Is the Unexamined Life Worth Voting For? The Memoirs of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

stateelecredblue512( / Shorts October 12, 2007)

"Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that [President Bush] did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound."

—"Getting Iraq Wrong" Michael Ignatieff The New York Times Magazine August 5, 2007




In 2000, while preparing for her New York Senate debate with Rick Lazio, Hillary Clinton said that she had "steeled" herself "for the possibility of personal attacks and was determined to stay focused on the issues—not on Lazio as a person." Steeling oneself is a familiar political canard. Politicians imagine that if they stay on the issues—gun control, health care, the Iraq war—and stay off the person—themselves, their spouses, and others—they’ll be more electable. This chin-up stand tells voters, I’m above the fray; evaluate me only on my persuasive abilities. But we don’t evaluate them that way. Nor does our TV-mediated politics. We want the debate heated. We want sparks. We’re looking for tics of emotion, the temper of resolve. Candidates differ far more in self-expression than they do in their positions—a fact everyone knows. Thus, abnegating the self becomes a stance no different from a fine haircut (think Edwards) or a patented smile (think Giuliani). Watching and listening to, even reading, politicians is the art of gleaning the personal from the political when the two conditions seem inseparable. Which is another way of saying that in politics, character and its many expressions remain king. For proof we need look no further than the putative depth of self in Reagan and the indisputable lack of it in Bush.

In the age of autobiography, previous to our own, candidates revealed character by avoiding or sanitizing it. In the age of memoir, born in the 2000s, candidates must sound and act more like us in their exchanges (even if being "like us" is faked), so that we will relate to them based on our feelings. (Fred Thompson, a feel good Republican, enters when the other guys don’t feel so good.) We trust what we feel: it is what we know. And, in writing, the new memoir is one way of projecting that felt self. It may be unwise to compare presidential candidates based on their memoirs. But after probing for character in the books of the top three Democrat contenders—Living History Hillary Rodham Clinton (2003); Four Trials John Edwards (2004); Dreams from My Father Barack Obama (1995, revised 2004)—I find wide variation in the openness and authenticity of these writers.

What occasions this review is my conviction that the new memoir has emerged as the most personally expressive form of writing in our time. When emotionally and narratively focused, the form guarantees self-discovery for the writer. (The old autobiography summarizes the public life and staves off the private.) And yet, because of its traditional tack of introducing a candidate now or for the future, a political memoir is never sure how far it can go. The truth is, it can go as far as the author is willing to take it. Serious memoirists go after the roles that have obviated their character; they realize they sound hollow if they chronicle the role to the exclusion of the personal. Candidate writers often realize readers turn to memoir for what the stump speech won’t give them—a mind and heart dramatizing and reflecting experience in the light only a written assessment can shine on that experience, particularly how it’s been politically constellated. The contemporary memoir exists for self-knowing; it sounds niggling and false when it’s self-congratulatory.

Any personal writing brings transparency to the self. And I say this knowing each of these books has been rigorously edited and vetted and lawyered by the publisher. No matter how good or bad they are as memoirs, each author portrays a self. The author the self adopts can be faked. But the degree of fakery or the depth of understanding about the self nevertheless pours out. The political memoir is often a dead giveaway, especially when the author tries to neutralize the darker, deeper "I" by staying on the issues.




Perhaps the author most difficult to pass judgment on is Hillary Clinton. She’s an easy target for our disgust with ice-veined representatives and money-hungry campaigns. We bring a good deal of prejudice to her book, knowing who she is long before she can show us anyone different. And yet some wound – from her father, from the Lewinsky scandal, from "the vast rightwing conspiracy"—accounts for why she’s penned not an intimate memoir but a stodgy autobiography—long on chronicle, on record-setting and record-keeping, on cataloguing meetings and speeches and travel, on summary sections and chapters that emphasize routine events as much as friendships.

Clinton’s writing eschews the personal, circumscribes the self. For her, life is a "general" thing that happens to you. It punches, you roll; it feigns, you dodge. You have little agency (here I’m indebted to Jill Ker Conway’s idea about agency, or cultural permission, which males are given and which women must earn in their careers or in their writing). As a result, you, female, follow the script: competent youth, standout collegian, committed adult. You honor all, snub none. Setbacks carry lessons. As for the heart’s joys and sorrows, you relegate them to the bin for later examination. (Typically when a writer reveals so little of the intimate, it means the intimacy doesn’t exist rather than it’s being censored or avoided.)

An example. The section about Bill’s wooing her (and her passionless response) is among the most disembodied stories of attraction I’ve ever read. There’s no body to the love. She remembers the apartments "we shared," lots of moving around. It’s as if she didn’t participate in the romance: it was done to her. When Bill follows her to California one summer she writes, "He had decided, he told me, that we were destined for each other, and he didn’t want to let me go just after he’d found me." The courtship lasted from 1971 to 1975: law school, library nights, internships, but where are those squishy moments at the beach with her beau? (We still don’t know why she’s still married to him, let alone why she married him in the first place.) She seems in love with his mind or his charisma or his stamina. And if she is as unresponsive as she sounds—though this excuses nothing – we see how conveniently Bill would have rationalized his lust.

Consider, too, that of the pair Hillary may be the most masterful politician, using her marriage to grease her succession from First Lady to New York Senator to First Woman President. Clinton’s life is a public event: whatever happens to her happens with and because of others. Many deem this good, i.e., "relational" – she’s a part of the whole, not a lone wolf. But where does she find her strength? Where’s her faith? Both are unseen. (Is this the lot of the political persona: to argue for a set of values that one is unable to personally embody or express? Is obviating the throes of selfhood what qualifies a person to be president?) And yet if a memoir is a gateway into what motivates our individuality, this gambit feels deadly. Are the issues talked about in a room where a policy decision was reached that important if the effect on the reader is to miss the person to whom all this flurry of connectedness happened? As the Zombies sang, she’s not there.

Living History is a political procedural all the way. Health care reform fails more for bureaucratic snafus and congressional blockage than personality conflicts and political backstabbing. Trip, luncheon, speech. And be assured, every one advocates for women and children. Along the way we hear of a "true and steadfast friend" like Vernon Jordan who, with his wife, are "wise counselors," and yet we never get an iota of such counsel. At times, Clinton’s naiveté is colossal. In 1994, she responds to Webster Hubbell, a fellow lawyer at the Rose Law Firm whom she has known all her life and who pled guilty to stealing money from that firm to finance his debts as having "been a trusted colleague and . . . widely admired as a civic leader." Can there be a more unaware appraisal of a "trusted colleague" than to characterize him as such after he has pled guilty? Apparently she neither had nor has any suspicion of her own misjudgment.

I never thought I’d write this sentence: Hillary Clinton’s character reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s or, at least, the character she shows in her writing. Like Dutch, she avoids her uniqueness. There is a sexton’s draw toward ceremony and role. And like Dutch’s view of his family, Clinton’s view of hers is equally unfelt. Biographers have described her father as a very cold fish, a distant and demeaning man. Yet Hillary "adored" him. She had no idea what happened when he "changed" and argued with her during the Sixties, why his "energy and spirit seemed to wane over time." The fierce mother-father struggle, reported elsewhere, is nowhere evident here.

Except for two or three incidents (in chapters about Eleanor Roosevelt, Monica Lewinsky, and the death of a close friend), Clinton mentions few internal conflicts. Consequently, we wonder how she went from (we assume) nearly strangling her husband to, post-impeachment, hoping "to save our marriage, if we could." Note we, not I. On that score about all she says is that things are "awkward" between them and there are "not as many shared laughs as I was used to."

In the end, her "memoir" occupies a negative space in our personalized culture and its call to openness. We need to get beyond the role-bound mindset her book espouses. We need to think that a book by a presidential aspirant can be less defensive and less concealing without ruining anyone. We need to think that we can select better candidates because, at least in their writing, they can embrace their unresolved and unfinished selves. Self-delving is not a weakness. The old way of unreflective certainty is weak. The new way raises a provocative and useful question: Is the unexamined life worth voting for?




John Edwards’s Four Trials is one-quarter the size of Clinton’s memoir, much more personal, and blessed with much scenic style. It’s also an oddity: one of the first political memoirs to acknowledge the "as-told-to" guy, John Auchard, a professor of English who edited The Portable Henry James. Though Edwards’s book appeared in 2004, he wrote it before John Kerry chose him as his running mate. It is as skillfully written as it is impressively organized. Into the dramatic stories of his clients, Edwards weaves the saga of his own family, his marriage to a fellow attorney, Elizabeth, the birth of their children, a family that is close yet backgrounded to his career, and the tragic death of their child, Wade, at 16, in an automobile accident.

The four trials (all of which Edwards and his firm won) center on his work as a medical malpractice lawyer. Edwards gained a national reputation for suing manufacturers, hospitals, and doctors—often forcing them into eleventh-hour settlements, paying more than they wanted to—on behalf of the most defenseless plaintiffs: children, poor families, and the disabled. The opening story of a man on whose behalf Edwards sued a hospital is especially poignant: E.G. Sawyer, an alcoholic, was severely disabled by an anti-alcoholic treatment he received in a North Carolina hospital. Edwards won the case for $3.7 million.

Edwards rarely shies from the country lawyer’s persona: he learns many a lesson gruff, no-nonsense judges; he reads the file of a wronged man and writes, "that day, I had found my calling"; and he’s out to please his self-sacrificing parents, his family-centered children, and his equally high-minded partners in civil litigation. Of his clients, Edwards says, they are "among the finest people I will ever have the privilege of serving." In the Sawyer case as well as the three others—a baby who is brain damaged and develops cerebral palsy after a wrongfully-chosen breech extraction birth; a father who dies in a car crash caused by a truck driver whose is pushed to drive beyond endurance by his company whom Edwards holds accountable; a child who is trapped and loses most of her intestines in a bizarre accident with a defective swimming pool pump—we get a memoirist whose courtroom methods of interrogation and argument structure some griping tales. A nuts-and-bolts explanation about law and courtroom procedure is shunned.

Instead, the prose stays squarely on the people he represents. This may merely be the histrionic thinking of a seasoned attorney. But it’s compelling, and it shows that Edwards, the son of a mill worker, is affected by his clients’ suffering. His unflinching portrait of Sawyer housed in a wheelchair "in a seedy one-room apartment" gives us the real thing, something Clinton, in her writing, perhaps in her life, never sat with very long.

Slightly hunchbacked, with swollen legs and an unshaven face, E.G. Sawyer appeared to have been left there to rot. The room was his life: no family photos, no adornments of any kind, only creeping filth. The floor was blanketed with fast-food wrappers and cigarette ashes. A number of blue plastic cartons brimming with E.G.’s bodily fluids sat off in a corner, and the
room smelled of urine. His fingernails were long and yellow. He wore a towel around his neck that he used to wipe off the saliva that constantly collected at his mouth, but because the saliva moved faster than his hands did, the front of his shirt was soaked. Mercifully, there was no mirror in sight.

I think it’s a value in a president that he or she notices as well as lingers on what’s noticed. We may be persuaded that poverty, poor health care, and personal choice (E.G., as the hospital’s defense attorneys argued, chose to drink) are inextricably linked. Tragedies happen and our society should shoulder some of the blame and some of the cost. And yet, once the
defenseless and their savior join forces, one plank on which he is running comes clear. Edwards is portraying people who, in effect, become his constituents. How easy to read his many of his
summaries as political maxims: "The jury must believe you. You have to earn their trust, and after you have earned it, you have to earn it again, every day."

Here it gets hard to judge a candidate’s character based on the memoiristic telling of his story. This is the realm of self-aggrandizement: candidates want us to regard them in some heroic, unselfish glow. The consequences of such regard—whether it’s Clinton’s famous speech for women’s rights in China in 1995, Edwards’s pitiless disassembling of a product safety engineer’s testimony on the witness stand, or Obama’s crafty organizing of several mothers around an asbestos scandal in their children’s school—is that we are convinced the character is true, pre-set and battle-ready. In Edwards’s case, as courtroom success and his devotion to family evolve together, we note that his life’s blows serve mostly to affirm his character.

Contrast this with how a literary memoir is written. Character is not a given; rather, it is ever-changing, more process than product, more a discovery to the writer as she writes than the cuddling of events in service of a persona. In political memoirs, the act of representing one’s character bends the bow of truth before the arrow flies. In literary memoirs, the act of representing one’s character unleashes questions in the writer about his motives. Why do I dwell on my losses, my estrangements, my unlived dreams?

Like any griever, Edwards wants to dwell on the loss, make sense of the senseless death of his son. And he does, to a limited extent, as best he can. He finds a place for Wade in his memory, and stays sane, by channeling his energy into winning the case for the girl who survived the pool-motor accident. Yet Edwards, whose reasons remain beyond judgment, does not sit with the pain-fanning detail the death of a child must cause (as John Gunther does in Death Be Not Proud). It’s heartbreaking to hear Edwards recall the boy’s companionship. As a lost father, he floats above the loss, the emptiness, the anger. He and Elizabeth retire to their rooms, writing, "In those days and nights we found places in our hearts we had not known." In an afterword, he acknowledges finding, "just as people said and I never believed—that a book has a life of its own." When it comes to "accounting" for their loss, this or any other book may never express his despair.

Edwards is willing, as the hard family intimacies come up, to feel them, though at times he only gets to the reporting stage. He comes close to those things that might wake up the deeper and more doubtful aspects of himself. And yet he boxes his discoveries too quickly into structure and calm. I wanted him to go down and stay down more often. Memoirs fail when they are pulpits from which we beacon life’s lessons. Memoirs work when they are ship prows which we steer into a sea of trouble, not only to get through a storm but also for the strange satisfaction of going through it as well.




With Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, we have a young author who is a precocious voyager. Here is a minor masterpiece, a book written by a 33-year-old community organizer, years before he ran for U.S. Senate in Illinois and won in 2004. Here is a book that interweaves wisdom and daring, a man of mixed, international parentage who sees himself as a black man yet is preternaturally unsure of his right to that claim. Here is a book of probing self-investigation: his ambivalent longing for his father’s guidance in Hawaii where he grows up, his personal trials with community organizing in Chicago in the crime-ridden late 1980s, and his cathartic trip to Kenya where he searches for his legacy among the large Kenyan family his father left behind after his death. If a memoir is a book in which the author engages the deepest and most difficult emotions of his or her self, this is it.

The son of a white American mother and black Kenyan father, Obama had no more than a month’s relationship with his father, also named Barack Obama. Barack visited his son once, long after he had left the mother after the boy’s birth in Hawaii in 1961. A man of education, means, and family standing, Barack, who earned a degree at Harvard (as his son would), returned to Kenya to participate in the country’s independence movement and to lick the wounds of the prodigal son. The month in which father visits son is beautifully portrayed – a boy’s suppressed anger butting against a father’s suppressed guilt. Something neither can fathom passes between them. Though his father is a ghost, he’s an active one, in part, because the younger Obama keeps his dad current by engaging his equally haunted relatives and his own invigorating reflection. Obama is raised by his mother and, for a time in Hawaii, by her parents. They oversee his education at the exclusive Punahou prep school, which his grandfather, who gets him in, exclaims will be his meal ticket for life, provided he succeeds. That ticket and success turn out true is a totem Obama accepts, though it does not fulfill his longing for home and identity.

This struggle with the guilt Obama feels for having educational opportunities is the book’s motor. The oil is his ability to narrate the doubts he has lived with—wanting yet hating his father, connecting and disconnecting with peers and role models, striving to find a place for his energy and ethics in the slippery world of south side Chicago politics, feeling the dark legacy of the prodigal son himself when he returns to Kenya to mix with his people, the Luo. Obama lets the doubt, not his vanquishing it, seed the book’s many insights. In Clinton and Edwards there is
little of the extended thoughtfulness that Obama exhibits. We seldom hear them thinking things through, only the resolution with which the decision has been made.

But listen to Obama writing out the feelings that trouble him, feelings he must reconcile. He’s a 24-year-old neophyte organizer, who has just stepped outside his apartment to tell a group of kids making noise in a car to "take it someplace else."

Their unruly maleness will not be contained, as mine finally was, by a sense of sadness at an older man’s injured pride. Their anger won’t be checked by the intimation of danger that would come upon me whenever I split another boy’s lip or raced down a highway with gin clouding my head. As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it will not drain out of the universe. I suspect that these boys will have to search long and hard for that order – indeed, any order that includes them as more than objects of fear or derision. And that suspicion terrifies me, for I now have a place in the world, a job, a schedule to follow. As much as I might tell myself otherwise, we are breaking apart, these boys and me, into different tribes, speaking a different tongue, living by a different code.

Anyone can hear in his words the conciliatory reckoning his character demands, a man who sees in a gaggle of annoying teens his experience and their futureless plight, which, roll of the dice, he will escape. The other uncanny thing about Dreams is the quality of its suddenness: Obama supersedes the autobiographer’s distance in time by assessing recent events. While Clinton’s memoir of her White House years is also recent, she writes with scant interest in how her Washington sensibility grew, a point Carl Bernstein makes in his biography, A Woman in Charge. By contrast, Obama intermixes his then and now: what troubled him, age 24 and organizing parents in Chicago’s Roseland district, troubles him as he writes in his early 30s. But the trouble is both similar and different because he’s grown to understand his prior motivation. This interdependency between current reflection and the recent past is one way a memoirist identifies and works through those personal issues he continues to face.

Now we see just how radical his departure is from traditional political pulp. Obama counters the old-style politician whose over-consciousness about the person he projects to voters often ruins him. Recall Richard Nixon’s "I am the president": "I have made mistakes, but the president hasn’t." True, even though Obama resolves some of his trials, he writes with  maturity that he proves he can, like John Keats, live with indecision. This is the core truth his balanced narrative of loss and discovery asserts. He turns away from the career operative who buries complex emotions and sings the body robotic. He brings into the fray of politics the fray of self-disclosure, which need not destroy him or our confidence in him. We need office-seekers and office-holders whose character has been revealed to them and to us (in writing and in life). We hope that because of their desire for self-knowledge the information they receive and their reactions to that information as president will be met with honesty and humility, not guts and glory.




Unlike memoirs written by the ordinary person, political and celebrity memoirists seldom stray from self-hagiography. The celebrity needs an adoring public; the rising political star is ever-poised to run. Like Churchill, Clinton has birthed a mythology of competence as her image; since Living History culminates in her election to the senate, there’s a post-election peak and a pre-presidential path she must tend. Perfect moment, heralds the publisher, to author a book. We know that Edwards’s book was ghosted but we don’t know how much of his confessions were honed or hyped so that he appear dedicated and uncontroversial. Still, Edwards’s effort seems reliable, a guileless attempt to give his stolid character a soil from which his aspirations might grow.

Obama’s voice is distinctive, noticeably untarnished by aspiration. How nice for any book to eschew advice, distemper certainty. And yet the little devil beside me wonders what I’m missing. Should part of our obsession with self-disclosure be a suspicion of all self-disclosure?

Has Obama penned a tale that busts a move toward political longevity because of his riveting personal expression? Did an editor recognize his writerly ability and—elections be damned—urge him on? I assume Obama didn’t know that his political horse would take him into the Senate, let alone a bid for the White House (how much of that post-1995 story is charmed). Or did he? Has the memoir also been bred to design our authenticity? A retrospective book often initiates a new retrospection. With Dreams from My Father the through line looks quite different today than it did twelve years ago. The problem with gauging mid-life political memoirs is that, for the author, there is always a great future behind him. For the reader, there is the conundrum of his candidacy, which says that the political author must debate his authority while he preserves and enhances that authority. Taking us down into the stickiness of this conundrum is what the memoir is so good at.