How is it that domestic politics in this country is at once so rancid and so banal, so embittered and yet so uninspiring? Why should it be that two parties with few if any essential differences are ready to speak of each other as if a cultural or even a civil war were only a few speeches away? Obviously, much of this fatuous rhetoric arises from the need to disagree more and more about less and less, to maintain the mills of fundraising in a churning condition, and to keep the dwindling groups of genuine loyalists and activists in a state of excited pseudo-commitment. But much of the dankness and dinginess is owed to the influence exerted by professional political operators, those who have a careerist interest in "the process" as it is—which is to say partisan in theory and bipartisan in practice.
Those in the unelected election business who become celebrities are sometimes quite willing to work for either party. Dick Morris, to take a notorious example, toiled energetically for Jesse Helms before being hired by the Clintons. David Gergen's mysterious usefulness to a succession of Republican and Democratic Presidents will almost stand comparison with the mystical utility of the Reverend Billy Graham to Eisenhower and Nixon, Carter and Clinton. The self-satirizing summa of all this is the bizarre marriage of Mary Matalin and James Carville, who actually contrived to run opposing presidential campaigns in 1992 while still, at the end of the day, proving that the two parties were essentially in bed together.
The privatized and privateering class of spin doctors, advisers, consultants, fundraisers, and reputation mongers displays a weird combination of cynicism and naiveté. It knows better than anyone else what the candidates and parties are really like. But it is compelled, when disgust or alarm reaches a certain pitch, to act as if only a member of the "other" faction could stoop so low. This falsity and cheapness has now reached a point where, palpable as it is even to half indifferent readers and viewers, it may have become invisible to the participants themselves. Not long ago in this magazine, David Brooks mapped a political sociology elaborating on the notion that the country was in theory divisible between heartland "red" districts and more coastal "blue" ones, the colors showing (rather counterintuitively, perhaps) a respective difference between Republican and Democratic areas. Soon afterward one of Bill Clinton's reliable yes-men, Paul Begala, issued a response, asserting that it was in "red" districts that gay men like Matthew Shepard were lynched, or black men like James Byrd were dragged behind pickup trucks until they died.
If this meant anything, it meant that the difference between a donkey and an elephant was the difference between democracy and fascism, or between pluralism and absolutism. But just wait for the good people's party to be caught doing something shady or vile; at once you will be told that it's no worse than what the bad people's party would do or has done. Immediately, in other words, the apologist will admit that the game is up, and that he is judging his own team by a standard (of ghastliness in others) that he himself helped to set. "They all do it" means, in this circle, "We all do it." But the apologist won't concede this consciously or honestly. Faced with the task of explaining the Clinton pardons, including one to Marc Rich, Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior Clinton adviser and friend of Dick Morris's, immediately responds, in The Clinton Wars, that Richard Nixon pardoned Jimmy Hoffa; and as for the $190,000 in gifts accumulated by the Clintons, it was "roughly the same amount as the preceding Bushes had accepted." Since he elsewhere accuses the Republican Party of being essentially lawless and segregationist, he might admit that he's setting himself a low standard. But he doesn't get the joke. And of course by the time he makes the accusation he has joined the ranks of the unlucky political-consultant high-flyers—the ones who have hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills to pay off. This frequent misfortune often entails the writing of a long and turgid and self-justifying book, in return for a completely ridiculous publisher's advance.
As the portentous title implies, The Clinton Wars consists of a defense loftier than its proximate subject. It swings hectically between major and minor themes yet somehow remains consistent. Obviously, the business of the United States cannot really have been consumed for so long in an argument about the old excuse that "blowjobs don't count." No President could have been so selfish or fanatical as to mobilize his administration on that point. A deeper reading must and will reveal that this was a serious crisis of the Constitution, pitting the grandest ideas of civil government against the meanest ones. Blumenthal cites with approval a statement drafted by many American historians convened by Sean Wilentz, which was inscribed with the signatures of Arthur Schlesinger and even C. Vann Woodward. This attempt to call Clinton to account would, "if carried forward ... leave the Presidency permanently disfigured and diminished, at the mercy as never before of the caprices of any Congress," they announced.
The Presidency, historically the center of leadership during our great national ordeals, will be crippled in meeting the inevitable challenges of the future.
Truly has it been said that the future lies before us, with the past behind. The statement never exceeded platitude of this sort, and since it was made it has been replaced by proclamations from Schlesinger and Wilentz to the effect that the current President has been overbearing, in a time of "great national ordeals," toward Congress. Both positions may by all means be valid, but it will be noticed, I hope, that they fluctuate in intensity according to the relatively ephemeral matter of partisan affiliation.
My own view of this has been conditioned partly by my scrutiny of the great scholars and historians, but also by the more wormlike perspective of one who notices that political crooks and liars often get caught for the least of their offenses. That Nixon should be snagged, after so many high crimes and misdemeanors, for a "third-rate burglary" ... I suppose I viewed this as better—with all its congressional tyranny over the White House—than nothing at all. If I hadn't had some relish for the ironic contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous, I would never have become a friend of Sidney Blumenthal's in the first place, and would never have been pushed to the length that this friendship eventually required of me: a decision to testify that a President who was certifiably filthy in small things might deserve to be arraigned on larger matters also.
If in the foregoing I appear a bit coarsened by twenty-one years' residence in Washington, D.C., I want to state for the record that I was not always thus. I remember the arrival of Sidney Blumenthal in the city, in 1985, as a distinctly cheering event. I'd first met him and seen him perform at the Lehrman Institute, in New York, and later visited him in Brookline, Massachusetts, and it seemed to me that he was just what the nation's capital needed. He and his wife, Jackie, were charming and smart and generous, and unlike many if not most politicized types, they had a real feeling for history and for literature. Blumenthal was politicized, all right, and very committed, but he had written a book that tried to expose the underlying racket. It was called The Permanent Campaign: Inside the World of Elite Political Operatives.