03/17/2008 06:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Clinton's Memoir Envy

Some thoughts about the Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton race for the nomination from a writer who has been following Bill Clinton's post presidency.
  • Michael Smerconish, conservative-leaning Philadelphia radio talk show host, appearing Thursday on Chris Matthews' Hardball, praised Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, published in 1995. "....if you want to know what makes this guy tick, forget the grandiose, high-falutin` speeches, this is the real deal." Matthews piped in with, "It's unique because he's a politician, and not since U.S. Grant has a politician written his own book."
  • One could dispute Matthews' blanket assertion, and argue that Bill Clinton wrote parts of his memoir, My Life (2004). But on one point there's next to no room for argument: Bill Clinton so wanted his to be one of the great presidential memoirs, but instead it was roundly ridiculed as the best sleep aid since Ambien
  • The former president has shown an envious streak when it comes to Obama -- not only the memoir envy, and Obama hasn't even been president yet, but, also, pangs of envy over the adulation of Obama's charisma as a speaker. Campaigning for Hillary recently, Bill reminded his audience that he too was known for giving a good speech and attracting huge crowds at home and abroad. How must the former president have felt last month when Obama won a Grammy for the audio edition of his latest book and Bill Clinton did not for his latest book about philanthropy? Giving was also recommended as a sleep aid; its title launching a thousand jokes about Bill Clinton's post presidency being not so much about giving as getting; as in millions of dollars for speeches around the world.
  • Did anyone else notice something weird about Hillary's 3 a.m. red telephone campaign ad? Why was Hillary, presumably awakened by the telephone--people who know her say she never shared Bill's propensity for White House all-nighters -- dressed in a business suit complete with a gold necklace? And why was the shadowy parent creeping in to check on the sleeping children, dressed in a starched shirt, belt, and slacks?
  • The notion of Obama sharing a ticket with Hillary -- Hillary on top, wording her campaign people always avoid because of Bill Clinton's history -- has a precedent: LBJ accepting the number two spot on JFK's 1960 ticket, after Johnson finally realized, deeply hurt and angered, that the nomination was going to the untested upstart with the good hair. As the author of a unauthorized biography of Katharine Graham, I looked at the key role Kay's husband, Phil Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, played in persuading John Kennedy to offer the second spot to Johnson, even though Kennedy and Johnson disliked and distrusted each other. Just a day before Kennedy captured the nomination, Johnson's people were spreading rumors that Kennedy's father had been pro-Nazi and that Kennedy had Addison's disease. Phil would later write that "A Negro couple from his ranch were in the [hotel] room" while Phil and LBJ had lunch that day. Phil was flabbergasted by Johnson's desire to continue fighting for the top spot. An untreated manic-depressive, sleepless for a week at that point, Phil decided that Johnson, whom some think shared the same illness, needed a nap. ".... the three of us converged upon him, disrobed him, pajamaed him and got him in bed." Once JFK snagged the nomination, Phil rushed to Kennedy's suite at the Biltmore and persuaded him to take Johnson: "You pick Johnson for vice president, take Texas, and win. Or you don't take Johnson, and you lose." The more difficult task for Phil was persuading Johnson to accept the offer, when his hero, fellow Texan and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, was urging him to keep his position as Senate majority leader; lecturing him that he'd be crazy to trade that in for the "pitcher of warm piss," as former vice president (to FDR) John Nance Garner, whom Johnson also called for advice, described it. Bobby Kennedy, who detested Johnson, rushed over to his hotel room to urge him not to take the vice presidency; but Phil managed to keep Bobby away from Johnson, forcing the younger Kennedy to meet instead with Rayburn. Eventually JFK, whom, Johnson suspected, desperately wanted Johnson to turn down the offer so he [JFK] could claim credit and win points with older voters, Texans and southerners, begrudgingly made the offer. Johnson, even more begrudgingly accepted it.
  • The obituaries for Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, 90, known for his outspoken liberalism and his contentiousness, brought back memories of a telephone interview I did with him in February, 1995, the year he retired from the U.S. Senate after 19 years. He was in his Florida apartment that winter with his wife, Shirley, and although he had taken a job as chairman of the Consumer Federation of America, he sounded wistful and slightly embarrassed to be where he was; the force who had once moved in corridors of power but was then moving in corridors of the grocery store, pushing the cart as his wife shopped. As we talked about the media and about politics, his wife's voice could be heard reminding him that it was time to leave for the store. It reminded me of the elderly men who sat around the pool at my parents' apartment building in Florida discussing "Early Bird Specials," the cost savings of generic drugs; and decided that it's better never to retire -- a sentiment with which Bill Clinton, no doubt, would agree.