Robert Gottlieb, an accomplished and experienced editor for Knopf, is about to embark on the complicated project of eliciting from Bill Clinton a work of autobiography a book dramatic enough, entertaining enough, powerful enough, let's face it, sexy enough to justify the $10 million advance that Knopf is paying.
My friend, a consummate professional, is also, like most writers, a touchy and irrational animal. Writers howl, run in circles, and bite editors on the calf. Bill Clinton, though brilliantly seductive as a communicator, comes as an amateur to the business of memoir-writing. How difficult will Clinton be to handle? I don't know. And who will be handling whom? Gottlieb is smart enough to refrain from writing in the margin, "INSERT SEXUAL NITTY-GRITTY HERE." Gottlieb's problem will be to get the boy from Hope to be honest in more important ways.
Clinton's natural talent runs to the production of silk purses smooth, self-serving versions of things. Gottlieb will have to work hard to get some genuine sows' ears out of the man the unadorned, unspun, real stuff that is supposed to be a primary ingredient in a life story: What really happened. Clinton, a genius of self-presentation, may, when pressed, only seem to get real: He will produce sows' ears with sequins on them, shimmering accessories so lovely, in fact, that mere silk purses will go out of fashion.
In other words, Clinton will tell it like he wants to tell it. He will prettify or disguise the porcine, barnyard truths, or turn their very ugliness to his own advantage. Autobiography begins as a project of self-justification, and, where politicians are concerned, ends the same way. Gottlieb faces a challenge.
Editing is an complex business, part psychiatry, part police work at its best, creative, at its worst, destructive. A good editor can, with a touch, bring dead writing to life. A bad editor strangles good writing in the crib. A good editor is boxing coach, personal trainer, confidant, authority figure, Sancho Panza, guardian angel, and dominatrix.
Autobiography presents a special editing problem. Whose life is it, anyway? The editor can guide, can suggest that the book needs more explanation here, more personal stuff there, and so on. Gottlieb had a lot to do with shaping Katharine Graham's memoir and making it the wonderful book it is. But le style, c'est l'homme, and nowhere more so than in autobiography, which, if you will forgive the expression, has a life of its own.
I have myself written a couple of memoirs (called "The Chief" and "Heart"). I admit there is something hilarious in my having done so, especially at a comparatively young age. One autobiography would be bad enough, but TWO? While working on the second, I ran into the humorist Christopher Buckley at a party. He asked, "Well, what are we up to now? 'The Hinge of Fate?' 'The Gathering Storm?'"
I was writing as a private person trying to make sense of some things I had experienced. Clinton will write as a public man engaged less, I suspect, in trying to make sense of things for his own private or literary purposes than in presenting himself, once again, as he always has autobiography as one of the later acts of the continuous political campaign that has been his life.
If so, it will be a shame, and an opportunity wasted. Memory has a richly self-stimulating dynamic. You remember one detail an image from long ago, or, quite often, a smell (smell and song being extraordinary stimuli to memory), and soon those images or smells or lyrics breed a thousand more, and an entire world comes flooding back. The lost world reassembles itself as story.
A successful political life, lived in the moment, in the arena, demands a certain amount of fraud, or to put it kindly, demands political artifice adrenaline, ego, smiles, bared canines, plumage display. Franklin Roosevelt was one of the great presidential artificers. Clinton, too, in his own way.
But autobiography occurs in a different dimension, a different part of the mind, and, quite literally, in a different region of time. While autobiography demands artifice, it also requires introspection and an order of a ruthless candor. What would Franklin Roosevelt's autobiography have been like? Dodgey piffle, perhaps. King and poet have different roles to play.
The paradox of great autobiography is that it demands, above all, a kind of self-effacement in the sense that the truth can only be presented self-effacingly. Words stick to a written page. Gottlieb has a hard job ahead.