MY AFFAIR WITH CLINTON: An Intellectual Memoir by Benjamin R. Barber W.W. Norton, $24.95
BENJAMIN BARBER'S VERY NICE book offers insight into Bill Clinton, the wonk. A Rutgers professor known for smart, interesting policy books like McWorld v. Jihad, a study of globalism, Barber was something of a hanger-on in the Clinton White House. The president's speechwriting team would occasionally tap him for ideas; Clinton had Barber up to Camp David to talk out themes for his State of the Union address, and Barber was briefly under consideration to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I didn't keep track, and Barber doesn't spell it out specifically, but it sounds as if he met with Clinton about a dozen times during his eight years in office, almost always in a group setting, only having private words on a couple of occasions. That may not sound like the best fodder for a memoir. But often the best accounts are written by minor characters, less concerned with how history will judge them, than by the principals who write with a hesitant pen.
Barber's a small enough fry that he gleefully notes how he gobbled up souvenirs at the Camp David gift shop. Big shots actually do this too, he notes, since so few outsiders get to visit Camp David. But it's impossible to imagine, say, David Gergen chronicling how he snagged a Camp David Frisbee or going on at length about the White House's chicken with pumpkin gnocchi. Barber's utter lack of pretension leads to some funny moments, like his hysterical account of sitting next to Clinton at a dinner where the two shared a dish of nuts: "Every time ! casually reached out with my hand to take a nut, the president's large left hand shot out like a cobra's head dropping over the mouth of the cup blocking my access."
To Barber's credit, he's self-aware enough to know that he sounds like an academic Sammy Glick sometimes--too ambitious for his own good. After he's turned down for the NEH head--in favor of Bill Ferris, the Mississippi folklorist who, unlike Barber, had the full backing of Trent Lott--Barber painfully begs the First Lady's Chief of Staff Melanne Verveer, one of his champions, to reconsider. As the two meet at the White House, Barber keeps begging. She finally has to declare: "It's over." Defeated, he winds up, by coincidence, sitting next to Ralph Nader on the plane as he leaves Washington. Unable to contain himself, Barber unloads his frustrations on Nader. Even though it's still years away...