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Knopf has printed 1.5 million hardcover copies

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Former President Clinton spent more than four hours at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday signing books for nearly 2,000 buyers.

Some fans had camped out on the sidewalk for 12 hours overnight to secure their place in line.

Clinton then moved to an independent bookstore in Harlem, near his office. It was the first day of a monthlong cross-country book tour to promote his memoir, "My Life."

The weighty autobiography, from Clinton's childhood in Arkansas to his eight years in the White House, went on sale Tuesday amid a wave of publicity that propelled it onto the best-seller list.

"I tried to tell the story of my life and the story of America's life in the last half of the 20th century, and then I tried to elevate the importance of politics," Clinton told reporters at his first book signing. "Too often we lose sight of the fact that this public work affects the way Americans live, and I hope that when people read this they'll have more of an appreciation of that."

Publisher Alfred Knopf, a division of Random House, initially printed 1.5 million hardcover copies of the book, the most ever for a nonfiction work, and has ordered a second printing.

Clinton's advance reported to be $10 million.

The 957-page tome sprawls chronologically like a diary over 55 untitled chapters that are not organized by subject.

The second half of the book covers his two terms as president. A four-page epilogue covers the three years since he left office.

In all, he provides a first-person narrative of his political battles and accomplishments, his opinions on his vice president and his successor, and a scathing review of his impeachment and the prosecutor who pursued it.

Clinton's harshest words are reserved for former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who morphed an investigation into a failed Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater into a probe of the president's infidelities, including his liaisons with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it, and I didn't want it to come out," Clinton writes.

Starr recommended Clinton be charged with perjury over his testimony in a videotaped deposition in August 1998.

"I was trying to protect my family and myself from my selfish stupidity. I believed that the contorted definition of 'sexual relations' enabled me to do so," Clinton notes.

The president for months had denied the affair to the nation and to his family. In the book, he relates how he finally told first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton the truth.

"She looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut, almost as angry at me for lying to her in January as for what I had done. All I could do was tell her that I was sorry, and that I had felt I couldn't tell anyone, even her, what had happened," Clinton writes.

For months he would sleep on a couch in a small living room adjoining their White House bedroom.

Clinton also broke the news to his daughter, Chelsea.

"In some ways, that was even harder," Clinton writes. "Chelsea's high school years and her freshman year in college had already been clouded by four years of intensely personal attacks on her parents. Now Chelsea had to learn that her father not only had done something terribly wrong, but had not told her or her mother the truth about it."

Clinton traced his torment to his own behavior and also his decision early in his presidency to appoint a special prosecutor to put to rest questions about the money-losing Whitewater deal.

"Though I had said I could live with it, I almost didn't live through it. It was the worst presidential decision I ever made, wrong on the facts, wrong on the law, wrong on the politics, wrong for the presidency and the Constitution," he writes.

He called the ensuing impeachment trial by a Republican-controlled Congress "a hypocritical farce." Clinton credits former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for regaining majorities for the GOP in 1994 by nationalizing the midterm election around common conservative themes, though he disagreed with them.

"Even though I was intrigued by Gingrich and impressed by his political skills, I didn't think much of his claim that his politics represented America's best values," the former president writes.

"I had been raised not to look down on anyone and not to blame others for my own problems or shortcomings. That's exactly what the 'New Right' message did."

Terrorism focus starts in 1998

Clinton's book offers little comment on terrorism -- not the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 or the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh.

But by 1998, after al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans, Clinton said he considered the terrorist group's leader, Osama bin Laden, his "formidable adversary."

"After the African slaughter I became intently focused on capturing him and with destroying al Qaeda," Clinton writes.

A retaliatory missile strike on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan failed to kill bin Laden, and Clinton never used military force against him again. He says he almost did so in October 2000, after al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

"We came close to launching another missile strike at him in October, but the CIA recommended that we call it off at the last minute, believing that the evidence of his presence was insufficiently reliable. The Pentagon recommended against putting special forces into Afghanistan, with all the attendant logistical difficulties, unless we had more reliable intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts," Clinton writes.

In December 2000, the president told President-elect Bush that his "biggest disappointment" was not catching bin Laden, but he said he found that Bush had other concerns.

"I knew that he was putting together an experienced team from past Republican administrations who believed that the biggest security problems America faced were Iraq and the lack of a national missile defense," Clinton writes.

Though Clinton described Bush as "perhaps the best politician in the talented Bush family," he expected Al Gore, who he calls "the most active and influential vice president in history," to win the election.

Clinton said he thought Gore's "people vs. the powerful" message may have undermined his administration's record of economic prosperity, but ultimately the former president blames the U.S. Supreme Court for derailing a Gore victory by preventing all the votes in Florida from being counted.

"If Gore had been ahead in the vote count and Bush behind, there's not a doubt in my mind that the same Supreme Court would have voted 9 to 0 to count the vote and I would have supported the decision," Clinton writes. "Bush v. Gore will go down in history as one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made, along with the Dred Scott case, which said that a slave who escaped to freedom was a piece of property to be returned to its owner."

Clinton also levies criticism at former FBI Director Louis Freeh for "a whole series of missteps" and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for being "not wholly in command of the facts."

Clinton defends his pardons of 140 people, including the one to Marc Rich, a wealthy businessman who had been indicted for tax evasion and other charges.

"Most everyone thought I was wrong to pardon a wealthy fugitive whose ex-wife had been a supporter of mine and who had retained one of my former White House counsels on his legal team, along with two prominent Republican lawyers," Clinton said. "I may have made a mistake, at least in the way I allowed the case to come to my attention, but I made the decision based on merits."

He said financier Michael Milken "had a persuasive case" for a pardon and that he regrets not pardoning former Arkansas associates Webb Hubbell and Jim Guy Tucker, who were ensnared in Starr's investigation.

Midnight buyers

The book's first buyers stood in line in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble store to pick up their copies immediately after midnight. The book's retail price is $35.

Jim Kempland, a marketing executive from Brooklyn, said he wanted to get Clinton's point of view firsthand.

"He had tremendous impact on me as an individual over the course of his eight years," Kempland said.

On Monday evening, a few hundred well-wishers, celebrities and politicians attended an invitation-only book launch party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"I'm not interested in the scandals. I'm interested in some of the policy stuff. I'm interested in seeing how we went from such peace and prosperity to where we are today," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination this year.

"If people can be nostalgic about the Reagan years, imagine if we could remind people of the Clinton years."

An abridged audio version of the book is also for sale: It runs 6.5 hours and is read by Clinton himself.

Mrs. Clinton's memoir, "Living History," has sold more than 1.5 million hardback copies in the United States since its release a little more than a year ago, according to her publisher, Simon & Schuster. It was a national best seller for 20 weeks.

CNN's Steve Brusk, Dalit Herdoon, Adam Levine, Heather Riley and Robert Yoon contributed to this article.

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