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Clinton’s Charm

To the Editors:

Garry Wills’s thoughtful review of Clinton’s autobiography [“The Tragedy of Bill Clinton,” NYR, August 12] misses one point: the Clinton presidency, viewed from abroad, looks fundamentally different than it does at home. Foreign opinion that only the Puritans’ heirs could view an affair, however reckless or vulgar, to threaten the most successful American presidency in decades has been often reported. What few Americans know is just how successful that presidency appears at a distance. For international observers, the charm that Wills describes so well goes beyond mere personal charisma to stand for the American dream: that anyone possessed of sufficient intelligence, energy, and optimism can map out a road different from the one his forebears took. Clinton’s ability to radiate curiosity, warmth, and openness equally in palaces and backwater villages is a particularly American form of charm, and the friends that it won in both places reveal how deeply most of the world—all talk of anti-Americanism notwithstanding—longs for the dream to be true.

As an American who has spent most of the last two decades abroad I’ve been startled, and sometimes amused, to see how easily even those who are well informed about American diversity project the characteristics of each administration onto America as a whole. Doubtless he could have achieved more without the Lewinsky scandal, but eight years of Clinton laid up enough symbolic capital to allow Vietnam, and Central America, and a host of other national scandals to recede into the distance. That capital is sufficiently imprinted in memory to help counter the bitterness his successor has sown—if only what most of the world views as the American nightmare is over in November.

Susan Neiman

Director, Einstein Forum

Berlin, Germany

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