“How do you like the book [The Clinton Wars]?”
“It’s really quite good.”
“The Post didn’t much like it.”
“Of course they didn’t like it. Most of it’s a scathing indictment of them.”
That’s a brief conversation I just had with a guy sitting next to me at my usual perch at the local Starbucks. I was busy making my way — slowly, but surely — through Sid Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars. I’m a bit of a latecomer to the book, partly because I’m a slow reader. And I still haven’t finished it. I’ll review it more formally on the site when I finish. So far the parts I’ve liked the best are the profiles and character studies of various key political players from the 1990s, which I find very much on the mark.
(Obligatory disclaimer: Blumenthal is a friend.)
For several days, I’ve wanted to discuss the various reactions to Blumenthal’s book. One stood out to me: Mike Isikoff’s in Slate. I’m not sure how much point there is addressing its particulars. A few days after Isikoff’s piece appeared, Tim Noah thoroughly dismantled one of his charges about Sid’s ‘deceptions’ — in this case, statements outside the courthouse after his grand jury testimony. Beside that there’s another passage that I can’t see as anything else but willfully misleading. Isikoff notes a passage in Blumenthal’s book in which Jeff Toobin was looking for information on Henry Hyde …
As it happened, Blumenthal didn’t have much. But he confided that his mother had once worked in a secretarial pool in Chicago in the 1940s, and Hyde, then a Chicago area lawyer, had had a “reputation”âapparently, all the women had “avoided his office.” The details of this “reputation” didn’t become known until a few weeks later when another friend of Blumenthal’s, at Salon, broke the news that 31 years earlier the Illinois congressman had had an extramarital affair with a furniture salesman’s wife.
This unintentionally revealing anecdote is buried deep inside Blumenthal’s 822-page bloated opus, The Clinton Wars. Curiously enough, it seems to have been included because the author somehow thought it would exonerate him: Soon after the Salon story was published, Republicans in Congress accused Blumenthal of leaking it from the White House. No such thing was true, Blumenthal protests; the charge is just one more example of the recklessness of Bill Clinton’s enemies and their determination to “demonize” him.
The implication here is that Blumenthal is trying to clear himself of the charges and does a pretty weak job of it. In fact, Isikoff’s passage is intentionally misleading.
As most readers will know, Salon, rightly or wrongly, eventually published the story of Hyde’s past infidelities. But as pretty much everyone who was a reporter in Washington at the time knows, the materials upon which Salon based its story had been shopped around widely by a source who had a personal interest in getting them into print. Most news outlets had passed on the story. At least one other journalist — who I spoke to a few days ago — was working on reporting the story out when Salon went to print (to pixel?).
The relevant point is that the real ‘source’ of the story was contacting news organizations right and left. If Blumenthal had been leaking the story to news organizations the main thing he’d be guilty of is wasting his time since they all already had it. In any case, I think Isikoff knows all of this. So he is passing on an old accusation and hinting that it might be true, when in fact he must know that it is false.
I could go on about various other points like this in Isikoff’s piece and other similar ones. But Joe Conason knows these particulars better than I do. And he’s been doing yeoman’s service shooting most of these canards down on his quasi-blog over at Salon. (Of course, much of this is contained in the book Conason wrote with Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President — the best book on the scandals I’ve read.) Point being, others know these details a lot better than I do. So in commenting on these various reactions to Blumenthal’s book, I’ll focus less on the libretto and more on the score — which ranges from hostile second-guessing to a sort of compulsive neener-neenerism.
Blumenthal’s book is a harsh and incisive critique of Washington’s insider culture and its prestige press corps which is — as a group, if not individually — corrupt, rudderless and often insipid. (I’d say nasty, brutish and short, but many of them tower over me.) The coverage of the Clinton presidency is the ultimate example, with its whole swirl of babyboomer self-loathing, historical ignorance and nonsense, the willingness to be led around by black-minded reactionaries, politics as Society page, the whole lot of it. (Much of what I’m talking about here I discussed more clearly and crisply in a column on Maureen Dowd’s Pulitzer Prize in the now-defunct online magazine Feed in April 1999.) This is difficult for me to say — not least because I live and work and know many of these people, and consider many to be friends — and even more because I’m not nearly established as most and must rely on these folks for my livelihood. But there’s no getting around the truth of it. Blumenthal is disliked by many in DC because he is a critic — and to my mind, a devastating one — of their vapidity, ignorance and willingness to be used.
Is Blumenthal a Clinton partisan? Of course, he is. But it was never clear to me why this was more problematic than being a Ken Starr partisan, or a reflexive critic of the president — both of which could be said for most of the journalists who covered the Clinton scandal beat through the 1990s — and who now pillory Blumenthal for his lack of objectivity and balance. Blessed exceptions like the late and irreplaceable Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The essential question about the 1990s is whether the scandals were principally a matter of Clintonian wrongdoing or his critics’ concerted opposition and resistance to his presidency using every, and often the lowest possible, means available. Mix in of course a lot of what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style.’ Blumenthal picked choice #2. And, to my mind, he’s been vindicated on that choice again and again.
Setting aside the truly egregious examples like Sue Schmidt of the Washington Post, most journalists who covered this case either had no sense of the larger context of what was happening, or didn’t care. Often it was both, but more often the former. They were following a cookie-cutter script in which the prosecutors are the good guys and they eventually unearth a president’s vile misdeeds and bring him down in a mawkish morality play. To them, the whole melange of alleged scandals had no larger political context. It was just the Clintons being accused of this or that — the only larger meaning being how the First Couple supposedly represented various sorts of psychological and sociological maladies. The fact that few if any of the ‘charges’ ever held up under scrutiny didn’t matter all that much since the whole drama spawned by the antic accusations and defenses could be written off, as it were, as a charge against the psychological and sociological maladies ledger.
The truth is that what happened in the 1990s was very much of a piece with the capital’s and elite opinion’s reaction to presidents like FDR and Andrew Jackson. The famous line of contempt for Roosevelt among those of his class was that “that man!” (For a long time I wanted to write a book on the phenomenon of Clinton-hating — but the timing never seemed right. Blumenthal’s covered a lot of this ground.) The ‘scandal’ stories were the essence of the politics of the decade — peddled by scribes who most often didn’t understand the drama in which they were but bit players. Blumenthal, sharp elbows and all, has produced what is by far the best analysis to date of this larger political tableau.
I’ve got a lot more to say about this and will be doing so soon.