The Believer

The Believer

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


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.

But then, Blumenthal is hardly a dispassionate observer of the Clintons. It may even be to his credit that he is frank about his devotion to and belief in them, even though the President–as Blumenthal eventually realizes–lied to him, to his face and from the start, about Monica Lewinsky. Five days after Lewinsky’s name was posted in an unsubstantiated Matt Drudge report, Hillary Clinton discussed the matter with Blumenthal. “She had always known her husband [he reports] to befriend people in trouble, and as she saw it, this was another example.” Blumenthal relates that he “had no reason to doubt Hillary’s sincerity…and whatever my doubts, I wanted to believe her–to believe along with her.”

That same day, in private conversation with Blumenthal, the President himself insisted that “he had been trying to help [Lewinsky]…. It’s very difficult for me not to want to help. That’s how I am. I want to help people.” Blumenthal advised him to be more self-protective with “troubled” persons like the intern, and to ignore Dick Morris’s advice to give a speech confessing all, since the President insisted he had done nothing wrong. Not at all clear, however, is what Lewinsky was troubled about, or why she needed help, or what help the President gave her; but on the basis of these two conversations, Blumenthal loyally, and it seems eagerly, believed Clinton’s account through the long months until the truth finally emerged.

Even then, according to Blumenthal, Clinton had done nothing for “money, power, status, or fame,” nor out of “mean-spiritedness, resentment or cruelty.” He had merely given in to his weakness, which was not necessarily sex but his “need for affirmation, attention, and affection.” He had even “known that it was a mistake but he made it anyway.” Blumenthal’s final judgment is that the Lewinsky affair was “stupid,” a conclusion widely reached by less-informed persons.

Sidney Blumenthal became acquainted with the Clintons in 1987 at one of those year-end “Renaissance Weekends” at Hilton Head, South Carolina, where small groups of eggheads and hopefuls discussed political, cultural and religious subjects. They formed a close friendship, but Blumenthal did not abandon a flourishing journalism career (the Washington Post, The New Republic and The New Yorker, among others) until Clinton was elected to a second term, in 1996. This late entry into the Administration does not deter him from some apparently inside reporting about the first term–for example, a sharp, largely sympathetic sketch of Dick Morris. Then, in early 1997, Blumenthal officially “came aboard”–as White House people like to say–as an assistant to the President and a member of the senior White House staff. His first day on the job he was greeted by a Matt Drudge “exclusive”: Sometime in the past, by somebody, Drudge charged, Blumenthal had been accused of being a wifebeater. This baseless calumny was never proven–Drudge seldom proves anything, or has to–or retracted, even though Blumenthal brought suit.

With that beginning, the author’s tendency to see a conspiracy everywhere he looks may be better understood. It does not seem to me, however, to serve the Clintons well. Theirs (it’s hard to speak of them singly, though that’s unfair to both) was a more substantial two terms than generally conceded, especially in improving the incomes of the poor and in eliminating the federal deficit, which George W. Bush is now quickly restoring. Blumenthal is insistent, moreover, that the Clinton Administration was alert to the threat of terrorism long before the September 11, 2001, attacks that galvanized Bush, and was doing something about it before having to leave office.

Here and there, Blumenthal takes time out from counterbashing the conspirators to mention some straight political achievements or failures–how Clinton agonized over welfare reform, outsmarted Newt Gingrich (now enjoying a second coming in the Bush-Rumsfeld Pentagon), toured Africa, etc.–but these tend to stick out like sore thumbs from the general concentration on baleful enemies and their machinations. Clinton returns from his African trip in one paragraph and Ken Starr talks to reporters in the next: “You cannot defile the temple of justice” (a fair example of Starr’s missionary style). And after truckloads of the sex-sprinkled Starr report (on which the Clinton impeachment was based) were sent to Congress, “the degeneration of politics into personal demonization reflected the growing frenzy of the effort to overthrow the President.”

In The Clinton Wars, that is depicted as always at the root of any opposition to Clinton–not politics as usual but “the effort to overthrow him.” That effort, in Blumenthal’s telling, was based on the sense that Clinton in 1992 had somehow usurped the presidency from George Bush the First and the Republican Party, to whom it properly belonged; that the Clintons were vaguely unworthy and illegitimate, as shown by their past in Arkansas; that any means, fair or foul, could be employed to send a “cracker” like Clinton back to the boondocks. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post is invoked to accuse them of being outsiders in Washington and therefore unwelcome in the White House–as if every new President is not something of an outsider, and unwelcome to some substantial portion of the electorate.

Blumenthal settles not a few scores–with Starr and his staff, of course, with the “Arkansas Project” conspirators and with Matt Drudge, but notably with members of the press. He is right in the criticism that too many reporters too easily swallowed leaked, often false, information from Starr’s office and from some of the earlier conspirators. But the overall impression Blumenthal leaves is that many of these reporters–he even unloads on David Broder, the “dean” of political correspondents, and is particularly harsh on William Kristol and Dorrance Smith, an ABC producer–were motivated by personal hostility to Clinton, not by politics or even by a desire to get out in front of the opposition and ahead in their careers. No documentation supports this view.

Nineteen pages are devoted to the involved story of how Christopher Hitchens, then a columnist for The Nation, filed an affidavit during the Clinton impeachment trial that, had the affidavit been verified, would have shown that Blumenthal perjured himself in his Senate testimony. But it was not verified, no perjury was proved and therefore the long Hitchens story becomes largely irrelevant to the Clinton ordeal. A mystery remains, at least in this book, as to why Hitchens, a writer known for his anti-Clinton views, intervened in a way that might have damaged Blumenthal, supposedly a friend of long standing. But it’s also puzzling that Blumenthal details this episode, of no substantive importance to the Clinton “wars,” at such length. He never discovered Hitchens’s motive and concludes only that he was surprised to find his old friend “capable of doing harm without conscience or regret.”

Blumenthal is right that many of the false reports about the Clintons were based on unidentified sources, an indefensible journalistic tactic that few practitioners–including me–have managed totally to avoid or evade. He is, however, not above relying on unnamed sources himself, frequently quoting “my source” in Starr’s office or relating unsubstantiated anecdotes. Finally, he becomes a source himself, though only to independent and fair-minded reporters (as Blumenthal saw them):

Under the duress of scandalmongering…I realized I could not simply respond to daily events or give answers to questions from the White House press corps. I had to bring to reporters’ attention the facts that otherwise might elude them…. I was using the Internet and the fax machine…expanding the range and content of the stories the press covered.

Telling, that is, the White House side of the story, against Starr’s version.

The Clinton Wars runs on for 822 pages, and on some matters is immensely detailed and fascinating. It is not, however, and is not intended to be, the dispassionate, balanced account of Bill Clinton’s day-by-day presidency, his successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses. Such an account is badly needed for any significant President, but that volume will have to wait for a less committed historian, one more interested in the success of, say, Clinton’s fiscal and economic policies or in the outcome of his welfare reform, than in the origins of Whitewater–whatever Whitewater was.

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