CHICAGO – Bill Clinton (search), once a president and now an author, offered a characteristic performance Thursday night for the country's publishing community: late, long, but ultimately satisfying to the crowd.
The keynote speaker at BookExpo America (search), publishing's annual national convention, Clinton was here to promote his memoir, "My Life," (search) which comes out June 22 with a first printing of 1.5 million.
It was not the most efficient of promotional events. Clinton began 30 minutes behind schedule and spoke for 45 minutes, 25 minutes longer than expected. But he left to the same noisy approval as when he arrived — a standing ovation. And he showed the knack for summing up a 950-page book in a couple of sentences.
"When I was a young man, getting out of law school, I said one of the goals I had in life was to write a great book," he explained. "I have no earthly idea if it's a great book. But it's a pretty good story."
Clinton's speech, covering everything from 18th century politics to 21st century genetics, mirrored what he said the memoir itself would comprise: personal memories, general history, political analysis. He said the book could be divided into two sections. First, how Clinton's "small life" growing up in the South came to intersect with the country's life. Then, a book about policy, "some will think too much. But I think it's important because the presidency is a deciding job," he said.
Clinton promised a thorough, even-handed book, with fond portraits of such former foes as Bob Dole and the first President Bush (news - web sites). But he acknowledged "My Life" revived unwanted feelings, saying that memories of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor whose investigation led to his impeachment, made him so angry he couldn't write for four hours.
Clinton did not specifically mention the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but said he addresses both personal and political mistakes in the book.
No BookExpo guest in memory was so welcome as Clinton, even though the delay led to some impatient clapping beforehand. The line for his speech formed in the late morning and extended the length of several city blocks, winding through the lobby of the McCormick Place Convention Center. The crowd was standing room only in the convention center's ballroom, which has a seating capacity of around 2,700.
"His speech was very good. I liked his honesty," said Naomi Barton, a school librarian from Los Angeles.
Clinton's speech started a tour that remains vague in detail, if not in ambition. His literary representative, attorney Robert Barnett, has promised the "mother and father of all rollouts," but so far only a few venues are known.
On June 20, two days before the book comes out, Clinton will be interviewed on "60 Minutes," followed over the next couple of days by television interviews with Oprah Winfrey (news) and Katie Couric.
The book has been in the top 10 of Amazon.com's bestseller list since its publication date was announced in late April.
Clinton's appearance Thursday at BookExpo America marked an ideal pairing of writer and audience, a Democrat addressing a roomful of mostly like-minded voters, a self-described book lover standing before those who depend on the kindness of bibliophiles.
"You won't find many Republicans in this crowd. George Bush wouldn't do so well here," said Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Book packager Jennifer Basye Sander — bearing needlepoint and a good English novel, Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" — arrived hours early to stand in line for Clinton's speech.
"I never got a chance to see him in person when he was president and I wanted to see if it was really true about his charisma. I miss him," said Sander, who is based in Granite Bay, Calif.
Behind Sander was librarian Michelle B. Graye, from the Tucson-Pima (Ariz.) Public Library.
"We bought 100 copies of his books and I want to make sure he's worth it," said Graye, who said they ordered just 75 copies of "Living History," the memoirs of the former president's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Later on, Graye complained that some of Clinton's speech seemed "kind of canned, campaign stuff," but she was still glad she ordered all those books.
"He didn't reveal much," she said, "but I got a good impression what the book's going to be about. He's going to get a great reception."