In Clinton’s Court

Sidney Blumenthal
Sidney Blumenthal; drawing by David Levine

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…

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