Bill Clinton, Psychoanalyzed: John D. Gartner and the Triumph of Psychobiography
It should surprise no one that the best book ever written about Bill Clinton is by a psychologist. Now, granted, I haven’t read every single book on Clinton, but I’ve read more than you’ll ever catch me admitting to in public. The only reason I didn’t read John D. Gartner’s In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography when it first came out a few years ago is that I was blocked by my own prejudices. I assumed that, at just over 400 pages, it would be a superficially slick Freudian gloss on the received record. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The reason the book is only 400 pages isn’t that Gartner has superficially skimmed the surface, but because he’s selectively applied deep analysis to certain key junctures of Clinton’s life. There’s much that Gartner has simply left alone as burdensome to his book’s focused analysis. This method of elimination is of course itself a product of sound research–the kind of elimination that can safely be accomplished only by someone who’s done his legwork. That’s certainly what’s been done here. Gartner really does seem to have read everything, and has interviewed dozens of people from Clinton’s life along the way. When he claims that he spent “over a year, twelve hours a day,” doing “nothing but research and write about Clinton,” you have no trouble believing him.
Clinton himself, unfortunately, is not among the people Gartner interviewed–unless you count the one shouted question Gartner got off when he went to witness the Clinton Foundation at work in Africa. The question Gartner shouted at him, in a press scrum after a City Year event, is incongruous with the occasion’s tone and intentions, but, damn it, it was his only chance. He asked him, “Mister President, when you were eight years old, you walked to church alone. You wrote about that, and it’s a memory etched in the minds of all your close friends from Hot Springs. Is the work you have done, and the work you are doing now, just a continuation of that journey?”
Gartner ends his book with this question, and with Clinton’s affirmative answer, but where he begins In Search, naturally enough, is also with Clinton’s childhood. He makes it clear that Clinton’s religious faith is quite genuine, and that it informed his morals much more positively and extensively than is commonly understood. This is all well enough, but where Gartner really distinguishes the childhood sections (always the slowest part of any biography, for me) is with the matter of paternity. He genuinely believes that Will Blythe is not Clinton’s biological father, and that he knows who is. And, indeed, when you finish reading what he’s written on the matter, you’ll probably be convinced too.
After presenting his evidence that Clinton was fathered by a Hot Springs doctor named George Wright, he sits at a table outside the house of George Wright, Jr., who needs no further convincing but whom Gartner presents with a proposition regardless: “I explained that there was a way to know for sure. It would involve a DNA test. A sample of his DNA could be cross-referenced with Clinton’s DNA, which I imagined might be available from the infamous blue Gap dress through the Freedom of Information Act.” To which George, Jr., replies: “I wouldn’t do anything like that, I mean, not behind Bill’s back. But if he were willing….”
The part of Clinton’s life that gets the shortest shrift in In Search are the college years, undergraduate and graduate both. There’s not much on Arkansas politics, either, but I don’t suspect this is a problem for many readers. Anyway, Gartner does include two excellent Arkansas chapters, on Clinton’s first political campaign, for the House in ‘74, and on his competence as governor. More than half the book is then given over to the presidency, as it should be.
He wants to give proper credit to Clinton as diplomat–as “Family Therapist to the World”–but in order to do so he has to choose one case-study of foreign-policy prowess to suggest the whole. Wisely, he chooses Ireland.
Clinton inserted himself into Ireland’s extended family feud by establishing warm, personal relationships over the course of his entire two terms (and beyond) with almost all of the leaders, winning them over with his combination of relentless charm and empathic concern, and his encyclopedic knowledge of their culture, history, and everything related to their conflict. And indeed, he manipulated them. Like a master family therapist, he repeatedly put warring parties in situations where they were virtually forced to interact in new, positive ways with people they despised.
Gartner has plenty of insightful things to say on Clinton’s psychology. On the liabilities of Clinton’s brilliance: “In the infinite regress of his thinking, no issue is ever really finally resolved, as new streams of thought and information are forever flowing in.” On Clinton as lover of women: “Like a chess grand master who can play twenty-five games at a time, he can love many women at one time (including Hillary). Such emotional multitasking would be beyond most people’s capacities, but Clinton is not most people.” On the example of Nelson Mandela and how it may have inspired Clinton’s focus on Africa: “Clinton was feeling persecuted by his Republican tormentors, and he identified with Mandela, who had endured and transcended a far worse twenty-seven-year prosecution in prison….Indeed, Clinton has said privately that without Mandela’s example, he might not have a survived psychologically.”
Gartner even brings fresh insight to Clinton’s favorite movie, High Noon (1952). Clinton has always claimed that he “loved this movie because from start to finish Gary Cooper is scared to death but does the right thing anyway.” Gartner doesn’t let Clinton skate by with so pious and self-serving an explanation. He takes his analysis fathoms deeper, recalling how at the time of Clinton’s impeachment, Hillary Clinton, appalled as she was at her husband’s behavior, was even more appalled by the behavior of those who would use that behavior as grounds for ending his presidency. Hillary worked as hard as she ever had, travelling the country during the ‘98 midterms and stumping on behalf of her husband. Her efforts helped save the Democratic Congress–and, hence, the presidency. At the end of High Noon, similarly, the Cooper character is saved at the last possible instant by his wife’s proactive aggression in his defense, coming out of nowhere when we thought she’d been gone from the picture for good. “Together,” Gartner writes, “the first couple would face down a gang of bad men who were both bent on their destruction and aiming to take over the town. Though wounded by her husband’s infidelity, Hillary would fight back, foiling the evil plot and saving her man.”
Gartner’s book does have an organizing thesis, which I’ve consciously neglected mentioning until now. He wants to make the case–and does, successfully–that a hypomanic temperament is the catalyst for much of Clinton’s worst and best behavior. Gartner is, after all, the author of a book called The Hypomanic Edge. But as this latest book of his demonstrates, Clinton is far too complex to be defined by hypomania or any other single psychological condition. To describe his complex psychology is as involved a process as describing his complex morality. Gartner does both those things, and he does them brilliantly, over and over in these pages. And at the end of it all he lays down some wisdom worth taking with you wherever you end up contemplating this singularly strange American figure: “Character is not revealed by your worst mistake. Nor is it revealed by your best intentions. Intentions expressed in actions over time are what make up character. By that criterion, since little Billy Clinton began carrying his big Bible down the hill to church, he has been walking in the footsteps of moral giants.”
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