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Book Review: The real Clinton? You may be surprised

Historian Michael Takiff asks the following questions about President Bill Clinton in the opening of his new book, "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him " (Yale University Press, $32.50):

A remarkable talent. A gifted leader. A genius.

An overgrown teenager. A liar. A fool.

A consummate public servant.

A narcissist.

A liberal.

A conservative.

A liberal in conservative's clothing.

A conservative in liberal's clothing.

A decent man with flaws.

A flawed man with no decency.

Uhhh....Will the real Bill Clinton please stand up?

At the end of his introduction, Takiff writes: "And so the question: Who is Bill Clinton? [is the topic] [of this book] which will not settle this argument."

Such humility on the part of Takiff is laudable, for the myriad earlier books about Bill Clinton have been either overly positive or overly negative because they've been written by people with axes to grind during a generation that loves taking sides no matter how self-serving and in many cases useless.

Takiff claims a certain objectivity and points to the fact he interviewed 171 people who had commerce with Clinton: grade school chums, high school teachers, cousins who didn't like him, cousins and aunties who did. Fellow Rhodes Scholar associates.

Politicians of every political stripe, from close Democrat friends to enemies like Dick Armey, who described Clinton as "the most successful adolescent I've ever known.

This is not a book to read at one sitting, more likely one to take along when performing one's morning ablutions. Although told in chronological order, it jumps along, interviewing kids from Hope, Arkanasas, and movers and shakers from within the belt line.

Some comments are revealing; others just plain funny; others the stuff of which oral popular history is made, like the townspeople's recollections of his Clinton's maternal grandfather who ran a general store with potbelly stove and sold bootleg whiskey on the side. "A popular place," recalled one old gentleman.

Relatives argue before Takiff about whether Clinton's stepfather ever took a shot at his mother, or beat her, or whether Clinton nailed down his election to president by exaggerating his stepfather's cruelty.

Perhaps most charming are the recollections of teachers and school chums who universally agree about his brainpower if not his ethics.

One schoolmate admits that he thought of Clinton as nothing more than "a band nerd" because he spent so much time playing his saxophone.

And here's a curiosity: Almost all his childhood associates thought he was extremely quiet. Maybe that's why he talked so much when he became president.

There's a plethora of political books coming these days, probably because of the forthcoming election.

An interesting one is on a topic that sometimes gets swept under the rug in books about Franklin Roosevelt: It's Roosevelt's Purge," by Susan Dunn (Belknap/Harvard, $17.95), which deals in detail with Roosevelt's attempt to pack the Supreme Court and his subsequent battles with southern Democrats, which eventually led to the almost complete polarization of the north and south.

On the regional front, Minneapolis's CarolRhoda division of Lerner Publishing continues to assault the adolescent market with books for adolescents.

The new one is "I, Emma Freke," by Maine author Elizabeth Atkinson (CarolRhoda, $16.95 cloth). Emma Freke (read this aloud) is a twelve-year-old in Boston, not getting along with her hippie mother. She doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. Then she goes to a family reunion in Wisconsin. No Frekes in the Badger State, right? Or are there?

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.