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Memories of the Man Who Was Almost Prime Minister

THE title of this career autobiography of a politician, "A Life At the Center," is justified. Roy Jenkins, who almost became prime minister of Britain, held high office repeatedly in the British Cabinet during four decades as a member of Parliament. During that same post- Churchill 40-year period, he was probably the best known British politician in American political and academic circles.

As described in his book, Jenkins crossed the Atlantic as frequently as some Americans go from Boston to Washington for lectures and conferences at American universities and political gatherings. He joined with such Americans as John Kenneth Galbraith in hammering out the shape of today's new political liberalism in both countries. He helped to tear the British Labour party out of the grip of Marxism and unilateral disarmament. He was a major figure in both countries in pulling the political left back to

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pragmatism at the center, thus contributing to shaping President Clinton's political thinking.

This is an important book, extremely well written (it makes one wish that more American politicians would develop literary talent) and loaded with priceless glimpses not only of his colleagues and rivals in Britain, including of course Margaret Thatcher, but also of the Kennedy family as seen through the eyes of Cardinal Cushing. It includes a startling portrait of J. Edgar Hoover's ego and a priceless interview with Lyndon Johnson.

Jenkins also has a vein of political shrewdness that could be useful to any politician of any party. In this politically perceptive memoir, which was published in Britain in 1991, he advises against campaigning for highly controversial and divisive issues.

If his precepts had been heeded, the Republicans would have shunned the anti-abortion issue during the recent US election campaign, and President Clinton would find some way now to smother the issue of homosexuals in the armed forces.

Jenkins's political career is evidence of the soundness of his theories. He never quite made it to prime minister, but he describes his years as deputy prime minister to Harold Wilson when he was deemed indispensable in all of Wilson's Cabinets in spite of having been the leader of the anti-Wilson wing of the party. He became a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party. He ended his political career as president of the European Commission in Brussels and now rests on his laurels as chancellor of the grea t University at Oxford, with high standing in literary circles. His writings include a biography of Harry Truman.

This remarkable saga began in Wales. Jenkins was a coal miner's son who was carried by superior intelligence and many a well-earned scholarship up to Balliol College at Oxford and, as so often with Balliol men, on from there into Parliament and high office in government.

Political scientists will want to read this book for the light it sheds on today's politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and others will get a glimpse behind the scenes of the political process. The London Sunday Times has called this "the best political autobiography of the postwar era." I would list it in that category along with Denis Healey's "The Times of My Life."

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