A reader knowing nothing of the 1990s might well come away from Sidney Blumenthal’s lengthy account of The Clinton Wars with the impression that for eight years, Bill and Hillary Clinton were prevented from reforming and remaking the United States only by tireless and malignant conspiracies to thwart them. Mrs. Clinton even attributed public concern about her husband’s affair with a White House intern to “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
As Blumenthal tells it, the original conspiracy was aimed at doing in the Clintons by exposing unethical and even criminal pre-White House behavior on their part; it then morphed without a break into what might be called the “Starr Conspiracy” to impeach and oust President Clinton for his relationship with the intern Monica Lewinsky–and for lying and encouraging others to lie to conceal this involvement.
Between these alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors” came the travel-office incident, the saga of Mrs. Clinton’s missing law-firm documents, above all the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster–all exaggerated into scandals reflecting darkly on the presidential couple, with Foster’s death falsely inflated into a murder ordered, or suggested, or hinted at, or maybe just desired by the Clintons (“Who will rid us of this troublesome guy who knows too much?”).
All these conspiracies were, of course, aided and abetted by most of the press, which eagerly accepted leaks and tips, first from the right-wing conspirators, then from Ken Starr, the special prosecutor first appointed to look into the Clintons’ past activities (mostly Whitewater, the now-forgotten Arkansas real estate scandal that supposedly made them rich). When nothing was panned up that creek, Starr turned to the Lewinsky matter. Ultimately, he did succeed in getting Clinton impeached by the House, but neither he nor the various other conspirators were able to win a conviction in the Senate. Thus the Clintons, against all odds, were able to hold on to the office to which Bill Clinton had been twice elected.
Of course, Blumenthal never makes the blunt charge that all the Clintons’ problems resulted from conspiracies. But more than half of his interminable book is devoted to proving that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy, just as Hillary said; that Ken Starr was an offspring of it, if not literally its child; that Starr was an unprincipled and out-of-control prosecutor whose aides were worse; and that the press fell all over itself lapping up their illicit leaks, then elevating their unsupported, often false charges into headlines and TV flashes.
Not that there wasn’t a real conspiracy; the anti-Clinton apparatus financed by Richard Mellon Scaife and fueled by old Arkansas political and personal animosities has been well documented, if seldom in such detail as Blumenthal has unearthed. And not that Ken Starr was a model prosecutor with a real case to pursue, or that the press distinguished itself in dealing with his office or Clinton’s. But in making these valid points, Blumenthal habitually overstates the case–either by the copious details of time, place and personality he provides, or rhetorically.
Clinton, for instance, on arrival in Washington in 1993, is described as thinking he knew the city. But “he didn’t expect a capital seething with resentment, envy, and hostility directed at him and his wife.” Actually, “from the start, the new President became an object of hatred and so did anyone who supported or associated with him in almost any way.” Nor did he face a great crisis that would have allowed him to fend off “the internecine warfare, blinding rage, and sheer destructiveness that converged on Bill and Hillary Clinton.” Not everyone will remember the Washington atmosphere of 1993 in just that way.