groups, from the Simpson-Bowles Commission and from Obama himself. His goal in the book doesn’t seem to be parading himself or his thoughts as the answer to the problems that ail us, but rather using his credibility (and, relative to Obama, lack of political controversy) to coherently explain ideas that are already out there.
To this end, Clinton’s writing does on occasion betray his frustration with the status quo. He can’t help but tout some of his own accomplishments as examples of how an environment of compromise fosters success. He also uses italics with some frequency to emphasize certain phrases or conclusions, almost as though he’s trying to explain things to a small child (or the Tea Party.) But for the most part he seems concerned with setting the record straight; it seems like maybe he’d been bitching to friends and family so much over the last two years that they said “Just shut up and write a fucking book about it already.”
And so he did.
It’s rather odd to inaugurate my presidential reading with Back to Work, since far more interesting and memorable books have been written by holders of the office—Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Clinton’s My Life among them. At the same time, I wish there were more opportunities to read a politician’s general worldviews in fewer than 200 pages, with supporting data, examples and an extremely limited amount of doublespeak. Way back in the day, I somewhat lampooned Arianna Huffington for wasting book time on ideas that might have been better expressed on her own eponymous website. Ironically, while Clinton’s writing style in Back to Work is very similar to Huffington’s in Third World America, here I found it a pleasant surprise, perhaps because I’m so unaccustomed to directness from our nation’s leaders.
I wouldn’t say run out and buy this book, because while enjoyable, it’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is a nice breath of fresh air, a voice of reason from someone who actually has run the country, and pretty well at that. If you want to give yourself a little hope, that they’re not all arrogant windbags, or right-wing Christian nutjobs, or ideologically endearing (but totally un-electable) grandpas, then maybe this is a good book to read. We miss you, Bill. Cigar fetish and all.
TITLE: Back to Work
AUTHOR: Bill Clinton
PAGES: 192 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: My Life, Giving
SORTA LIKE: Third World America (but better)
FIRST LINE: “I wrote this book because I love my country and I’m concerned about our future.”