The Warrior's Tale

The Clinton Wars By Sidney Blumenthal, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 822 pages, $30.00

Running for the Senate in the summer of 2000, Hillary Clinton said she was a "Rorschach test." In fact, both of the Clintons continue to serve as a kind of national Rorschach. Was Bill Clinton an extraordinarily successful president, responsible for remarkable economic growth and renewed attention to the plight of the least fortunate members of society? Or was he Slick Willie, a seducer and a liar, a disgrace to his office? Is Hillary Clinton an accomplished woman who has spent much of her professional life trying to help children? Or is she (in the words of conservative pundit Laura Ingraham) "a Machiavellian who craves power so much she'll do anything to keep it"?

Sidney Blumenthal served in the White House from August 1997 through January 2001 and was a close adviser to both Clintons. In Blumenthal's account, President Clinton developed a new model of progressive governance, one that accepted the social goals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal but emphasized individual responsibility and a favorable climate for business as well. Blumenthal is also concerned, however, with the "wars" to which his title refers -- with the unremitting attacks on Clinton's character and ethics. These wars, Blumenthal believes, are inextricably intertwined with, even a product of, Clinton's progressivism. Because Clinton won two presidential elections and because his policies were so popular, his adversaries had to resort to attacking his character, often through outlandish charges that lacked the slightest basis in reality. ("Whitewater is about health care," Rush Limbaugh announced to his 20 million listeners.)

Blumenthal thinks that the whole situation was captured by a conference in which Clinton called for extending hate-crime laws to ban violence based on disability, sex and sexual orientation. "All Americans deserve protection from hate," Clinton said, only to be interrupted by a heckler, who shouted, "If you murder Vince Foster, it is not a hate crime!" Or consider these remarks from a conservative commentator in The Washington Times, writing in 1994 as the Whitewater controversy continued to heat up: "I know something about Bill and Hillary Clinton right now. I know how their stomachs churn, how their anxiety mounts, how their worry over their defenseless child increases. I know their inability to sleep at night and their reluctance to rise in the morning. ... I know all this, and the thought of it makes me happy."

Blumenthal's narrative begins in late 1987 with his initial meeting, as a reporter for The Washington Post, with the then-governor of Arkansas. While noticing Clinton's ambition, Blumenthal also saw someone with charisma and an unusual facility for public policy. During that conversation, the two touched on how American politics was changing, in part because of the media's tendency to erase the distinction between private and public life. In his race for president, Clinton mounted what Blumenthal calls a "challenge to the new order," calling for a fundamental reorientation of the Democratic Party to attack Republican governance. Much of the reorientation involved an effort to transcend what Clinton called "the stale orthodoxies of 'left' and 'right'" through initiatives, such as financial assistance for college students, that appealed to the middle class.

Clinton's effort, culminating in his victory over George Bush Senior, was remarkably successful, but it soon led to an astonishing set of allegations of corruption and crime. With respect to the most famous of the attacks, Blumenthal contends, "There was never anything to Whitewater. There was never anything to it in the beginning, middle, or end." Blumenthal's view is supported by an unlikely source: Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who confessed to Clinton himself, "We all know there's nothing there. It was just politics. And it just got out of hand." Blumenthal thinks that in his early years as president, Clinton was simply naive about the nature and intensity of his adversaries. One casualty was his excessively ambitious proposal for health-care reform, whose failure helped the Republicans to gain control of the Senate and the House. As a result, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became, for a time, the most influential figure in American politics.

Blumenthal offers a fascinating portrayal of Gingrich, who "practiced and perfected political annihilation." Gingrich asked his pollster to market test such terms as "sick ... pathetic ... decay ... corrupt ... waste ... liberal ... traitor" that might be invoked to demonize Democrats. The context for using these words was insignificant; they were fit for all occasions. But Clinton responded effectively. Abandoning large-scale proposals, he introduced a remarkable set of smaller initiatives, including increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit, community policing, job training and health insurance for children. He trounced Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to win re-election. By late 1997, the Clinton administration was riding high, with a booming economy and (astonishingly) the looming elimination of the federal budget deficit. Clinton's possibilities for the second term seemed limitless.

All this changed with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which occupies more than a third of Blumenthal's narrative. Even though recent history, much of this story makes for surprising reading. Blumenthal insists that the events that led to Clinton's impeachment were an outgrowth of a sustained period of right-wing scandal mongering. Well before the Lewinsky affair became public, a group of influential conservatives in the media had met to help Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) on an impeachment resolution. The resolution lacked detail, referring only to a "systematic abuse of office." According to a Wall Street Journal editor who appeared supportive of impeachment, what was important was not the law or the Constitution but merely "political will." And Blumenthal effectively captures the unimaginable chaos of rumor mongering that followed the disclosure of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. What is perhaps not adequately remembered is the utter baselessness of many of the charges that reasonable people took seriously at the time. Recall the "Talking Points" memo -- said, in reputable places, to be a smoking gun, written by the White House in a conspiracy to obstruct justice? The memo was written by Lewinsky herself. Recall the widely reported claim that Vernon Jordan, participating in a criminal conspiracy, helped Lewinsky obtain a job in order to buy her silence? That turned out to be baseless, too. What emerged, in Blumenthal's account, was a bizarre alliance among overzealous prosecutors, right-wing extremists and irresponsible journalists with a pack mentality.

As for the impeachment itself, some of Blumenthal's most striking discussions explore the intense pressures placed by extremists on moderate Republicans. For example, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was threatened with the loss of a subcommittee chairmanship and was told that if he did not support impeachment, the House leadership would make "the next two years the longest of his life." Skeptical Republicans swallowed their reservations and voted for an impeachment that they privately deplored. Of course, Clinton's misconduct was not trivial. But there is no good argument that his misconduct amounted to a high crime or misdemeanor within the meaning of the Constitution. Republican officials, so solicitous of the Constitution in their rhetoric, paid no serious attention to our founding document, treating it as a malleable instrument for their own political ends. (It is a continuing mark of shame that conservative law professors did not challenge Clinton's impeachment; let us hope that liberal law professors would support a Republican president under analogous circumstances.)

Applauding Al Gore for his role as vice president, Blumenthal portrays him as uncertain and erratic on the campaign trail, veering from embrace of the Clinton administration to careful distancing. Blumenthal emphasizes a well-orchestrated campaign to make Gore look like an unethical person who, in the words of a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, "had a propensity to both exaggerate and fabricate." In a continuation of the Clinton wars, Gore was widely said to be a kind of compulsive liar -- to have claimed unjustified credit for inventing the Internet and for cleaning up hazardous waste, even to have claimed, falsely, that he and his wife, Tipper, were models for the young lovers in Erich Segal's novel Love Story. Blumenthal contends that Gore's comments in these respects were essentially accurate. The smear campaign, spread by the supposedly liberal media, went mostly unchallenged.

Blumenthal concludes with some remarks about Clinton's place in American history. In his view, the United States has faced an enduring conflict between two views about how executive powers should be used.

Would they be wielded on behalf of the interests of the great majority of citizens, allowing the Constitution to be a living document for advancing the people's rights and social equality and the nation's needs ... ? Or would the executive branch define the nation as a shell, a confederation of states, clearing the way for private special interests, and asserting the armed forces as the only expression of national power?

Blumenthal thinks that since the 1930s, the Republican Party has seen itself as the only true keeper of Americanism, treating opponents with incredulous hostility. In attempting to oust Clinton, "the Republicans escalated a politics of crisis into almost continual warfare." Partly as a result, Clinton's program was unfinished. But his achievements were nonetheless extraordinary: tens of millions of new jobs, the fastest economic growth in 30 years, dramatically decreased poverty and unemployment rates, the first back-to-back budget surpluses in recent history, a 20 percent reduction in crime, sharp decreases in the welfare rolls, two superb (and quite moderate) Supreme Court justices, and the lowest African American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record.

This is a sprawling book, but it is marked by shrewd observations and sharp, illuminating descriptions of people and events. Blumenthal is a loyalist, to be sure, and he has some scores to settle. Members of the media come in for special scrutiny, and his depiction of the pack mentality seems on the mark. On the other hand, some of Blumenthal's discussions aren't exactly balanced; the book has too much of an us-against-them flavor, and there is insufficient recognition that honorable people can be found on all sides. Writing that George W. Bush "was installed, not elected," Blumenthal describes the 2000 election as "the stolen succession" -- an unnecessarily inflammatory term for an essentially tied vote. He hints that Justice Antonin Scalia's vote in Bush v. Gore might have been influenced by Scalia's desire to be chief justice -- a preposterous suggestion. But Blumenthal's depiction of events is frequently convincing. Because of its shrewdness and range, the book will be an indispensable source for those seeking to understand the Clinton years and the period in which the nation now finds itself.

Blumenthal does not, however, answer an obvious question: Who won the Clinton wars? I think that Blumenthal underplays a central point here. Bush's election in 2000 was greatly assisted, and probably made possible, by the widespread belief among swing voters that the Clinton administration was essentially crooked and that Gore was, in terms of trustworthiness, no better than Clinton himself. If not for trumped-up scandals, media credulity and the (unconstitutional) Clinton impeachment, Gore would probably be the president today. This is not to deny that Bush ran an impressive and disciplined campaign, nor is it to say that Gore's candidacy was doomed. But peace and prosperity are usually a recipe for easy electoral victory. Gore was badly damaged by the Clinton wars, and in that sense Clinton's most shameless adversaries ended up big winners.

Blumenthal's historical argument -- opposing progressive presidents and their conservative counterparts -- seems to me too simple. Blumenthal thinks that progressive leaders meet especially fierce resistance, that the defenders of the status quo are prepared to resist by all available means, whether fair or foul. I am not sure. All presidents -- left, right and center -- have been subject to unfair and false charges. But Blumenthal's largest claim is convincing. The scandal mongering of the Clinton years was genuinely unique, not least because it was so unremitting, so well funded and so vicious.