As anyone who has written a book about American politics in recent years can confirm, many members of Washington’s celebrity press corps suffer from an irremediable attention deficit. Their memories are short, their concern for context and nuance is null, and their capacity for detail is nil. Their appetite for gossip and spectacle, however, remains insatiable-which is why, upon the release of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Living History, the press fixated so intently on a few rather uninteresting paragraphs about the former First Lady’s reaction when her husband confessed his infidelity with an intern.
Not having read Mrs. Clinton’s book yet, I can’t say whether her memoir is as insipid as the response of the Beltway’s journalistic set. But whenever they are called upon to discuss the Clinton years, the reaction of the pundit class is predictable-as they recently proved again with the release of Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars .
The punditry’s preoccupation with the trivial has been relentless and embarrassingly mindless: Was it true that Chris Matthews once sought employment as the President’s press secretary? Did the late Michael Kelly really curse aloud when angry? How did Mr. Blumenthal explain Bill Clinton’s “relationship” with Monica Lewinsky? And finally, does he think the Clintons “love” him as much as he “loves” them?
Several commentators and reviewers appear to have read The Clinton Wars instead of merely looking themselves up in the index (where I should note that my own name, as a longtime friend of the author, can also be found). Of those, a few felt obliged to acknowledge, in passing, that the former White House aide has built a “surprisingly convincing case” that “Mr. Clinton’s presidency was the victim of a right-wing political cabal that manipulated the media and the legal system,” as Time magazine’s otherwise dismissive reviewer put it.
Expecting the “manipulated” media to examine Mr. Blumenthal’s case honestly would be naïve. But they might at least have noted the actual news uncovered by the veteran journalist, who worked for The Washington Post and The New Yorker before entering government.
Consider what he learned from Samuel Dash, the legendary Watergate prosecutor who served as Kenneth Starr’s hand-picked “ethics counselor” while the independent counsel chased the Clintons for five years at a cost of $70 million.
Observing the conduct of Mr. Starr and his prosecutors from the inside, Mr. Dash determined that the Whitewater investigation should have concluded “by 1996 or 1997.” (When I quoted him to that effect at the time, Mr. Dash vehemently and publicly denied harboring any such views. Indeed, he and Mr. Starr issued a press release denouncing me. Seven years later, Mr. Dash seems more comfortable with the truth.)
“From time to time, I would sit at a staff meeting [at the O.I.C.], and a prosecutor would present all the evidence,” Mr. Dash recalled. “I would get a copy of it before the meeting, and they were talking it up as though they had something of value. They had nothing. I said, ‘Zero plus zero equals zero.’ I was advising they didn’t have it.
“Even though early on they knew they didn’t have enough evidence,” he told Mr. Blumenthal, “they believed they would get those facts. It was furthered by this assumption that there was crime here. They continued to believe it. The delay, the time it took for them to finish up their job, was really because they believed that we didn’t have the evidence. My view was, why don’t you announce it and close shop?”
But, of course, Mr. Dash knew the answer: “I saw decisions made on moral grounds that had nothing to do with criminal grounds …. Ken allowed his personal concepts of morality to interfere with the role of a prosecutor.”
Conservative outrage about Mr. Clinton’s sins was quite selective, as the wronged ex-wife of his nemesis, Newt Gingrich, could (and perhaps someday will) testify. For the Republican caucus controlled by Texas Representative Tom DeLay, the opportunity to destroy a President they hated was simply an irresistible exercise of power.
As Representative Peter King, a Republican opponent of impeachment, told Mr. Blumenthal: “Coming out of the [midterm] election, everyone thought impeachment was dead …. It was over. Then DeLay assumed control…. In most districts in the country, a majority was against impeachment, maybe a majority of Republicans. But a majority who voted in Republican primaries was for impeachment. When you put individual members under the gun, a lot of them could get killed in a primary. That was the way [Mr. DeLay] did it.”
The book also contains revealing remarks by former House impeachment manager James Rogan, and scathing recollections of Mr. Starr from a couple of his former prosecutors. Meanwhile, the press-whose poor performance is revealed in the pages of The Clinton Wars -won’t report any such troubling news. They were never much interested in that side of the Clinton story-and still aren’t.