The Clinton Wars
by Sidney Blumenthal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 822 pp., $30.00
In the Reagan years Sidney Blumenthal made his mark as a bright campaign reporter and intrepid explorer of spreading conservative and neoconservative networks in think tanks and on Capitol Hill. After seeing Michael Dukakis battered into oblivion in 1988, he wrote a book decrying the viciousness and vacuousness of the American way of choosing a president. It was at odds, he felt, with the issues facing the country after the cold war. What was needed, according to Blumenthal’s prescription, was an injection of the intellectual energy neocons were displaying on the “progressive” side: “the invention of a political language and program” for what he portrayed as a new age. All along, he had been scouting for a leader fluent in such a language. “I wondered when a Democrat might emerge for whom modern politics was second nature,” he writes, setting the stage for his narrative of the roller-coaster ride the country and he himself experienced after his wish was fulfilled. “I was waiting for the new.”
Our political lonely heart didn’t immediately embrace Bill Clinton as “the new” at their first encounter, which occurred at a gathering in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the start of 1988, four years before tickets to these Renaissance Weekends became hot items. Clinton was “perhaps too blunt about his ambition with someone he had just met” but the two—presciently, even eerily—chatted about a matter already preoccupying the young politician: how the media were taking down “the invisible barrier,” erasing “the distinction between public and private life.” Caught by reporters from the Miami Herald who had been assigned to lurk in the bushes, Gary Hart had been unable to defend his candidacy once his lit-tle fling with Donna Rice had been pumped up into a morality tale of hubristic self-destruction. The hubris, Blumenthal and his new acquaintance agreed, was on the part of journalists who appointed themselves as prosecutors licensed to delve anywhere and judges of whatever turned up. It all showed how slippery the landscape had become.
Respecting the invisible barrier, Blumenthal doesn’t tell us whether he had to repress any unworthy suspicions about why this subject might be preying on the mind of the would-be candidate. But four years later in New Hampshire, after watching Clinton battle back against accusations of adulterous consorting similar to those that had undone Hart, he felt he had just witnessed “the most electrifying political moment” since, as a youngster, the experience of seeing John F. Kennedy wind up his 1960 campaign in Chicago had sealed his addiction to politics.
Even before New Hampshire, Blumenthal had identified Clinton as “the new.” An article he had written for The New Republic titled “The Anointed” noted the candidate’s unusual adroitness, his ability to fuse opposites and “square political circles.” It would be wrong to describe what ensued as a seduction. Call it a meeting of minds among consensual political adults. The night the votes were tallied in New Hampshire, Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline, were invited to spend time with the Clintons. The next month he had lunch with Hillary Clinton in Chicago, the hometown of each of them, and recommended a book that dealt with Eleanor Roosevelt’s emergence as a distinct political figure. They continued to talk books, he tells us, for the rest of the campaign.
His inside track with the Clintons and evident sympathy for them were reasons Tina Brown asked him to write The New Yorker‘s “Letter from Washington,” as fine a niche as a political journalist could hope to occupy. Then, his easy access to an administration that, early on, had literally tried locking the doors between the press room and the rest of the West Wing made him an object of resentment among old colleagues who dismissed him as a journalistic courtier. Within a year, his old newspaper, The Washington Post, suggested sarcastically that his “Letter” be renamed “In the Tank,” after he became the recipient of a rare and, inevitably, self-serving presidential interview. A few weeks later, his editor told him that if he wasn’t going to join in the hunt for whatever wrongdoing could be squeezed out of the Whitewater affair—or “pseudoscandal,” as Blumenthal prefers to call it—he would have to relinquish the “Letter” and confine his reporting in Washington to subjects other than the Clintons.
These terms had to be considered demeaning by a journalist who regarded the presidency as “the chief engine of progress in American history” and its then avatar as a worthy successor to a line of progressive presidents stretching back to Jefferson. In his own recounting here, he was isolated not for his credulousness about the Clintons but for his skepticism about their persecutors; for not participating in what he variously calls the “delirium” and “irrational frenzy” that seized Washington and its press corps. “When I did not stampede along with the herd I was punished,” he writes. If the White House was going to be off-limits to him journalistically, he saw no bar to his wife going to work there or to him offering freelance counsel.
By the summer of 1994, in his estimation, he and Hillary Clinton had become “genuine friends.” By 1996, he was talking strategy with Dick Morris, consulting on the State of the Union Address, and tossing off phrases and themes for use by the President and others in the administration. (He claims credit for “One America” and “the indispensable nation” and indirect credit, being the first to call Clinton’s attention to the thematic potential in the coming millennium, for the “bridge to the 21st century.”) So even before he was finally invited to come to the White House in the second Clinton term as an assistant to the President, he had indisputably become the courtier he had been accused of being. “The decisive moment had arrived when I could become a wholehearted political participant,” he tells us without irony or regrets.
It was some fulfillment: ill-Starred, as in Ken, for Blumenthal as well as the President. He would get to testify to the grand jury twice and later tell the Senate impeachment trial that Clinton had lied to him about his encounters with an intern. He would come to see himself as the “scapegoat” for the failed prosecution. He would see himself maligned as “Sid Vicious” and a “sleazemeister” in the New York Post, a paper that ought to know when it sees one, and traduced or unmasked in an affidavit sworn to by his former good buddy Christopher Hitchens. And he would wind up with $300,000 in legal fees after prudently deciding to withdraw a libel suit, which had at its outset sought to recover $30 million from Matt Drudge and America Online for retailing a repulsive smear about spousal abuse that, Blumenthal tells us, he eventually traced to a Wall Street Journal editorial writer.
Out of all this turmoil, high aspiration, low comedy, and misspent passion, a certified writer who had achieved a little distance and perspective might have been able to fashion a memorable book. His dual status as a courtier would hardly have been a disqualification. But any thought that a Duc de Saint-Simon might have been lurking in the Versailles of the Clinton White House is soon dispelled as one endures the vertiginous experience of reliving our last president’s operatic ups and downs through this massive volume. By way of illustration:
He always thought he could teach something of their own craft to the most skillful professional men; and they, for their part, used to listen gratefully to lessons which they had long ago learned by heart. He imagined that all this showed his indefatigable industry; in reality, it was a great waste of time.
It might not be an outrageous stretch to apply that to you-know-who but, as the reader will have guessed, it’s Saint-Simon on Louis XIV. Sad to say, when it comes to the Clintons, there is not a single line of comparable acuity or detachment in the whole of The Clinton Wars. What you get instead are passages that would have been regarded as above par but hardly fresh if they had appeared in a news magazine cover story ten years ago. For purposes of comparison, try this:
He reveled in long seminars on policy, but there was none of the metallic grind about him. After a while you almost got the sensation that his endless discussions were like jazz riffs. He played them until he felt he had improvised the right composition.
The absence of bite when it comes to his protagonists might be attributed to an excess of partisanship or loyalty, which remains a virtue. But it is more than that. Blumenthal, who is still fighting the Clinton wars, has internalized the Clintons’ view of their experience. So what you find in these pages often has the feel of an early draft or preview of memoirs (his and hers) that have yet to appear. Familiar narrative corners are cut in familiar ways; obvious omissions are not remarked upon; and presidential self-pity flows between the lines. When things go awry, it’s generally someone else’s doing. Democratic congressional leaders keep Clinton from moving on ethics and campaign finance legislation. The “disgraceful behavior” of the wily British and French—they “connived to confound the Americans”—makes it impossible for Clinton to intervene in the Bosnia crisis for two and a half years. Colin Powell also blocks him.
Clinton turns to the political consultant Dick Morris after his party loses both chambers in the 1994 congressional election because his White House staff is in disarray, unable to present him with workable strategies, and excessively responsive to the media. He feels a need “to keep the staff at bay.” His national security advisers are “not bureaucratically strong” and lack “practical strategies.” Even after the staff has been shaken up and Clinton is supposedly master in his own house, speechwriters stick a line promising not to use ground troops in Kosovo in his speech to the nation and Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, fails to take it out. Clinton, we are told, is furious because his options have been limited (though it then takes him more than two months to allow other options to be prepared). Berger is “snookered” by the Pentagon when it forces the NATO commander who had been too blunt in his demand for ground troops, General Wesley Clark, into retirement. “I’d like to kill somebody,” Clinton tells Blumenthal.
You never know where the buck will stop. Clinton, it seems, is a prisoner of his own administration, in addition to having to face a baying press and savage opposition. Nowhere is this more the case than in the President’s “intense battle with terrorism, a mostly secret war that was largely screened from the public.” FBI director Louis Freeh, a Clinton appointee, becomes “a prime mover of scandal promotion against the Clinton administration,” to the point that “Freeh’s hostility to the White House dictated his lack of cooperation with the war against bin Laden.” Clinton wants to do more than fire a few cruise missiles at the al-Qaeda leader; he wants to drop special ops troops into the mountains of Afghanistan in a surprise attack. Powell’s successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Henry Shelton, recoils from his commander in chief’s idea, saying such an attack would be too risky.