Second-Hand Stories: East Asia in the Bill Clinton Autobiography

This essay was written in Seattle on 24 February, 2009; a shorter version was published at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma that spring.

This past weekend I took a long walk up Seattle’s Dearborn Ave, encountering errant alcoholics, homeless in their shopping carts, shards of sunlight, and football fans with sandpapered hands.  As is often the case when seeking out new information, my goal was amorphous and yet my needs were cavernous: Like addicts haunting the International District, I felt the nervousness of pre-acquisition jitters, in this case of a good book. 

Fortunately my dilemma was solved as a sepulcher of learning appeared in the guise of a huge “Goodwill” second-hand store.  Why Goodwill?  Because within its vast horde of bronzed lamps, random CDs and piles of lost stories lay several shelves of books.  Something interesting was sure to spring into my hand. 

Sure, I didn’t need any books.  My home and office were already glutted with partially-read DS 777s and partially-gnawed-upon Dewey Decimal counterparts.  The very thought of taking on further ballast from silent stacks – being tethered by yet another barcode – or scrawling a few more pages of notes in some lost notebook about the Cold War in Asia simply did not appeal.  I needed something more contemporary, something…Clintonian.

I had grazed upon the chaff of internet news, and was wholly unsatisfied.  On the day after Hillary Clinton’s visit to China, the Beijing’s central had confirmed its own irrelevance via breathless and stomach-churning accolades for its own saintly (though admittedly adorable) Premier, Wen Jiabao.  Some solid European reporting on China offered relief, but was fifteen clicks and a library card away.  And thus my sojourns commenced into the maze of the Goodwill stacks, a task risking irrelevance, fraught with the uncertainties of the poorly sorted and self-published conspiracy theories with which the cash economy of book markets in the US are so often barnacled. 

The hazards of this endeavor became immediately clear, as I nearly tripped over an older gentlemen who was methodically culling the stacks of all things FDR, capitalizing on the boom of literature on busting economies.  Perhaps he was wheeling off with all of Arthur Schlesinger’s work to feed hungry minds at a working group of unemployed historians.

For a moment, I was tempted by a self-published Christian numerologist’s 1987 book entitled “Gorbechev!  The Arrival of the Anti-Christ?”  Similarly self-published, the “Islamic Threat Report” from spring 2002 was hot with translations of the Israeli right-wing press and adorned with a graphic conflation of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton greets US troops at Camp Casey, South Korea, in July 1993. Image via US National Archives. 

Culling through the printed detritus of wars in Central Asia and devilish foes, I became momentarily lost within the twinges of a distinctly Anglo-American nostalgia.  However, the true delights of my foray into the livre d’occasion quickly became apparent when something fat and golden began to call: “My Life,” it breathed, and the hefty tome of Bill Clinton’s memoir (Knopf, 2004) pressed into my palms.    

Like most memoirs, Bill Clinton’s book is a study in self-defense, a poorly-ordered jumble of experiences lent coherence only by the author’s prominence and ambition.   Nine hundred and fifty-seven pages of prose with nary a footnote in sight!  Clearly the President was too busy unburdening his busy mind and making speeches after January 2001 to be bothered, say, to visit the archives to consult the ten thousand pages of his wife’s schedules, research his funding to Iraqis in exile in London or reprint amusing letters from deranged constituents.  Only the index existed to bridge the gap between the author’s shrewd obfuscations and my desired understanding of what the man had done (and how perhaps his capable spouse had helped him?) with regard to the People’s Republic of China.

Clinton’s two terms had witnessed great changes in China itself, and more than a few unpredictable Sino-U.S. dustups.  China’s entry into the World Trade Organization is touted as a great achievement, and Clinton’s 1998 visit to the PRC is touted as an amazing display of the fruits of democracy.  Here Clinton enters a broad stream of American politicians who travel to China armed with a few perishable platitudes about free markets and religion and come home imagining they may have changed a few thousand minds.  Obviously, Clinton has never ridden in a taxi in China’s northeastern rust-belt unemployment meccas, for there he would hear, see, and choke upon the stories of how China, urged on by American consumers, has jettisoned its comprehensive system of total employment and cradle-to-grave social services for the unforgiving edges of disaster capitalism. 

In some ways, Clinton’s memoir hails from a bygone era.  It is stacked high with pre-Terror War heresies, ignorant of the “Surge” of the great General Petraeus; it is littered with finite military actions, and stacked high with legislative achievements. Further confirming its old-school pedigree, Clinton’s entire book was drafted without the benefit of anything other than a couple hundred yellow legal pads and fountain pens.  How students today will assemble their memoirs in 2050 without reference to the happily narcissistic, scandalously ubiquitous, and data-voracious tool known as “Facebook” is a question that Clinton’s amazingly productive Luddite tendencies call into question. 

Finally, Bill Clinton’s memoir brings us to an axiom of U.S.-China relations in the era of Hillary: the relationship between the US and the PRC is fundamentally strong, but it has yet to be challenged in a period of supreme economic stress.  Issues of human rights, concerns about Taiwan, all add stress to this relationship.  And all it takes is a few errant cruise missiles to empty China’s college campuses in anti-American protests.  About a year after Bill Clinton dialogued with Beijing University students in 1998 and had a public debate with Jiang Zemin, Clinton was roundly denounced for bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. 

But today Hillary Clinton might well be able to forge the kind of cooperative U.S.-China relationship focused on common environmental and economic challenges which she advocated so clearly on her recent trip to Beijing.  After all, if the United States and China start talking trade war, we will all be shopping at Goodwill soon.

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