It's an axiom of marketing to "sell the sizzle, not the steak." Being a top-notch salesman himself, Bill Clinton executed that strategy to perfection as he launched the publicity tour for his much-anticipated memoir, My Life. Delivering the keynote address to almost 3,000 rapt booksellers, publishers and press at BookExpo America in Chicago on June 3, Clinton described the process of creating his book without offering much detail on its actual content. Still, the appreciative audience hung on Clinton's every word and left the speech with great expectations for what is sure to be the biggest book of the summer.
"I know that a lot of memoirs are accused of being dull and self-serving. I hope mine's interesting and self-serving," the former president said, in a line that drew big laughs from the audience. "I tell you the story as it happened to me. I want you to understand what it's like to be president." Clinton kicked off his talk with an explanation of the writing process, including a personal nod to all the people who helped him put the book together. Demonstrating his magical touch for ingratiating himself, he suggested that everyone who reaches the age of 50 should write their life story, "even if it is only 20 pages." (Clinton's own memoir tops 900 pages.) Writing down memories can be a great benefit to the next generation, he noted. "Chelsea was one of my best readers," he said, and she learned a lot of important family history from the book.
Clinton said he tried to achieve two things in his memoir, in effect writing two books. First, he tried to tell the story of his life before he became president, in the context of what was happening to the entire country. From the day of his election in 1992, he created a diary of his presidency, with, as he put it "a lot of policy. Some would say too much, but I think it is important." Discussing his upbringing, Clinton said he was introduced to Zane Gray novels by his grandmother as soon as he learned to read and became a regular library customer, a reference that certainly touched the hearts of the librarians sprinkled among his BookExpo audience. He identified himself as being among the last to grow up in the pre-television generation. People he knew didn't have money, but they didn't consider themselves poor because they had clothes, a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Entertainment, Clinton said, was centered around meals and storytelling. And before you could tell any stories, you had to learn to listen. He took that to heart.
Clinton also learned that education and intelligence were frequently mismatched. As he put it, the guy who worked in the gas station might be just as smart as the surgeon who took out your tonsils. That made an impression on him, too.
Looking back on his two terms as president, Clinton said, "The presidency is a deciding job." The president not only has to make a lot of decisions; he has to decide what to decide. And Clinton made it clear that he relished this responsibility. In an impressive display of insight and acumen, the former president did a five-minute riff on the great political struggles that have occurred in American history from colonial times until now. With one exception (when the U.S. failed to join the League of Nations after World War I), Clinton thinks these choices have always been made wisely.
Clinton spent little time discussing politics. He did indicate that the parts of the book concerning his relationship with ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of his prime antagonists, would be "interesting." And he admitted his fondness for both of his Republican presidential campaign opponents, the first President Bush and Sen. Bob Dole. He made a brief and passing reference to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, but allowed that it took him "four hours to calm down" when he reviewed, and presumably wrote about, Starr's treatment of Susan McDougal. As a young man, Clinton expressed the ambition to someday "write a great book." He thinks he has created one in which readers will "learn not just more about me, but more about the country. I don't know if I've written a great book, but I think it's a pretty good story." The critics and the reading public will ultimately judge whether he is right in that assessment.
Mike Shatzkin is founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company, which offers strategic consulting to the publishing industry.