Hazy, Brilliant Hitchens Strokes Anti-Clinton Sword

No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton , by Christopher Hitchens. Verso, 122 pages, $19.

Christopher Hitchens’ last-minute appearance in the impeachment drama was thrilling if only for his open denim shirt and hairy chest, his cursed and boozy Richard Burton sex appeal. Here at last was someone from the left who, trained by English writerly tradition and not the S.A.T.’s, could see how viciously corrupt President Clinton was and who might, through the power of his rough sexuality, help undermine the reflexive ways that liberals insisted on treating the scandal. Yes, Kenneth Starr was repressed, yes, his report was invasive. But Mr. Hitchens grasped the true malignity of the Clinton organization; he talked about the intimidation of women who had had the misfortune of being involved with Mr. Clinton. And Mr. Hitchens had a good filthy, unbuttoned air about him.

Alas, the statement under oath that got Mr. Hitchens all over the news–he swore that a Presidential aide had repeated Mr. Clinton’s “stalker” slur of Monica Lewinsky to the press–got second billing among the lib-elite to the question of Mr. Hitchens’ betrayal of the aide’s confidence. Sidney Blumenthal had passed the dirt to Mr. Hitchens at lunch a year ago. Now The Nation , one of Mr. Hitchens’ employers, castigated him in an unprecedented editorial. It said that friends must never use confidences for public purposes, thus treating the matter in the Red Scare terms in which The Nation always (mis-) understood the prosecution of Mr. Clinton. Soon everyone had joined the Stalinist toga party. The Washington Post said that Mr. Hitchens was being shunned in Georgetown; Maureen Dowd called him “Snitchens” (and promptly won the Pulitzer Prize).

The snitch paradigm doesn’t really work. Can’t some things trump friendship? What about malicious abuse of power? When, some years ago, former Washington Post city editor Milton Coleman published Jesse Jackson’s aside that New York was “Hymietown,” uttered at a lunch Mr. Jackson understood to be off the record (“Let’s talk black talk,” he said), people saw Mr. Coleman as noble. Mr. Hitchens’ betrayal of Mr. Blumenthal has a similarly noble side. For Mr. Clinton intended his hateful characterization to get out–yes, to his wife, through her friend Mr. Blumenthal. But also to Monica Lewinsky, through the press.

Was Mr. Blumenthal manipulating Mr. Hitchens? What about suck-ups who become White House lieutenants and sell out their friends? There are other layers, but no one cared.

Having failed in the role of deus ex machina , Mr. Hitchens now wants to be the chorus, offering the epilogue to the Clinton drama in what he calls an “essay”: this book. It is a screed against Mr. Clinton, full throat from beginning to end, in a belletristic left-wing male tradition that goes back to Murray Kempton and George Orwell. (In an earlier screed, Mr. Hitchens debunked Mother Teresa.)

The reader should know that I agree with virtually everything Mr. Hitchens says, right down to page numbers. When he writes that Mr. Clinton maintained “a quasi-governmental or para-state division devoted exclusively to the bullying and defamation of women,” he puts his finger on the most important element of the Clinton political machine. When he writes that “moral and political blackmail” has “silenced and shamed the liberal herd,” he shows how a personality cult has caused the media to abandon its duty. When he says that The Nation has dishonored the memory of McCarthy’s victims by comparing their actions to the “contemptible evasions of a cheap crook,” he demonstrates how the President has damaged one great liberal principle after another.

The book teems with incisive observations. For instance, he notes that when Mr. Clinton slinked away from his nominee Lani Guinier, in 1993, she turned to Vernon Jordan to intervene. “I don’t do that kind of thing,” sayeth Mr. Jordan. To which Mr. Hitchens responds that Mr. Jordan couldn’t “do enough of that kind of thing” when it came to “the rich and spoiled daughters of donors.”

Oh, Author, how you touch my gland of Clinton-feeling! Do it again!

On the Democratic donor Larry Lawrence: “Mr. Lawrence later achieved a brief celebrity by his triple crown of buying, lying, and dying: buying the ambassadorship to Switzerland, lying about his wartime service, and consequently being exhumed from Arlington Cemetery …”

Very nice. I’ll have a cigarette now. Aah.

But something’s off here. How many readers will be reached as I am? Everyone knows Mr. Clinton’s a scumbag. That unconscious understanding is seeping into the stupid bones of the American people and media like radiation. For instance, there has been considerable evidence before this book that Mr. Clinton had bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Third World to save his ass. The real question is why the people and media have so strenuously resisted a conscious understanding of such events. Can someone explain it?

Not Christopher Hitchens. There is only one sword at his belt, his British slashing style. His book offers no rumination or personal revelation, elements that might have helped a reader not to hate this moment in history but to comprehend it. There is no subtlety. And subtlety is what all weary, whipped Monica-ites now crave, me and Clinton defender Lanny Davis, too.

If only the author had the reflective faculty. What happened during this period to his relationship with Victor Navasky, august editor of the Nation ? What were the House managers like, face to face? From what fancy tables has Mr. Hitchens been banned, and what was it like to eat there? For that matter, when did Mr. Hitchens first meet Mr. Blumenthal, and on what basis did they form a relationship? (I think they’re both climbery.)

The big problem is booze. Mr. Hitchens is a famous drinker (he left me stretched out on the floor the one time I supped with him) and, hark ye reader, here can be seen the ill effects of alcohol on prose.

The tone is relentless, unbroken, but the author is too bleary and impatient to stop and check his audience. Like other great drunks of the British Isles, he is seduced by pickled memories of his brilliance into thinking that he has gotten off a great point when in fact the point (albeit great) has been lost in a veering digression. Generally spectacular (Janet Reno is a “biddable mediocrity”), the writer’s manner can seem dated (“dogmatic” and “demagogic” in consecutive sentences). Or crypto-racist (how many readers will savor the terms “colored” and “dusky” for American blacks in the 90’s?). The scrim of prose is so opaque and elegant that you have no idea where Mr. Hitchens the man really stands. Who he sucks up to when he’s not holding forth at midnight.

His convolutions of mind were charming when he came on TV in February, blue eyes melting, chestpelt glistening, and spoke of his betrayal of Mr. Blumenthal in a layered, incomprehensible manner, never answering in a straightforward way the questions put to him. On the page, these flourishes are discombobulating.

One example will serve. Mr. Hitchens quotes a riff from Kingsley Amis’ novel, Difficulties With Girls , about how fucking imposes a “cock-tax”: the neverending period during which a woman importunes the man to exhibit devotion. Mr. Hitchens notes that Ms. Lewinsky made similar demands on Mr. Clinton–so far, so good–but goes on to say that the scandal imposed on the entire country “the highest level of cock-tax ever exacted from a patient and civilized people.”

That is amusing, but it doesn’t follow. You didn’t sleep with Monica Lewinsky. I didn’t, either. None of us was subject to her emotional blackmail. And since when is the cock-tax imposed on women, too? Wouldn’t that be a–

Too much Chivas for Chrishhtofurrr. Did he come on stage to resolve the tragedy or to unbutton his shirt?