Book review – My Life (Bill CLINTON) vs Himself Alone (Dean GODSON)

20040723 My Life cover

Did a radio piece for BBC Radio Ulster’s books programme, to review two recent biographies: Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life, and Dean Godson’s, Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism.

My Life has been dismissed by some as an exercise in some sort of cathartic releasing of guilt, or of exorcising the demons from the darker side of his parallel lives (as he self-explains his personality framework). Meanwhile, others have described Trimble as the loner, as epitomised by Godson’s book title, “Himself Alone”. Both are rather simplistic interpretations.

My review focuses on the different book writing styles, and what each subject has to say about the other.

Book styles

While both are 1,000 pages each, they are written very differently. Of course, it’s not really a fair comparison, because Clinton’s is an autobiography and Godson’s is a piece of impressive investigative research, with his subject, Trimble, neither endorsing nor censoring the final work.

Bill Clinton writes the way he speaks: fluid, in command of details. If it resembles a “diary dump”, then I doubt that Clinton had to resort to his Filofax much. Yet while people who meet Clinton in person are captivated by him and the attention he so comfortably gives you, this easy-going, homesy style doesn’t translate so well in the written form.

The narrative is easy enough to read, but there’s no discrimination in the detail. Also, he far too often jumps from one topic to another, with no rhyme or reason. I found the epilogue as one of the better parts of the book, because it was written in a more clearly comprehensible essay style. If only there was some thematic “thread” woven in the main body text.

Theme is not a problem with Godson’s work. The subtitle says it all, “the Ordeal of Unionism”. In a way, this is a history book of unionism wrapped around the life experiences of David Trimble. This may be in good part due to the observation by both subject and author of the relative dearth of comprehensive and analytical reading material on unionism, which both have sought to redress, in their own particular ways – one through politics and the other by penmanship.

Similar to Clinton’s work, Himself Alone can be sectioned off: (1) Trimble’s upbringing and introduction to politics; (2) emergence as leader and chief negotiator for unionism; and (3) the slings and arrows of internal wrangling, post-Belfast Agreement.

As my day job is politics, you would think I would have enjoyed this last section most. However, possibly precisely because I can personally recall many of the events myself, I didn’t find reliving them especially engrossing. I enjoyed the earlier sections, because Godson’s presentation provides a useful guide and insight into the personal and cultural background that Trimble found himself and his political community in. It helped explain why Trimble acted – and continues to act – in his particular way.

Trimble on Clinton; Clinton on Trimble

Trimble’s upbringing was humble, as was Clinton’s. Neither were members of the upper middle classes. High expectations were not placed on either of them. Trimble was naturally endeared to the Anglican, gentlemen’s club style of the Unionist Party or the Orange Order. Indeed, his joining of both were the result more of a desire to maintain contact with the friends he had made, than out of any ideological zeal.

I suspect Trimble always knew who he was and what he was about. That is, if Trimble was going to get involved with unionist politics, then it would be where he felt he could make a louder difference. Although he was content as the intellectual backroom boy, he did apply himself in the more radical movements of the day, especially within Vanguard.

Godson appreciates this, but his interpretation is that Trimble failed to recognise that the gains he felt were crucial, e.g. securing the Union, was not appreciated by his unionist supporters as much as the starker trade-offs of early prisoner releases and Sinn Fein in government sans decommissioning.

Some may dismiss Trimble’s aloofness as a weakness of leadership, but who else within unionism was ready to challenge the British and Irish Government’s treatment of Northern Ireland, as well as combat the hitherto inadequately challenged republican interpretations of Northern Ireland government under unionism?

Godson argues that Trimble placed too much trust or deference to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, but weak unionist leadership would not likely have prevented everything else that was afoot, e.g. the bringing in of Sinn Fein to the political mainstream. Trimble may have expected too much by wanting Clinton to apply more pressure on Sinn Fein in regards to decommissioning, because what separated Clinton from other Irish-American politicians is that Clinton wanted to help by keeping channels of communication open, rather than to try to persuade one side over another (i.e. how Protestant rights would be ensured under a united Ireland). While Trimble is not the leader of the largest unionist party anymore, he is still leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Many pundits have speculated on his departure from the UUP. Perhaps ironically, I am minded to quote Ian Paisley’s response to the same question: “It takes a long time to die.” Until someone else in the UUP is willing and able to not only articulate an intelligent riposte to republicanism, but also to be able to handle the complexities of British and Irish Government convergent attitudes to Northern Ireland, then dissatisfied unionist voters will follow the louder (but perhaps less effective?) voice, for the while. Trimble’s aloofness has cost him popularity, but who else would have been able to swim against the currents so well?

Nancy Soderberg said that the American administration (which included herself) knew little about David Trimble (p. 185). Trimble was no anti-American (he enjoyed reading Encounter, after all!), but he disliked many Irish-Americans and Soderberg especially.

Upon meeting President Clinton, David Trimble gave him Pardon Me Boy, a book on American servicemen in Northern Ireland during WWII, by author Ronnie Hanna, and a book by Gordon Lucy on the Ulster Convenant (p. 190).

Godson argues that Clinton’s involvement in Northern Ireland was “not a case of rape, but of seduction”. (p. 195)

Trimble says that “I must be gracious to Clinton” (see more on p. 631 for Godson analysis of difference between Trimble and Clinton perceived roles

Clinton’s involvement with Northern Ireland began in 1991-2, when he reaffirmed his commitment to push for an end to discrimination against Northern Ireland Catholics. Nancy Soderberg wrote the draft statement. He said that he first got involved because of the politics of New York.

Clinton spends several pages (pp. 578-581) discussing his decision to grant Gerry Adams a visa to enter the US. Many administration officials were opposed to the idea, but the National Security Council team (of which Soderberg was a chief member) became determined to grant the visa, in order to boost Adams’ leverage within Sinn Fein and the IRA, because “unless the IRA renounced violence and Sinn Fein was part of the peace process, the Irish problem could not be resolved”. This reasoning was consistent with the approach made by John Hume.

The NSC team became convinced that Gerry Adams favoured an end to IRA violence, full Sinn Fein participation in the peace process, and a democratic future for Northern Ireland. Clinton also justifies his decision to grant a visa, because “the Irish were beginning to prosper economically, Europe as a whole was moving toward greater economic and political integration, and tolerance for terrorism among the Irish had dropped”. These are consistent with arguments put forward by John Hume at the time, but dubious. For example, there’s no arguing that the economy of the Irish Republic was improving, the EU was proceeding with policy, and that there was never much popular support, North or South for the IRA. So what was the link to Gerry Adams? Instead, Adams’ own message to Clinton, that the Irish people were taking risks for peace and Clinton should to, shows that in the end it was just that – a calculated risk.

Clinton hardly says anything about David Trimble: “Trimble could be dour and pessimistic, but beneath his stern Scots-Irish front was a brave idealist who was taking risks for peace.” (p. 896)

But Trimble is only interested in what is best for unionists. For example, when Sean Farren asked him what he wanted for his community, Trimble replied, “To be left alone.” This is not a visionary statement of a shared and united Northern Ireland, and hardly words of a “brave idealist”.

Clinton does not mention the intricacies of the Multi-Party Talks, except for the eve of the Agreement, trying to help George Mitchell close the deal, going to bed at 2.30am and being woken up at 5.00am to ring Adams again to seal the deal. One shouldn’t be disappointed not to learn more, since it was Mitchell who did most of the hard graft. His account, Making Peace, is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, Godson provides a near minute-by-minute account of what was transpiring with the UUP during the last 72 hours of the Talks.

20040723 Himself Alone cover

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