The Clinton legacy and America

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
6 August 2003

America is at one of those tricky junctures when the forces of fierce reaction are wobbling and the forces of possible reform strain to find their footing. As the right reduces itself to fiery self-caricature and Bush’s support subsides, some who would relieve us of the burden of his rule stir from their despair and think they see a green light to rush headlong leftward. It is, then, an appropriate time to review the political history that brought us Bush’s version of Reaganism without Reagan.

American politics over the past decade are incomprehensible unless you grasp the intensity of Clinton-hatred, its motives, sources and channels.

To do so requires, among other things, reckoning with the only Democratic presidency to have succeeded in winning two terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt, that of William Jefferson Clinton.

Such a reckoning, in turn, requires an intellectual confrontation with the hatred that greeted and savaged Clinton, ruptured his reign and escorted the Bush restoration into office. Indeed, American politics over the past decade are incomprehensible unless you grasp the intensity of Clinton-hatred, its motives, sources and channels.

Two substantial new memoirs place Clinton-hatred at the centre of the story and help decipher the frenzy – one, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Living History more or less inadvertently; the other, former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars, indispensably.

An anatomy of Clintonophobia

In late May 1993, a calendar called “365 Reasons to Hate Bill Clinton” was already on sale in right-wing bookshops. Clinton had moved into the White House a bare four months before. Who had already divined 365 reasons to hate him, and why?

The claim that the scandals caused the hatred runs afoul of the fact that the hatred preceded most of the scandals. True, early in the 1992 campaign, scandal sheets funded by Clinton-hating fat cats had wound up the volume on charges that Clinton was not only the longtime lover of the lounge singer Gennifer Flowers but a drug-smuggler, a serial adulterer, a rapist, and the father of a black baby.

More consequentially, the New York Times had jumped in with a front-page story implying a sleazy though barely penetrable real-estate partnership between the governor and a fast-talking investor whose building society, founded years later (a fact that the headline obscured), was subject to state regulation.

Whitewater allegations, implications and offshoots cascaded through the respectable news, promoted by Clinton-hating Republicans in Congress and the special prosecutor’s office. No spin-off charge was too petty – “Travelgate”, “Filegate” – to be dubbed an auxiliary case of White House malfeasance.

When the relevant federal agency cleared the Clintons in 1995, major news organisations (including the New York Times) could barely be troubled to notice. It didn’t seem to matter that, after years of grand juries and headlines, no one was ever convicted of any charge stemming from the Clintons’ failed investment in Ozark real estate. As Sidney Blumenthal writes without exaggeration, “never before had a sitting president been so assiduously investigated about a matter that had occurred before his election.”

For the scorched-earth right, Bill Clinton was, if not the literal Antichrist, a close approximation: the perjurious, adulterous doper Slick Willie, admitted draft dodger and reputedly serial womaniser who had opposed the Vietnam war, visited Moscow, and married a card-carrying feminist.

By the second half of Clinton’s first term from 1992-96, the incoming Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich, was calling Clinton “the enemy of normal Americans” and forcing the government to a standstill. Slash-and-burn criminalisation was all the rage on talk radio and in the bought-and-paid-for right-wing press. Establishment pundits relayed such charges with glee while prettying them up as “the character issue.”

For the scorched-earth right, Bill Clinton was, if not the literal Antichrist, a close approximation: the perjurious, adulterous doper Slick Willie, admitted draft dodger and reputedly serial womaniser who had opposed the Vietnam war, visited Moscow, and married a card-carrying feminist who only belatedly took his name and was the first professional woman to take up First Ladyship in the White House. Clinton was, in their eyes, the 1960s incarnate, and worse: he won elections (five out of seven in Arkansas, including his last four in a row). He promised, now, to baste together the left and centre of the Democratic Party.

The hard right viewed such successes as infringements upon their God-given prerogatives. They did not mourn, they organised. The story of how they succeeded is the shank of recent American political history.

A very American autobiography

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s scrappy, earnest update of Pilgrim’s Progress is a superior example of an inferior genre – the tell-little advertisement for oneself.

An American campaign autobiography is not so much a book as a ceremony of innocence. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s scrappy, earnest update of Pilgrim’s Progress is a superior example of an inferior genre – the tell-little advertisement for oneself. As in the stock celebrity interview, the idea is to (a) offer up unsurprising surprises, (b) defend oneself from a backlog of known charges, (c) demonstrate that one can overcome obstacles, (d) josh at oneself enough to certify that one is, after all, plain folks, all the while (e) stuffing one’s résumé with proof that one is destined for higher things.

The résumé is impressive though sketchily delivered. So is her imperturbability. Perhaps this is the main news she delivers to her legions of admirers: that you can emerge from the meat grinder of political notoriety with your smile on. Certainly the ratio of surprises to pages is low. It’s not exactly astonishing when Senator Clinton writes of her reaction to her husband’s belated confession that he had lied to her about his extramarital adventures in the Oval Office:

“As his wife, I wanted to wring Bill’s neck. But he was not only my husband, he was also my President, and I thought that, in spite of everything, Bill led America and the world in a way that I continued to support. No matter what he had done, I did not think any person deserved the abusive treatment he had received.” Nor is her travelogue of countless foreign visits astounding; though it has, in addition to snapshots, more gravitas than one might expect. Senator Clinton is, after all, a feminist lionised in much of the world, with policy interests and knowledge unmatched since the long reign of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Equally unsurprising is the sang-froid with which she states her innocence of the various “-gates” – which, if it is not a careful walk through the countercharges, at least convinces that she had a defence. This is a fact kept from many television-watchers and newspaper-readers during the long years of her public trial for…something.

So is the list of thank-you’s. The book is long on party favours dispensed for services rendered by staff and friends. It is slender on political and policy analysis – unfortunate lapses when it comes to understanding what went wrong with her first major foray into national politics, the ungainly health care plan of 1993.

Conceived in secrecy (in order to co-opt many contentious interests), awkwardly complicated (because conceptually original), besieged both by Democrats who wanted only a more ambitious plan and those who wanted none, its defeat broke the momentum of her husband’s limited mandate for reform. Those who want to understand this failure will have to look elsewhere – though she is probably right that even a sleeker, more comprehensible plan, indeed any plan at all, would have doomed by the combination of insurance company lobbying and Democratic indiscipline.

Critics always hate a blockbuster

It should not surprise that her book has been greeted with much the same acrimony that her White House tenure occasioned, in fact-challenging reviews (for example, that of the artfully snippy New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in the New York Times Book Review) that hold her to a standard of disclosure never deployed toward other tell-little memoirs – say, Nancy Reagan’s, or for that matter, George W. Bush’s 2000 exercise in deceptive non-disclosure, generally understood to have been written by his airbrusher-in-chief, Karen Hughes.

Many pundits’ assumption, now as during 1998, the Year of Lewinsky and Starr, is that Hillary Clinton owes us a detailed X-ray of her marriage. To her antagonists, she can never be done beating her husband. But her many fans don’t seem to mind that the banshees are again in full howl; if anything, they expect an uncomprehending chorus of stock villains to certify that she, and therefore they, are right to be beset by such enemies.

Still, the book’s astounding commercial success requires some mulling of its own. What accounts for the biggest news surrounding it, namely, its opening numbers? As in the case of a blockbuster movie, Living History arrived with a gigantic pull-out-all-stops publicity roll-out, and is said to have sold 200,000 copies during its first two days on sale, and more than a million to date in the United States alone.

Outside a Manhattan bookstore, a queue started to form the night before Hillary Clinton came to sign copies. What with gigantic foreign sales, even after an $8 million advance paid by Simon & Schuster, the book should prove a triumph of globalisation. The enthusiasm of many buyers, one senses, rises above celebrity-worship to the territory of true admiration. As in all door-stopper book purchases, buyers are buying not only a read but a totem – a faith-rewarding item that rubs off on them. What do they think they are buying?

The only other recent political memoir to have grazed such staggering numbers is General Colin Powell’s 1995 venture, My American Journey – which immediately gives us a clue. The general’s memoir doubled as a place-card for a possible presidential run. (His triumphal book tour concluded, he proceeded to take himself out of the Republican race.)

Some of those who want a ticket for a quick tour through Hillary Clinton’s past are buying a piece of her future – voting with their fingers and credit cards. Given a Democratic field that has (as of yet) inspired little enthusiasm about the prospect of expelling George W. Bush from the White House, intimations that she is free to run in 2008 offer a hint of righteous (if belated) revenge.

Though her enemies only find new reason to hate her in her refusal to open the bedroom door wider than a crack, she is also deeply admired for her imperturbability during a marital crisis that was more closely scrutinised on more continents than the sum of all seasons of reality shows on earth.

To some of her public – not least middle-aged women – dignity matters, and dignity under fire from Ken Starr and Rupert Murdoch matters all the more. Her refusal to play either spurned woman or vengeful virago plays to her twinned strengths as moralist and survivor. It plays, not least, to public curiosity: Just how does one cope with modern marriage? For, if the results of current research on sexual experience is accurate, the private Bill Clinton is more typical of American males than not.

The double-voiced utterance

Long intertwining the roles of dutiful wife and professional woman, Hillary Clinton writes in both voices.

There is a related attraction to Living History – precisely the decorum that offends the cut-throat critics. Long intertwining the roles of dutiful wife and professional woman, Hillary Clinton writes in both voices. Her duality, with which tens of millions of women identify, would not be possible if she abandoned sobriety; and sobriety requires discretion, which is twin to evasion.

Sometimes naïveté courts misunderstanding. When she writes about her changes of hairdo, this isn’t triviality or braggadocio (of which she’s been accused); she’s taking account of how hard it is to stand in the media floodlight and uphold both roles. Look, she says: to be true on both scores, you have to observe the right social tone. Thus does the lady, unfit for burning, cope with duality. Remain staunch – indeed, stoical – and you can overcome.

What surprises is that, after close to two decades in and around the swamps of Arkansas politics, barely done with the era of murderous white supremacy, Hillary Clinton could arrive in Washington surprised to discover that the Clintons had many vicious enemies and that some of them would be well received by the press corps.

Despite the consequent anodyne quality of the former First Lady’s account, one element is frequently helpful for understanding the apparent helplessness with which the Clintons confronted the frenzy that overtook their White House years: her naiveté—which was, by extension, her husband’s as well.

She recalls that after his first political campaign, for Congress in Arkansas in 1974, the phone rang at campaign headquarters long after midnight and “someone shouted…‘I’m so glad that nigger-loving Commie fag Bill Clinton lost’, and then hung up”. She goes on to ask: “What could inspire such bile?”

It seems to have taken her twenty-five years to arrive at an answer: the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that she famously named just after the Lewinsky story broke – something that would better have been called a network of foundations, law firms, propagandists and reactionary ne’er-do-wells who never ceased hurling mud until (thanks to Bill Clinton’s zipper openness and Monica Lewinsky’s audacity) they finally found some to stick.

What surprises is that, after close to two decades in and around the swamps of Arkansas politics, barely done with the era of murderous white supremacy, Hillary Clinton could arrive in Washington surprised to discover that the Clintons had many vicious enemies and that some of them would be well received by the press corps. Why should the frenzy have surprised her?

The answer she inadvertently offers is that she was a nice person who believed that she lived in a nice country, whose establishment wanted the country to grow nicer still. She was, to be precise, a Methodist by upbringing and inclination. Earnest, she expected earnestness in her adversaries. She couldn’t imagine that Washington’s establishment would consider the Clintons rank interlopers, she as a professional woman, Bill as a guy both too smart and too sloppy for his own good – both Arkansas and Oxford, catching them in a class pincer.

This version of moralism left little room for malevolence in the world. There were, after all, Republican wives in Hillary Clinton’s prayer group. When she writes about enemies, her tone conveys a certain plaintiveness: Can you believe grown-ups carrying on this way? Hadn’t the people spoken and elected her husband? (Well, yes, but with a mere 43% of the popular vote.)

So, whatever the bitterness of Arkansas politics, she thought matters would turn out differently once she got to the White House. After all, she had grown up a right-winger herself, the dutiful teenage Goldwaterite daughter of a Republican father, and if she had come to see the light, like her “closet Democrat” mother (though quietly), why couldn’t anyone else? She had gone liberal at prim Wellesley College, a campus that on her account made it through the late 1960s with one student protest. She thought that, given the facts, even people in high places would give her the benefit of the doubt as she put together an unwieldy health care plan in secret and fended off a shower of pseudo-scandals.

Possibly, Hillary Clinton is disingenuous. More likely, what makes her account unsatisfying except to diehard devotees is precisely the quality that often stopped the Clinton administration from realising what it was up against – innocence.

The Clinton wars

Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars is a superb book of an altogether more serious order, though it would be hard to know this from many journalists’ reviews, busy as they have been renewing their animus against the Clintons and presuming that only a sycophant would see Clinton as more sinned against than sinning.

Among other things, The Clinton Wars forcefully reconstructs the assaults on Clinton, from Newt Gingrich’s 1994 seizure of Congressional power to Whitewater, the various pseudo-gates and the Götterdämmerung year of Lewinsky and Kenneth W. Starr, yet without sinking to the staccato chat show “talking points” style that has run away with American political discourse.

Blumenthal has a fine talent for narrative, and punctuates his 800 pages with considerable wit at the expense of his enemies, as in his observation of his famously former friend Christopher Hitchens (who delighted the impeachers by filing an affidavit alleging that Blumenthal had denigrated Monica Lewinsky as a “stalker,” a charge against which Blumenthal defends himself robustly) that “as a political writer, Christopher was a literary critic.”

Trying to repeal the 1960s

Reading the many polemical reviews that discern only a brief for the author and his employer, you would hardly know that Blumenthal makes a coherent argument. It is, in short, that Clinton was a Progressive president in the line that began with Andrew Jackson and continued through FDR, Kennedy and Johnson; that reactionaries regarded all of them as intruders on their sacred ideological soil; and thus that, like his predecessors, he inspired wild and desperado hatred and a long-running campaign to bring him down and repeal the 1960s.

So a network of foundations, media, lawyers, politicians and other operatives hijacked first the Republican Party and then the Republic. On this network, Blumenthal offers the most convincing description yet, naming names, dates, acts of bad faith, amounts of money transferred. Even if the claim about Clinton’s Progressivism is discounted by half, the main argument remains. For that matter, discount Blumenthal’s encomia to his former employer by three-quarters and you will still learn a great deal about the workings and energies of American politics – energies that now have the rest of the world quavering.

This is the moment where I should add that during much of Clinton’s first term, I am one who frequently found occasion to criticise him for lukewarm centrism, forfeiting the long-delayed chance to recover from the residue of Reaganism and move the centre of gravity of American politics leftward. After the disastrous mid-term election of 1994, I decided I had drastically underestimated the power of the right.

Given the sluggishness of American political culture, I came to appreciate some of Clinton’s poverty-fighting initiatives, in particular the little-noticed Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as family and medical leave, childhood immunisation, gun control, and funds for police. His failure on health care struck me as a blunder for which there was much responsibility to go around, not a political crime. I eased away from liberal orthodoxy on deficit cutting, coming to think that Clinton’s budgetary caution freed funds for investment and helped send unemployment to record lows.

Moreover, I approved of Clinton’s intervention in Bosnia, belated as it was, as well as in Haiti, and later his Kosovo action. After Blumenthal, whom I had a met a couple of times before, went to work in the White House in 1997 (and was instantly greeted by a libelous accusation by the internet gossip Matt Drudge acting in behalf of other right-wing operatives), we became friendly. I mention this not only because honesty requires it but to attest that, in this case, friendship followed judgment and not vice versa. My respect for Blumenthal’s acumen, and my continued dissent from Clinton’s policy on some issues (for example, Nafta and media consolidation) does not keep me from declaring my opinion that his book is cogent and, on the available evidence, convincing.

The blindness of the commentariat

If you like, discount that assessment by half and you are left straining to understand the many nasty reviews as anything other than payback, since no more than a handful of trivial factual errors have turned up. How could critics blind to the big story of the right-wing takeover of American government overlook the fetid forest for an occasional broken branch?

Many of the same journalists who snarled at Clinton while he was in the White House have reviewed The Clinton Years as if it were nothing but the longest courtier’s tribute in history. This is royally unfair. For one thing, the book is not uncritical. (For example, pages 121-122 are admirably scathing on Clinton’s errors during his first two years.) For another, it is not irrelevant that many Washington reporters already despised Blumenthal before he went to work in the White House – for giving voice (at The New Yorker) to the highest-minded case that could be made for Clinton’s policies, then for writing a hilarious radio play mocking the press corps, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, for going to work for a president they loathed (“Sid Vicious,” snarled Murdoch’s New York Post).

Major newspapers and magazines (falsely, indeed hilariously designated “the liberal media” by right-wingers, some of whom are sincere about it and others are not) have mainly been scathing or mocking, or both. In the New York Review of Books, the New York Times’ erstwhile (and for a while, thanks to the Jayson Blair scandal, acting) executive editor Joseph Lelyveld once again defended his paper’s role in pumping up the Whitewater furies without troubling to address Blumenthal’s main arguments and the immense and amply documented weaknesses in that paper’s coverage.

The Washington Post’s regular reviewer, Jonathan Yardley, declared, without any evidence and against Blumenthal’s sworn denial that, as a matter of “plain fact”, Sidney Blumenthal directed a “below-the-belt campaign” against Clinton’s female accusers. In The New Yorker, former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson sniffed about his “excesses of loyalty” while failing to refute any of Blumenthal’s significant claims. In a typical disingenuous he’s-right-but-he-can’t-be-right-so-he’s-credulous move, Isaacson confusingly added that Blumenthal’s account of the “anti-Clinton cabal” is “true enough,” also noting in a buried sentence that his is a “largely persuasive case that prosecutors and the press…became overly, even weirdly, obsessed with the Whitewater story.”

Mainly, Isaacson blamed Blumenthal and Mrs. Clinton for having been “notably unsuccessful at focusing press attention” on the conspirators “rather than on the President’s own misdeeds” – taking zero responsibility for the press’s (not least his own) virulent gullibility on Whitewater and other pseudo-scandals. (Isaacson later, as head of CNN, wanted to hire the serial liar Rush Limbaugh for “balance”). Sooner than take account of Blumenthal’s devastating account of the bumbling and law-breaking of Clinton’s persecutors in Starr’s office, the House of Representatives, and the press, most American reviewers changed the subject.

One of the few American journalists willing to defend Blumenthal publicly, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, recently wrote that many of his critics “use the book to pick up where they left off. They have no second thoughts, no backward glance to see the mess they made or to wonder how investigative reporting and commentary went right off a cliff and into a sewer….Blumenthal’s book, describing what a madhouse Washington became back then, has for some reason been given to the inmates to review.”

Two failures: journalism and politics

Blumenthal closes with a retelling of the saga of the 2000 Florida vote, wherein George W. Bush’s dynastic team, with the help of some of the same journalists who had knocked Clinton around, proceeded to knock around the hapless Al Gore, making him look like a liar while letting Bush glide by on a useful reputation for folksy harmlessness. Since Bush got to Washington, most White House correspondents have tiptoed around, afraid that a tough question or two would earn them a slammed door the next time they dared knock. (It happened to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who called deceptions deceptions.)

No Gotcha team hammers Bush day after day on talk radio or cable news about his many years as a drunk, or the missing year during his draft-evading service in the Texas Air National Guard, or the mysterious windfall oil profits that came his way when other investors in his company were losing their shirts. Reporters have only recently begun to mar his triumphalist excuses for press conferences by asking pesky questions about Saddam Hussein’s phantom nuclear deal with Niger, or his putative al-Qaida connections, or other untruths this administration has found useful. The Niger-uranium deception finally undermined Bush’s amazing reputation for plain speaking, but on most issues he still escapes sustained scrutiny.

Today, as Richard Cohen writes, the ruthless Tom DeLay “and other Clinton-haters wander the streets of Washington, unscarred, uncensored but, nonetheless, unhinged.” DeLay, who declared that what was at stake in Clinton’s impeachment was nothing less than “relativism vs. absolute truth,” is not some random crank with a weblog or any old former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, but the House Majority Leader, the most powerful man in the House of Representatives.

His fellow Texan know-nothing nationalists and oilmen rule not only Washington but as much of the known world as they can (barely) handle. Their vitriol, venom, and victories, Blumenthal knows, are the big story of American politics in the last generation. A journalism that does not know that it happened is clueless. A politics that fails to address it is helpless.

The books discussed by Todd Gitlin in this review-essay are:

Living History by Hillary Clinton (UK: Headline, 2003 / 576 pages, £20.00); US: Simon & Schuster, 2003 / $28.00)

  • The Clinton Wars: An Insider’s Account of the White House Years by Sidney Blumenthal (UK: Viking, 2003 / 832 pages, £25; US: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003, 832 pages, $30)

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