The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2003
Books & Critics
The Clinton Wars
Thinking Like an Apparatchik
In his new book Sidney Blumenthal presents a disconcertingly cynical yet naive account of the Clinton years
by Christopher Hitchens
by Sidney Blumenthal
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ow 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.
f 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.
I learned a lot from Blumenthal's exhaustive knowledge of past campaigns and presidencies, and I was impressed despite myself by his ability to put a radical shine on the most wretched Democratic nominees. In 1988, for example, he called me to report happily that the candidate Michael Dukakis, while governor of Massachusetts, had issued a posthumous pardon for the martyred Sacco and Vanzetti. (Actually it turned out to have been a 1977 proclamation casting doubt on the fairness of their trial.) After the Dukakis debacle I asked him, "So, what's next?" and he gloomily replied, "Gephardt," in a tone suggesting that his own permanent campaign had become something of a burden to him. I knew by then that he'd been accused of being "too close" to politicians he'd also been covering: first Dukakis as governor, and then, before Dukakis as nominee, Gary Hart as a candidate. I didn't think this mattered much, because it was only part of the affectation of integrity in Washington to pretend that reporters didn't deal in "access," and because Blumenthal made no bones about his allegiances.
There was another flaw, though. It's actually quite a common failing among Washington intellectuals. They wish to prove that they are not just ivory-tower or pointy-headed; that they can be tough and practical and even, when occasion may demand it, ruthless. (One might instance Arthur Schlesinger's Camelot prose, or the crackpot realism of the Robert McNamara set, or the moral rough stuff generated by the subacademic subordinates of Henry Kissinger and Oliver North.) And one could not avoid sometimes hearing Blumenthal, in his hard-boiled mode, speaking rather alarmingly of Chicago relatives who knew what was what and how to fix things, even people. I admit that I thought of this as a bit of a pose, because his general appeal depended so much on his almost foppish manner and tenue and also on his happy resemblance to the young Christopher Reeve. Every now and then, though, I would detect a semi-audible note, as of a dog whistle subliminally summoning a sleeping Doberman. Equally harmless, I then thought, was his fondness for conspiracy theories. As a younger man (his background included Students for a Democratic Society at Brandeis and the Boston alternative Real Paper), Blumenthal had spent some time with Carl Oglesby and the Assassination Information Bureau. Oglesby was also a very bright guy, and an inventive radical, but his take on the secret history of the country could most kindly be described as original. How shall I put it? I knew many radical and liberal writers with similar evolutions in their backgrounds, and Blumenthal—though having, unusually, a tendency to admire and emulate both the ward heeler and the radical victim—appeared to have both elements under control and to be able on occasion to be self-mocking about them.
But it's difficult for some people to understand, or to remember, how desperate the scene in 1992 must have looked to a professional Democratic insider approaching if not confronting middle age. The secret of "doing" elections, by subcontracting them to characters like Lee Atwater, appeared to have become solely the possession of the Republicans. And in the making of Presidents the Democrats appeared to have run out of human material. And then ...
Clinton brought in with him a stream of cool, brisk air from outside. At six feet, two inches, with a jutting jaw, gray-green eyes, a ruddy complexion, and loose long limbs, Clinton was the most physically imposing person in the room, as he almost always was.
This style, which I would describe as "Theodore off-White," absolutely pervades The Clinton Wars. Sometimes it is unintentionally hilarious ("Clinton never left a roomful of people until he had spoken to and physically touched as many as he could"), and sometimes it is astonishingly grandiose.
Had the proposals Clinton made for new legislation been enacted, the United States would now have universal health insurance, affordable prescription drugs for senior citizens, universal day care, more schools, higher teacher salaries and higher educational standards, more gun safety, greater voting rights, new civil rights laws against discrimination, and an even higher minimum wage. Had his foreign policy been fully enacted, the United States would have affirmed the Kyoto treaty to address the dangers of global warming; more programs for education, disease control, and economic development for Africa; and more trade with Latin America. Had his administration had another year, he would have reached a final agreement with North Korea preventing it from developing nuclear weapons, and perhaps even an altered outcome to the final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Certainly he would not have abandoned either of those negotiations, as his successor did.
Thank heaven for that saving "perhaps." Another term and there would have been a cure for cancer, an extra harvest, and a Five Year Plan for the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, fulfilled to stormy applause in just four years. The world's terrorists and tyrants, needless to add, would have been quaking and abdicating, as one remembers their so conspicuously doing during the mere eight years of the Clinton colossus that we actually were lucky enough to be granted, and which were probably all that we deserved.
Notice, above, that not only teachers' pay would have risen but also "educational standards." For me this illustrates yet again the way in which utopianism tends to become the subconscious enabler of cynicism. (The teachers' unions are one thing, but the standards ...) The United States Senate voted 95 to 0 to assert its opposition to the Kyoto Treaty, so it is idle to say that it would have been "affirmed" unless one surrenders entirely to wishful thinking. In sad reality, Clinton on his visit to Africa was compelled to apologize for doing worse than nothing about Rwanda. During his tenure health care as a topic was first bungled and then dropped, and as a practical matter was taken over by HMOs. And the United States was made to look silly and weak by the behavior of North Korean, Arab, and Israeli rejectionists. (It would have been false for Blumenthal to say that the Bush Administration has "abandoned" talks on either Palestine or Korea no matter when he wrote it.) Finally, this yearning talk of an extra year in office is somehow revealing. The Constitution mandates a two-term limit, and an 1845 congressional statute set a fixed date every four years on which elections must be held. If the elder Bush had had just one more year, the economic recovery, with all its speculative energy, could well have come in time to save him from that witless taunt "It's the economy, stupid." But then, if this republic—alone among major democracies—did not commit itself to a strictly predictable election cycle, the professionals would not have such a lock on everything from the Iowa caucus to the New Hampshire primary to the corporate logos at both of the party conventions.
t any rate, in 1992 Clinton was no more than a moderate governor of Arkansas in a fairly mediocre year. But he immediately struck some people as the likeliest means of ending an unbroken sentence of Republican rule. Was this because of his adventurous attitude toward "re-inventing government"? His readiness to rethink Democratic Party traditions? His fairly but not very hawkish attitude toward foreign and defense policies? No doubt, for some elements in politics and journalism, all this was in his favor. (Hence "New Democrat," "New Paradigm," and all the other neologisms of the day.) For those lamenting the craven reluctance of the center left to challenge post-Gulf Bush, it was the sheer fact that Clinton was willing to run at all. He had a coterie of former Rhodes scholars who would support him unconditionally. And then there were those who liked him because he was willing to do anything at all to win.
I personally became powerfully nauseated by seeing Clinton up close in New Hampshire that year. His big, red-faced frame didn't seem so much "imposing" as simultaneously needy and greedy. He lied aggressively about Gennifer Flowers and, sitting next to his wife, let her do his marital propaganda for him. He fundraised as if there were no guidelines. When the polls seemed to sag, and he sought to burnish his tough-on-crime credentials, he flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged black convict named Rickey Ray Rector. This episode isn't mentioned at all in Blumenthal's narrative, but it revolted a few people at the time, as it should have. By this stage Blumenthal was fully on board the candidate's train; and I'll never forget a Georgetown dinner, at which he was probably the most conservative person in attendance, where various liberals wondered aloud what the limits of "lesser evil" politics might be. One misgiving after another was mentioned, until Blumenthal impatiently quelled the bleats. "You don't understand," he said. "It's our turn."
There's no real trick to thinking like an apparatchik. You just keep two sets of ethical books. Thus, or in this case, only bad people get paid for their disclosures. Only Republicans ever use race in politics. And only reactionary thugs ever campaign as law-and-order exploiters of the death penalty. So Gennifer Flowers can be impugned, not for having a story to tell but for having a story to sell. Rickey Ray Rector can be given a lethal injection during a cliff-hanger primary because Clinton needs to show that he can't be "Willie Hortoned," as the saying then went. If Blumenthal can't mention, as he often does, that some of Clinton's critics made money on their efforts, then he can insist that the President was attacked by people who wanted to play the race card. Indeed, he asserts that it was "the racial dynamic" that led to Clinton's eventual acquittal at the impeachment trial. (To his credit, he does not stoop to insulting either black or white citizens by saying that Clinton was the first black President.) But in discussing impeachment, he does take particular care to remind us that one of the President's chief antagonists was a staunch supporter of the death penalty. These claims and accusations all invite a tu quoque of which Blumenthal seems almost ethereally unaware. If money is a motive in politics or disclosure, it cannot be the motive of one faction only. If the race card can be played one way, it can be played another. (It's true that with Rickey Ray Rector, Vernon Jordan, and Betty Currie, Clinton became the first to play it both ways.) If someone else's support for executions can be exploited to shore up or condemn one position, it can be exploited to shore up or condemn another. But Blumenthal just doesn't allow the thought to occur. The author of this book, a huge amount of which consists of excerpts and transcripts, was rewarded at the rate of more than $790 a page—so are we to regard this as mercenary?
I think not. I think Blumenthal would have done it for nothing. I think it is only for strict party reasons that he fails to mention Roger Tamraz and James Riady and all Clinton's other thick-envelope direct donors, and concentrates instead on saying (at excruciating length) that Whitewater produced no smoking gun. This may be true, though it is not true that the Clintons ever acted as if they had nothing to hide or nothing to fear. And the tactic of long delay and eventual disclosure, as with the final, grudging, surly admission about Gennifer Flowers, served to get them past several awkward political cycles. Bizarrely, Blumenthal asserts at one point that "it was not the distraction of his impeachment that somehow prevented" the enactment of Clinton's fabulous program. But a decidedly different impression is given by the bulk, in both senses of the word, of his narrative. Thus we come inescapably to the question of sex.
always thought that it was very clever of Clinton to make a mystery where none existed about when, and even where, he had touched Monica Lewinsky. Since his denial was made partly under oath, and involved a legalistic definition even of certain orifices and appendages, it necessitated a minute inquiry. And this allowed Clinton's defenders to paint his critics—his critics—as "obsessed with sex." It comes down to this: Clinton asserts to the present day that he was innocent of perjury because although he did ejaculate in the intimate presence of Monica Lewinsky, she derived no pleasure or excitement from the moment. Thus, by a sort of psychopathic reasoning, it wasn't "sex" at all. I think this is one of the coldest and nastiest things ever said, and I believe that it should call our attention to a crucial distinction. The President did not lie about sex, as Arthur Schlesinger in the pre-impeachment hearings assured us a gentleman is expected to do. He lied about, and defamed, women. These included several women who had been quite fond of him, and who came to regret it. It wasn't enough for him to deny that he had lavished his attentions, whether wanted or (as in several thoroughly attested instances) unwanted. He had to say that the unfortunate but truthful females were liars, fantasists, job-seekers, and even blackmailers. Their veracity versus his voracity. And this from someone who had taken personal credit for a clause in the law on sexual harassment that allows men, as well as women, to be questioned about their sexual pasts. To say that he tried to put himself above his own law would be stating the merest fact. Blumenthal at least shows that he understands the full purport of this law, by reprinting some raked-up allegations about the distant sexual past of Kathleen Willey, which even if true would have given her no reason to expect that she'd be confronted by a distended presidential penis while talking in the Oval Office during taxpayer-funded working hours.
Arthur Schlesinger is probably not the man I would resort to for advice on sex or, indeed, on how to be a gentleman. His voluminous New Frontier studies managed to omit what so many other contemporaries always knew: that John F. Kennedy was neurotically promiscuous and, as we later learned, not above sleeping with gun molls in the White House and recruiting their mobbed-up boyfriends for his Cuba policy. A private matter? Only if we agree to think of the White House—including the Lincoln bedroom and the Oval Office—as private property rather than public property: a claim that Clinton was also vain enough to make.
I don't know Arthur Schlesinger, and I can't say whether or not he is a sexual naif. But I knew Sidney Blumenthal well enough to know that he understood the facts of life and could be very funny and acute about them, especially as they related to politics. He originated "Blumenthal's Law" to govern those cases in which mere speculation was involved. The law was a simple but useful one: "Everybody does something." I confess that I liked the echo of Willie Stark cynicism here. Whenever some poor sap in public life was found in a gruesome motel with a tired hooker and an expired credit card, Blumenthal would be first on my telephone with the latest and best joke about it. No harm in that, I say. I therefore regard it as quite impossible that he didn't know what many Clinton biographers have established: Clinton would have run for the nomination as early as 1988 if not for his fear of "bimbo eruptions" (please notice again that the women in his life are here degraded by definition, whereas the man is a passive victim). And if by any chance Blumenthal didn't know it then, he definitely knows it now, and has for years. In any event, I have to strain to believe the following statement:
Had Clinton had an affair with an intern? I just didn't know. I had no reason to doubt Hillary's sincerity in her version of events, and whatever my doubts, I wanted to believe her—to believe along with her.
This goes well past credulity and into the realm of the servile. When I first read the same claim in a different form, in Kenneth Starr's report, I was dumbfounded. This gullible person was not the Sidney Blumenthal I knew.
Or was it? At first he had declined to work directly for the Clinton White House. He had been teased enough about being "in the tank." But when he again got the call, he decided that he had something to offer. And he was right in this. People chortled when he announced that he was working on "the Third Way" and on the upcoming millennium: it sounded Moonbeam-like. But I knew that Blumenthal had had an early understanding of the importance of Tony Blair, and that his best friend, Hillel Schwartz, had written a brilliant book about the significance of the year 2000. It turned out, though, that Clinton didn't want him for these nobler purposes. He wanted him as a damage controller with a certain sneaky side, and he wanted him as an inventive loyalist. He threw away the plum and kept the pit, of which this book is the ground-up residue.
t would be invidious of me to go any further without saying that Blumenthal's memoir contains some disobliging material about me, and about the late Michael Kelly, a former editor of this magazine. I am sure that had he been allowed time, Blumenthal would have excised or softened the mentions of Kelly on learning the awful news of his death, outside Baghdad airport, this past April. But he and Kelly never really got along anyway, whereas my case is different. I can't burden the reader with a detailed answer to all his claims about me and my undoubted moral shortcomings (for a fuller personal account dial up users.rcn.com/peterk.enteract/sob.html). In some instances I recognize the events he describes, but with a Rashomon-like reversal of verdict. In some fairly unimportant cases he has remembered things that did not take place, notably an evening "we" had with Gore Vidal in October of 1998 at which I was not present. But I have to contest his weirdly detailed account of a lunchtime meeting near the White House that on several other occasions in the book he claims either to remember only dimly or to remember not at all.
This micro-event was later to mutate into a brief macro-moment. In March of 1998, having not seen much of Blumenthal since he had joined the Clinton team (I had been teaching at the University of California at Berkeley), I was eager to catch up with him. With my wife, Carol, I took him for a reunion snack. I don't think I will or could ever forget the transformation. Where was my witty if sometimes cynical, clever if sometimes dogmatic, friend? In his place seemed to be someone who had gone to work for John Gotti. He talked coldly and intently of a lethal right-wing conspiracy that was slowly engulfing the capital. And he spoke, as if out of the side of a tough-guy mouth, about the women who were tools of the plot. Kathleen Willey, who had been interviewed on television the preceding weekend, was showing well in the polls, but that would soon be fixed. (The White House had already released her personal correspondence, prompting a federal judge later to find a violation of the Watergate-era Privacy Act. According to the Justice Department, the papers were released after a conversation between Hillary Clinton and Blumenthal.) As for Monica Lewinsky, he painted her as a predatory and unstable stalker. At the time this prompted no conclusion other than the sickening but unavoidable one that Sidney Blumenthal could be brought to believe that a President can be "stalked" in his own Oval Office (and in about three dozen incidents, according to the logs that record permission for Lewinsky to be shown in at odd moments). When asked by my wife how he could credit the stalker concept, he replied simply, "Because the President told me." There's much else about that lunch I need never disclose, but I remember that he twice hushed my questioning wife by saying, "Carol, I could go to jail for what I'm doing now." I didn't know then, and can't guess even now, what he meant by that.
Thus, when it all became a legal matter, and I began to see reports that Lewinsky was indeed a blackmailing strumpet (followed in due course by claims from the White House that it had no part in the circulation of this defamation), I already knew and was also able to confirm from other reporters where this was coming from. It may seem sordid or trivial now, but if a certain Gap dress had not been retained, Lewinsky could successfully have been denounced and humiliated as just a bit nutty and a bit slutty by a man who had once dangled the promise of a permanent relationship before her dazzled eyes. And a callous perjuror would have flouted his own legislation. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that to permit this would be to acquiesce in an offense if not a crime. I had the ability to nail the lie, and when contacted by the House Judiciary Committee about the matter, I did so nail it. And I would do it again. I wish I'd had the chance to do it for Juanita Broaddrick, whose story of rape has withstood fairly rigorous challenges. (In this book it is dismissed because David Brock didn't believe it.)
Blumenthal insinuates, by means of a loose chain of conjecture and hearsay, that I concerted my testimony in advance with certain House Republicans. This I did not do. With a given amount of labor I could easily prove as much. I also think I can claim that had I engaged in collusion, I would have produced a bigger bang than I actually did, or perhaps than I ought to have done. As it was, my intervention came too late, and by then the Republicans had lost their taste for what was an unpopular and abysmally managed impeachment. An extraordinary fact about The Clinton Wars is the way that it relies on Sellout, the indignant account by chief counsel David Schippers of how his prosecution was curtailed and sabotaged by the Senate Republican leadership. It turns out that the whole thing was something of a sham: Trent Lott and his associates were willing to wound and yet afraid to strike. If this is true, and if institutional bipartisanship did eventually triumph, then Blumenthal is both astonishingly right and extraordinarily wrong. If the Republicans never meant business anyway, what becomes of the charge that they were engaged in a remorseless death-or-glory witch-hunt?
ne final observation: The President was on trial in the Senate, not Sidney Blumenthal. Yet Blumenthal had to appear at trial, and his boss and friend did not. The affidavit I gave to the House Judiciary Committee was directed at the defendant, not at his underlings. If Blumenthal really has been able to question the staff or members of the House Judiciary Committee to any extent, he will know that I stipulated that my testimony was given on one condition: that it pertain only to this proceeding. The President, not his humble servant, was the source of the calumny that sought to obstruct justice. Were my words to be used against Blumenthal, I told them, I would repudiate them and place myself in contempt. I repeated this promise on Meet the Press, in an interview from which he quotes while affecting not to notice it. Yet Clinton later boasted through a spokesperson that he hadn't even watched the trial on television! Those who had trusted him were in the hot seat, in only the second impeachment in the country's history, and he hadn't bothered to tune in, or (since I think he was lying about this, too) didn't think it odd to brag of such indifference. I wonder how Blumenthal felt about friendship when he heard that.
From the archives:
"The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done" (March 1997)
A Clinton appointee who resigned in protest over
the new welfare law explains why it is so bad and suggests
how its worst effects could be mitigated. By Peter Edelman
knew or met quite a number of other Clinton associates, some of whom left quietly but in disgust (like George Stephanopoulos), some of whom were found to have exhausted their usefulness to the First Family (like Lani Guinier), and one of whom (Peter Edelman) publicly resigned in something like despair. When speaking later of their experiences, several of them called to mind ex-members of a cult, its inner dynamic the assuaging of various exorbitant appetites on the part of the leader. It all makes sense as long as you stay inside the encampment, and it all has a hallucinatory quality in retrospect. Some of the loyalists actually broke down in tears on the day that Clinton told them he'd been lying when he ordered them to defend him. (The President held precisely two full Cabinet meetings that year: one to recruit apologists for his Lewinsky cover story, and another to morosely inform them that they could now cease and desist.) But Blumenthal's persistence in abject devotion has something almost impressive about it. At one stage in the crisis Clinton called Blumenthal in and said that he felt like the prisoner in Darkness at Noon. I remember laughing out loud when I read that in Starr's report at the time, and thinking that the President was at least being artful enough to flatter his subordinate. "I knew the novel well," Blumenthal gravely informs us here, before going on to suggest that a superior analogy would be the predicament of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four. Smith, we are then wrongly told, "commits the 'thoughtcrime' of having an affair with Julia, which is a crime against the state, which trains young people through compulsory membership in the Junior Anti-Sex League." That's not quite how I remember O'Brien or Room 101, but then, it's not quite how I remember the Clinton "wars," either. All the accused simply walked, and an Arkansas couple who came to Washington without a house to their name now have, after eight years on civil-service salaries, two or three mansions. Not to notice this is a form of doublethink: Blumenthal's flabbergasting literary comparison, an apparent attack on Party-minded fanaticism, is in fact a disguised and hysterical assertion of it.
This book overspills its ostensible subject and contains closing chapters about the grand Republican design to pre-arrange the outcome of the cliff-hanging Florida finale to the most recent presidential election. You may or may not believe that Al Gore was cheated of an election victory by the courts to which he had resorted; you may or may not have heard that the Clinton Administration was vigorously pursuing al Qaeda until the ball was dropped by the incoming Bush Administration. Blumenthal is highly indignant that some Republicans complained in public, when Clinton bombed Baghdad during his impeachment hearings, of a possible confusion between his own interest and the national one. As every liberal and Democrat understands, and as has been demonstrated so recently, such dreadful thoughts should not even be uttered in a time of—what was that again?—"great national ordeals." Again the note of wishful thinking is struck: if only it were not for the events of 9/11, it would be plain to all that George Bush is not a legitimate President, and that he owes his victory to the long Republican association with slavery and segregation.
This makes it all the more peculiar that Blumenthal should close with a lengthy citation from someone he describes as a "great admirer" of history's greatest Republican.
Why what have you thought of yourself?
Is it you then that thought yourself less?
Is it you that thought the President greater than you? ...
You may read in many languages, yet read nothing about it,
And he concludes:
You may read the President's message and read nothing about it there ...
The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
No reference is given, but this is taken from Walt Whitman's A Song for Occupations, which is not in praise of Lincoln but is instead a hymn to honest toil and the uplifting of the land. Very many stanzas separate the three that Blumenthal has chosen to run together, and the poem as a whole does not aim to make us excessively respectful of those who are kind enough to rule over us. It might have been more apt to pick something from, say, By Blue Ontario's Shore.
The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you, not you here for them,
The Congress convenes every Twelfth-month for you,
Laws, courts, the forming of States, the charters of cities, the going and coming of commerce and mails, are all for you.
Have you possess'd yourself of the Federal Constitution?
But then, if one sought any further illustration of the ways in which partisanship dulls the mind and the soul, it might be found in Sidney Blumenthal's highly incautious decision to try and make any peroration out of Leaves of Grass, briefly pressed onto Monica Lewinsky as a courtship accessory by the Nixon of the liberals.
Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems behind
them, and assumed the poems and processes of Democracy?
Are you faithful to things? do you teach what the land and sea,
the bodies of men, womanhood, amativeness, heroic angers, teach?
Can you hold your hand against all seductions, follies, whirls,
fierce contentions? are you very strong? are you really of the whole People?
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, has just been published.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2003; Thinking Like an Apparatchik; Volume 291, No. 6; 129-142.