The Clinton Wars , by Sidney Blumenthal. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 822 pages, $30.
Only a few chapters into Sidney Blumenthal’s extraordinary account of the Clinton Presidency, it dawned on me what the book reminded me of. I wonder why it took me so long. It’s not that I am unused to Sidney’s prose, or his politics, or his inimitable intellectual hauteur. I’d spent well over a year editing his essays for The New Republic during the Clinton campaign in 1991 and 1992. I’d spent what must have been an accumulated few days of my life listening to him go off at length about this theory or that conspiracy or this historical analogy; and, for the most part, I have to say I enjoyed the experience. There’s no one like Sid. Not even in Washington. I’m still immensely fond of him, although it’s quite clear by now that, in some respects, he is completely out of his mind. Those jokes that no one else in the universe got; those pauses at the end of anecdotes, while he grinned and puffed and waited for you to assent to his latest impenetrable concoction; the sweet-natured way in which he assassinated characters who violated his sense of manifest destiny and the tenets of his secular religion: Nope, there is no one quite like Sid.
Which reminds me what The Clinton Wars evoked for me. It has the tone and manner and piety of one of those “Lives of the Saints” books most Catholic school kids were once forced to read at some point or other. It’s not a memoir, or a history. It’s a Gospel. Its facts are assembled, as the facts in the Gospels were assembled, for one purpose only: to affirm the faith, to rally the flock, to spread the further glory of the Church. It’s an allegory of eternal good and evil-a passion narrative with a scriptural past and a resurrection at the end, the first-person narrative of one saint who prevailed.
That saint is Bill Clinton. Of all the characters who have graced the office of the Presidency, Sidney picks William Jefferson Clinton as the moral exemplar. There is not a scintilla of a clue anywhere in this book that Mr. Blumenthal sees even a trace of irony in this selection. In fact, you can scour this book to find critical or even skeptical judgments of the 42nd President, and you will come up virtually empty. If you were expecting a novelist’s treatment, this must be something of a let-down. Mr. Clinton is and was a fascinatingly complex, flawed, intelligent, charismatic human being. Few people got as close to him as Sidney did-at moments of extreme tension and drama. The potential for a real and vivid portrait of the man is great. And yet the picture we get of Mr. Clinton from this book is strangely blank. No foibles; no expletives; no tears; no wit; not a single memorable phrase; not even a fresh insight into the man’s psycho-sexual compulsions. That’s what happens when the religious temperament prevails. The need to prove not just that Mr. Clinton’s opponents were evil, wrong, dumb, malign, gob-smackingly corrupt and duplicitous in every single respect, but that the President was noble, grand, progressive, epic and world-historical must, by its very nature, obscure nuance. Nuance, after all, could lead to doubt; and doubt to error; and error to damnation. And beyond damnation, there’s always the danger of becoming a Republican.
First off, Mr. Blumenthal establishes lineage. This new Son of Man must be connected to the Old Testament. How to do so? By placing a scene at the start of the book in which the ghost of F.D.R. blesses the man from Hot Springs. So we start in Hyde Park. Sid goes ahead of a Presidential visit to pay his respects to his ancestors. The President follows, and places a red rose on F.D.R.’s and Eleanor’s white marble tomb. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I’m not making this following bit up: “An aide gently but insistently reminded [Clinton] that his time was limited. The turbulent world was tugging at him, starting with a boisterous crowd waiting at the local high school. ‘It’s so peaceful,’ Clinton whispered as he stared at the tomb. His mind was filled with great plans: universal healthcare, reducing the federal deficit, investments in education and the environment, cutting crime, remaking the welfare system, ending discrimination, to begin with.”
To begin with? What on earth would be next? A space colony on Mars? But to ask such questions of this book is to mistake its essence. To ask how Sid knew what was going on in the President’s mind at that moment, is also to miss the point. And Sid doesn’t want us to miss the point: “In his pilgrimage to Hyde Park, Clinton sought to identify his innovations with the Rooseveltian spirit. Clinton had seen for himself the reliquaries, and now he could fix his sights on the road ahead. ‘I belong here,’ he remarked to me as he left Hyde Park.” The religion to which Sid subscribes is a strange one. His faith is not in the ideals of the Democratic Party. It’s not in the political philosophy of any one thinker-indeed, Sid is oddly indifferent to political theory and has a reductively historicist view of political ideas. He doesn’t pledge his allegiance to some noble conception of America, but rather a noble conception of how America should be governed. To be precise, he’s loyal to an institution, the Democratic Party. Fealty to that institution-and its success at all costs-is the only moral criterion I can find in Mr. Blumenthal’s writing.
Sidney’s conversion came early, in Chicago in the middle of the last century. Like all religious fanatics, Sid sees no distinction between religion and politics or, for that matter, between religion and life: “Politics, as I grew to understand it, was just there. There was no distance in Chicago between politics and getting a driveway widened, having a tree planted, getting garbage picked up, having a kid get a summer job. Many small aspects of life and many large aspects of business required connections …. The schism between politics and daily life that emerged in the suburbs did not exist.”
This is Sid’s utopia. A world run by Democrats, in which everyone is a Democrat, everything is a Democrat, and being a Democrat is being a member of the elect, the saved, the holy. When John F. Kennedy visited Chicago in 1960, for Sid, “it was the beginningoftheworld.”Hisbaptism- confirmation into the faith occurred in a huge political rally: “From time immemorial Democratic presidential campaigns in Chicago reached their climax with a torchlight parade of precinct captains. Danny Spunt took me to a bus that deposited us at a downtown site, and we marched up Madison Street to the ancient Chicago stadium. I pinned a Kennedy button to my jacket and carried a ‘Kennedy for President’ placard stapled to a wooden stick. There were men holding torches aloft as far as I could see, an endless trail of fire. In the stadium everybody was standing, bellowing, and whooping.”
In a scene that Leni Riefenstahl could have photographed well, little Sid had found his God. Three decades later, he found Mr. Clinton.
Sid had been cozying up to Bill and Hillary for years. It was clear well before the 1991 campaign that he had decided that Mr. Clinton was the best shot the Democrats had; and at The New Republic , he set about doing all he could to help. It’s important to remember here that Sid is not, by any usual sense of the term, a journalist. Just as, for him, there is no separation between church and state-i.e., between the interests of the Democratic Party and the interests of America-so, for Sid, the conceptofadistinctionbetween journalism and politics was and is meaningless. The only purpose for journalism is to assist the Democratic Party in its bid to get or to keep power. The only reason for writing anything was to promote this political agenda. The idea of “truth” or “objectivity,” or authorial distance, or anything that set the writer apart from his political ends, was unintelligible to Mr. Blumenthal. That’s why so many of the attacks on him are unfair. His critics assume that he holds the usual liberal notions of what constitutes professional journalism, and has betrayed them. But he doesn’t and he hasn’t.
The consummation of his love affair with Mr. Clinton came in New Hampshire, where the anointed one somehow managed to survive the first of so many sex scandals and came in second. In The New Republic , I remember reading the first draft of Sid’s account-at one point, Sid described Mr. Clinton as morphing into a pale blue flame of incandescent fire-and wondering whether Sid hadn’t finally lost it. But he hadn’t. He’d seen finally a Democrat with the ruthlessness to win: “He was transcending the kind of media attack that had brought down Hart and the calculated, negative campaign that had paralyzed Dukakis. His performance, upon which the entire fate of the campaign depended, was the most electrifying political moment I had witnessed since I was a boy in the Chicago stadium.”
Think about that last statement. Between 1960 and 1992, Sid had witnessed the entire trauma of the 1960’s, the Kennedy assassinations, the King murder, the Vietnam War, the L.B.J. withdrawal, the McCarthy candidacy, Nixon’s impeachment and resignation, the Carter calamity, the Reagan revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and on and on. But his biggest thrill in three decades came when a minor, sleazy Southern politician came in second in New Hampshire. Why? Because for the first time, Sid smelled power-and the kind of amoral tenacity he respected.
Once you realize this, everything else in the book is completely, utterly predictable. Its version of the tortured, tawdry, trivial decade of the 1990’s is so one-sided it’s almost comic. Reading this book is like listening to music on a Walkman with only one earphone in. Not only is Bill Clinton morally right, he’s close to politically flawless. All the facts of the Presidency are marshaled, sometimes with good narrative skill and smooth prose, to defend this assumption. There is not an argument as such in the book, if by argument you mean an attempt to grapple with an alternative worldview. You’d be unaware, for example, if this was the only Clinton book you had ever read, that anyone ever had a problem with Bill Clinton’s relationship with the truth. You’d be largely unaware of any character defects in the 42nd President at all. In fact, the only reason Mr. Blumenthal ever gives for opposition to Mr. Clinton is resentment that he was elected in the first place. All the legitimate disagreement with Mr. Clinton-from the left all the way through to the center-right-is reduced in this book to the ravings of the right-wing extremists.
This, then, is less of an argument than a mammoth, utter, uncompromised, unqualified defense. Of the inside of the Clinton White House, we learn almost nothing from this book. I found two descriptions revealing. I didn’t know that Erskine Bowles had said he wanted to throw up the day after the Lewinsky news broke. But I don’t blame him. And Sid gets Dick Morris right-down to the quaking hands. Of course, Sid loved Dick Morris. Why? Mr. Morris got Mr. Clinton’s numbers back up. The liberal Mr. Blumenthal shared none of the qualms of the administration lefties who objected to Trent Lott’s maestro presiding in a Democratic White House. Again, the notion of taking some principles seriously just never occurred to Sid. “And Morris, after all, had helped Clinton,” Sid writes in the aftermath of Mr. Morris’ exit from the scene. “He should be dealt with humanely. He should not be treated as an antagonist. And he was gone.”
But the enemy? Humane isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind. The real value of this book is in its portrait of Mr. Clinton’s foes. I’ll leave the endless sifting of claim and counterclaim to the people who still care who said what to Brock via Ingraham about Willey or Goldberg. A few years later, it seems beyond petty and vicious. From the viewpoint of history, it’s going to seem deranged. But the account Mr. Blumenthal gives of the haplessness and priggishness of Kenneth Starr is riveting stuff. The testimony of Sam Dash, Mr. Starr’s ethics advisor, is particularly damning. The insane attempt to actually bring down a President over perjury in a civil suit has not yet been more vividly evoked. The character assassination of Hickman Ewing, “the avenging rider of the Gothic South,” is a cult classic of Blumenthal hyperventilation. Then there are, alas, the smears. The portrait of Christopher Hitchens as an unreliable right-wing drunk is particularly vicious and dumb. So is the evisceration of the late Mike Kelly, and vituperation directed at Mike Isikoff of Newsweek , Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post and other actual journalists. This is ugly stuff, and Mr. Blumenthal revels in it.
Mr. Blumenthal was obsessed with the enemy, and together with his new sidekick, the Gollum-like David Brock, he was determined to drive them crazy and fight them “to the death.” Everything else became invisible. The myopia is both funny in its way, but also deeply contemptuous of civil discourse. Mr. Blumenthal’s main gripe is that the Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of a Clinton Presidency. But Mr. Blumenthal never accepts the legitimacy of American conservatism. “The only authentic American conservatism,” Sid pronounces at one point, “is that of John C. Calhoun, who laid the political arguments for the Confederacy. Other arguments masquerading as ‘conservatism’ are forms of self-interest expressed on behalf of concentrated private power.” Well, you can’t say he isn’t direct in expressing his contempt. The worst Sid can say of anyone is that they’re conservative-by which he means not merely wrong, but evil, the inheritors of slavery and bigotry. So when he writes that “even before the inauguration, the patterns of light and darkness had rolled in,” you can see exactly how he sees the world. In a strict sense, I think, Sidney is a Democratic bigot. He doesn’t simply differ with the political opposition; he loathes them and believes resisting them is a moral obligation. In this, he was pitted against Republican bigots in the Clinton era, and between them, the secular religious wars almost brought the country to a constitutional crisis.
When you ask whether Sid would ever have rethought his commitment to the President, this context clearly rules it out. But didn’t Mr. Clinton actually lie to Mr. Blumenthal’s face? If this were a novel, surely that might have been the moment when our protagonist might have had a second thought, an epiphany, the mother of all reality checks. But no. Even when the President calls him into the Oval Office to feed a lie that he knew would be relayed back to his wife about his sexual innocence, Sidney never rethinks his loyalty, or re-examines Clinton’s character. He doesn’t even seem to realize that Mr. Clinton had betrayed the trust of their friendship to betray the trust of his marriage: “I had wanted to believe him, as the rest of his staff had wanted to, whatever our doubts might have been. But the uncomfortable truth now could no longer be denied. Throughout the already long battle since January, I had repressed whatever I felt about Mr. Clinton’s behavior on behalf of the larger political interest. What I felt mattered even less now. The battle over the past eight months was just a preliminary to an even greater one-a fight, it appeared to me, to the death.”
There you have it. Not only was the lie irrelevant to Sid at the time, it mattered even less now . All that mattered was the defeat of the enemy. Inasmuch as all ethics were subordinate to “the larger political interest,” Sidney and Bill were therefore perfectly aligned. And the deeper the stupid, petty lies of the President, the more vital it was for Sid to defend him. To any person with a moral compass outside of partisanship, this seems close to nuts. It was.
Sid’s retroactive defense is that the enemy was worse. And in a contest between the duplicitous Clinton and the puritanical Starr, the country and the Senate were absolutely right to back Mr. Clinton. But the key thing to realize about Mr. Blumenthal is that this is simply retrospective justification. There is not a single thing Mr. Clinton could have done in which, in Sid’s eyes, the enemy would not have been worse. Nothing. Sid would have fought for Mr. Clinton regardless. What’s amazing about Sidney is that he had no conflict here; he just had an enemy to defeat. You can’t find a better emblem of how some liberals’ self-righteousness can blind them to their own flaws.
That’s why, in the end, this book is worth reading. It’s brutally revealing about the stupidity, bigotry, malevolence and extremism of the right-wing forces that became obsessed with President Clinton. I’m glad they ultimately lost. But it’s just as revealing about the hollow moral center of Bill Clinton and Clintonism. The fact that the President and, more worryingly, his wife sought out this slightly nutty man as their confidant-a man whom they knew would never question them, never challenge them, never leave them-reveals the brittleness of their characters and the ruthlessness behind their sanctimony. They used him for his propagandistic skills and his fawning loyalty. They used him to drape their own modest but defensible record with the patina of world-historical significance. And they used him to lie to one another. Some people would find that demeaning. It tells you a lot about Sidney Blumenthal that he regards it as an achievement worth recording for the ages.
Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor at The New Republic, writes daily for http://www.andrewsullivan.com.