Respond to this Article June 2003

The Clinton Warrior

What Sidney Blumenthal got right.

By David Greenberg

It's like a tale from Kafka: Sidney Blumenthal awoke one morning to find himself transformed into a snake. "Rattle, rattle, rattle. Hissssssssss," editorialized The Weekly Standard during the Republican drive to impeach Bill Clinton. "Sidney Blumenthal is a creature of the dark." During Clinton's presidency, Blumenthal, previously known as a cerebral political journalist for The New Yorker and The New Republic, came to be demonized for his links to the Clintons--denounced as the devil, as "Sid the Human Ferret," and as "Sid Vicious," a Democratic Chuck Colson. The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal's new memoir, is really several books in one: apologia pro vita sua of a man who was pilloried but long kept silent; an insider's view of the most fascinating administration since Nixon's; a sociology of the contemporary Right; and a usually even-toned but sporadically gleeful settling of accounts with old adversaries.

The Clinton Wars
by Sidney Blumenthal
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30
Buried within The Clinton Wars are also thoughtful discussions of Clinton's domestic and foreign policies--including, notably, reminders of his efforts to combat terrorism, which give the lie to the recent blame-shifting claims by the Bush men that their predecessors dodged the issue. Yet the heart of this book is, appropriately, the 1998 campaign by Independent Counsel Ken Starr, Republican leaders, and their allies in the so-called conservative movement to impeach the president--a morass into which Blumenthal, as a high-level White House aide, was inevitably drawn.

In its account of the impeachment, The Clinton Wars follows the outlines of the legal writer Jeffrey Toobin's now-standard work on the subject, A Vast Conspiracy (1999). But it gains freshness from Blumenthal's personal perspective, from his new material (most compellingly his interviews with some former antagonists), and from his insights into the workings of the increasingly ruthless conservative movement. If it tosses some barbs at former tormentors, and if it indulges in the self-justification intrinsic to political memoirs as a genre, The Clinton Wars is nonetheless a vigorous, bravura performance that brings home again what a tragedy and travesty Clinton's impeachment really was.

Pack Rats

Little in Sid Blumenthal's early career seemed to mark him for the fate of Republican bête noire. In the 1980s, he was a rising star in political journalism, writing for The New Republic and The Washington Post. His well-received books illuminated structural trends in postwar American politics, from the ascendancy of image-making consultants to the rise of the power-keen conservative movement. His magazine writing forged beyond the workaday columnist's easy opinionating to grapple with deeper forces in American history and political culture, a la Garry Wills or the best of Teddy White. An unabashed liberal, Blumenthal was often unsparing toward his ideological opposites, but his robust argumentation made him no less shrewd an interpreter of the scene, no less enlightening to read.

In mid-1992, Tina Brown, tapped to be the new editor-impresario of The New Yorker, summoned Blumenthal to lunch at the Royalton Hotel. Praising his coverage of Clinton's primary campaign, she asked him to join the ailing weekly as her Washington editor, to write, he recalls, "opinionated and informed" dispatches in the swashbuckling British style she knew best. The choice made sense. Clinton was the rage, The New Yorker was liberal in its traditions, and Blumenthal was not just a respected journalist but was friendly with and had sympathy for the wunderkind who seemed to be hurtling toward the White House.

For a while, Blumenthal did his job without controversy. As his sometime New Republic colleague Michael Lewis argued in 1999, "The stuff he wrote, because it came from the inside, was often riveting ... It was true that the pieces he wrote were wildly partial to his subjects. They didn't dish the dirt. But they had real value: they gave you some idea of what life was like inside the skin of our new president."

Then came the feeding frenzies of Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, Haircutgate, Troopergate, and other would-be scandals. Throughout these controversies, Blumenthal not only continued to write admiringly of Clinton, with whom he had developed a professional friendship over the last half-dozen years; he also chided his scandal-mad colleagues--as he had since 1988, when a prowling press forced Gary Hart from the presidential race for marital infidelity--for descending into sexual scandal-mongering. Appearing on "Nightline" in December 1993, he urged the news media to scrutinize those who were retailing the Clinton scandals. But given the mood of the moment, with Clinton on the ropes, Blumenthal notes, "This 'Nightline' appearance marked me as somehow having crossed the line from the media's side to the President's." Consigned to the doghouse of Washington society, he endured a cascade of ad hominem attacks.

These attacks were peculiar. After all, dozens of Washington journalists enjoy cozy contacts with presidents and reflect these friendships in their writing. Far from paying a price, they are celebrated. George Will consorted with Ronald Reagan, to no detriment to his career. David Frum cashiered his service as a speechwriter to the incumbent into a best-selling book, The Right Man--only to return to writing pro-Bush pieces. In a slightly different vein, Tony Snow was the liaison between anti-Clinton dirt peddlers Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg and now styles himself a disinterested newscaster for Fox.

More to the point, Blumenthal was by and large correct about his fellow Washington journalists during Whitewater, many of whom mistakenly thought they were onto a real scandal. As Blumenthal explains in The Clinton Wars--which also contains no small amount of press criticism--reporters tend to assume that heeding their time-honored professional code of questioning authority requires a knee-jerk adversarial stance toward any serving president. To be sure, in an actual scandal, like Watergate, probing skepticism can help pierce the herd mentality of press corps regulars disinclined to rock the boat. By the early 1990s, however, a different dynamic had taken hold. The media were newly eager to delve into politicians' sex lives and ready to credit tenuous claims of high-level wrongdoing. One result was the spread of what Blumenthal calls the "pseudo-scandal": a phony set of charges trumped up by a politician's enemies to play to the media's taste for vice. As Blumenthal notes, the pseudo-scandal upends journalistic values: The press pack scrubs its vaunted skepticism and succumbs to mass gullibility, lapping up innuendo and even deliberate lies in a race to the bottom.

In 1993 and 1994, ordinarily responsible journalists, swept up in the chase, betrayed astonishingly few doubts about claims that began with Clinton's ancient enemies like Sheffield Nelson and Jim McDougal--or, worse, with card-carrying right-wing hit men like David Brock and Ted Olson of The American Spectator. (Blumenthal reveals that Brock, who later recanted much of his reporting, helped him piece together the sub rosa collusion among different anti-Clinton factions.) By late 1993, the media's credulity had allowed the president's inquisitors to seize the moral high ground in the dominant discourse. Those like Blumenthal who urged caution about Whitewater and Troopergate were scorned as patsies--even though in the end they were mostly proven right, with none of the first-term allegations against Clinton being borne out.

Jewish Consiglieri

Once Blumenthal joined the White House in 1997, the attacks on him metastasized from derision among fellow journalists for doubting the pseudo-scandals to demonization by the Right. It started the night before Blumenthal began his new job, when the conservative gossipmonger Matt Drudge posted an item on his Web site falsely accusing him of spousal abuse. Blumenthal and his wife sued, and Drudge retracted the report, but the suit dragged on for years, until eventually, in 2001, they dropped it so as to close a chapter in their lives. (Blumenthal doesn't say so, but he must have been galled to pay Drudge $2,500, "to prevent him from creating a false controversy" by counter-suing for legal fees.) And Drudge's attack was just the beginning.

Blumenthal's defamation by the Right peaked during the annus horribilis of 1998. In January, as soon as Drudge broke the news of Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the Republicans' impeachment drive commenced in earnest, and Blumenthal was drawn in further. In his role as a White House political aide, he shared with reporters various news articles that cast doubt on the behavior of some of Clinton's antagonists, including Starr's prosecution team. As a result, Starr subpoenaed him to appear before a grand jury. Soon, Starr's men were blackening his name among the press corps, many of whom were already ill disposed toward him, branding him the ringleader of a "Nixonian" White House campaign to discredit the investigation.

In the next year, Starr's office, congressional Republicans, and sympathetic reporters wrongly renewed these and similar charges, claiming that it was Blumenthal who spread the notion that Monica Lewinsky was a deranged "stalker" or a scorned woman who invented her affair with Clinton; in fact, the "stalker" theory originated when Newsweek's Web site reported the contents of the famous "Talking Points Memo"--guidelines on how to spin the affair written, it later emerged, by Lewinsky herself--describing the former intern that way. Others, including George Will, Bill Kristol, and Tim Russert, groundlessly asserted that Blumenthal was responsible for divulging the news of House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde's affairs; in fact, that disclosure came from a Florida retiree named Norman Sommer, whose friend Hyde had long ago cuckolded.

Beyond the false accusations, Blumenthal was subjected to a malicious invective that sometimes verged upon the anti-Semitic. Michael Ledeen of the National Review compared Blumenthal to the "Jewish consiglieri" of the Mafiosi. Vanity Fair quoted a blind source disparaging "a certain kind of Jewish family" from which Blumenthal came. After the impeachment was over, Rep. Mary Bono cheerfully told Blumenthal that her fellow GOP Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham "sure had a good time making fun of your name." The revelation of this right-wing anti-Semitism, normally assumed to be obsolete outside the Buchananite fringes, is disturbing. And yet Blumenthal recounts these comments with equanimity, as if he has become so inured to his Kafkaesque fate, so accustomed to the perils that befall a foot soldier in the Clinton wars, that he scarcely needs to note the vileness.

Blumenthal can be scathing. He unfairly dismisses Bill Powers--one of his critics, and, it so happens, a friend of mine--as an "unexceptional conservative"; neither word is apt. But if Blumenthal tweaks his old adversaries--The Washington Post's Susan Schmidt, a leading scandal-beat reporter, comes off particularly poorly--on the whole he remains rather stoical. Instead of venting, he generally seeks to understand why the House impeachment leaders, and others on the Right, so reviled him. "I fitted their stereotypes," he realizes. "They didn't know me, but ... they could observe that I was Eastern educated, a 1960s graduate, from the liberal media, Jewish, intellectual." He appreciates, too, that in the end the attacks weren't really about him. Blumenthal-hating was always an extension of Clinton-hating, and, to his credit, Blumenthal never forgets that it's Clinton-hating he must explain.

Starr Witness

At moments, Blumenthal seems to regret conceding center stage to the Clinton-haters. He insists that Clinton was not unduly distracted by his accusers, that even during his darkest hours he ably fashioned policy, mastered the budget, and came down hard on terrorism. Indeed, Blumenthal makes a special point of highlighting Clinton's awareness of the growing dangers of Osama bin Laden and violence against Americans: Clinton demanded funds to defend critical infrastructure, pushed money-laundering and counterterrorism bills, and, above all, integrated these initiatives into a comprehensive vision of "indispensable" American leadership. The problem was that the media--and all of us--cared more about impeachment.

And rightly so. Monday-morning quarterbacking (or, if you prefer, Sept. 12 quarterbacking) is no substitute for history. In the 1990s, Ken Starr's investigations did matter more than Osama bin Laden, not because Starr was right to investigate but because of the fierce culture war of which these pseudo-scandals were convulsive symptoms. They deserve a prominent place in accounts of Clinton's presidency, for history consists not just of policies and programs but also of the passions that a president evokes, the symbolic meanings he embodies. For Blumenthal to devote the bulk of his book to discussing policy (which in this 800-plus-page tome nonetheless receives ample treatment) would have seemed like willful distortion. If Blumenthal's book has been, in a sense, hijacked by the impeachment-bent Republicans, his focus on scandal merely exemplifies the tragedy of Clinton's presidency.

When it comes to the pseudo-scandals, especially the impeachment, The Clinton Wars draws on many other books besides Toobin's, notably those of Peter Baker, Marvin Kalb, and Gene Lyons and Joe Conason. Blumenthal shows once again the existence of what has been called--at once ironically and literally--a vast right-wing conspiracy: the collaboration among Republican activists, Paula Jones's legal team, and Ken Starr's office to bring about Clinton's impeachment. Blumenthal's reconstruction of events reminds us that if not for the secret collusion between the lawyers for Jones, who was suing the president for sexual harassment, and Starr's Independent Counsel's office, which was investigating him over unrelated Whitewater charges, Starr would never have been able to convince Janet Reno to let him expand his probe into Clinton's sex life, and the protracted struggle of 1998 could never have come about.

But The Clinton Wars goes beyond other impeachment chronicles, even apart from the personal material. Dusting off his reporter's notebook, Blumenthal landed interviews with several of his former attackers that add to the historical record: an unnamed prosecutor in Starr's office (who seems have been Bruce Udolf); Sam Dash, the "ethics adviser" to the Independent Counsel who quit in late 1998 to protest Starr's decision to testify against Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee; and Jim Rogan, the House member who led the questioning of Blumenthal during his deposition in Clinton's impeachment trial. From the prosecutor, we get inside confirmation of Starr's deputies' extensive, illegal leaking. From Dash, we get the searing judgments that "this was a mean-spirited, politically motivated investigation" and that "Ken [Starr] is capable of saying anything so long as you don't have him on tape." From Rogan we learn that the House Republicans deposed Blumenthal and not Betty Currie, Clinton's secretary, because with Vernon Jordan already on the docket, "The senators told us it would look like you're beating up on black people."

The Moral Minority

More important than these new details is Blumenthal's dissection of the state of the conservative movement, where this book's ultimate importance probably resides. Those who are put off by Blumenthal's unstinting defense of himself and his president should nonetheless value his acute political analysis. Indeed, The Clinton Wars can be read as part of Blumenthal's continuing study of the Right, a follow-up to his Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1986), which traced the movement from its World War II-era "remnant" through its heady Reagan years. In this quasi-sequel, covering the years of the Democrats' return to power under Clinton, the Reagan triumph has crested and gives way to frustrated, flailing Clinton-hating. The scandal-mongering that beclouded Clinton's presidency represented both a venting of the Right's rage at liberalism's quiet victories on the issues of sex, race, and religion and an evasion of conservatism's own political weaknesses on those issues.

The main flaw of Toobin's estimable A Vast Conspiracy was its rickety thesis that the impeachment was about the takeover of politics by legal stratagems. The Clinton Wars more accurately locates not "law" (which was always a smokescreen) but rather a culture war at the heart of the saga. This view is not a partisan one. Henry Hyde was only one of many Republicans to endorse it, while many liberals and Leftists had a hard time recognizing that the impeachment was about matters larger than Clinton personally.

At one point in The Clinton Wars, the president himself proposes to Blumenthal that the Right just wants power for its own sake, a claim that echoes the popular view that the impeachment, and the 2000 election recount fight (which Blumenthal also retells), were pure power struggles in which each side did whatever it could to win. But while those two critical episodes of the Clinton presidency do underscore the new conservative resolve to win power at any cost--a resolve intensified by Clinton's successes--the thesis fails to reckon with the Right's real and specific agenda.

Another unsatisfactory explanation for Clinton-hating is that it stemmed from a dislike of Clinton's personal qualities, notably his verbal evasiveness and deceptions. Countless other politicians of all stripes are equally slippery and mendacious but don't incur the same wrath. Nor does Clinton's record provide a clean answer; though mocked as a 1960s anything-goes liberal, he governed mostly as a moderate, devising a new Democratic rhetoric, vision, and program on such issues as the budget, welfare, crime, and national defense that severed the party's last ties to its 1972 McGovernite identity.

Where Clinton truly offended the Right was on the cluster of issues surrounding sex, race, and religion. Notwithstanding the post-1960s backlash against "permissiveness," Americans have grown increasingly broadminded on these matters, as Alan Wolfe showed in One Nation, After All (1998). Clinton not only championed toleration in his policies (at least most of the time) but, more important, he personally embodied the new ethic. He was the first Baby Boomer to win the presidency; a white Southerner at ease with blacks; the husband of a confident career woman; an avid learner who liked the company of Jewish intellectuals; and a man comfortable (indeed, perhaps too comfortable) with his sexuality.

Clinton's attackers, on the other hand, mostly came from those elements unreconciled to the new toleration. When Bob Barr disparaged Clinton supporters as not being "real Americans," when Tom DeLay said he pushed impeachment to promote a "biblical worldview" that Clinton didn't share, or when Ken Starr touted his own marital fidelity and his daily singing of Christian hymns, they revealed their own alienation from the emerging live-and-let-live consensus. In this context, the Right's more sinister swipes at the Jewish intellectual Blumenthal--not to mention its resolve to press ahead with impeachment in the face of public outcry--becomes more comprehensible. These are the death throes of a retrograde morality.

But what about members of the press who didn't share this pinched morality yet abetted the Right's crusade? Weren't they responding to something about Clinton, not the culture wars? Here, too, Blumenthal is illuminating. From the start, many in the media accepted the Right's basic "narrative" (Blumenthal's useful term) that the impeachment and the other scandals were about Clinton. To a large segment of America, in contrast, these ordeals were mainly about Clinton-hating--about the Right's rearguard efforts to repeal advances in social tolerance and equality. After the initial January 1998 spasm of media madness following Drudge's Lewinsky scoop, a good minority of journalists--some avowedly pro-Clinton, others hostile to the president but skeptical of the Right's aims--advanced what Blumenthal calls "a different narrative about the burgeoning scandal." The focus shifted from whether Clinton had lied about an affair to the more serious subject of why he was being investigated (and possibly impeached) for it. "Starr, his methods, his prosecutors, the political character of his case, and the activities of the right wing properly became subjects of controversy."

Too many journalists--Susan Schmidt, Tim Russert, Jackie Judd of ABC--remained captive to the Republicans' script. (Russert, Blumenthal suggests, once even lied to protect Starr. After attributing a story to Starr's office at a moment when Starr was under fire for leaking, Russert publicly insisted that he had ascribed his tip to "congressional" sources.) Perhaps these reporters had become too dependent on their right-wing sources. Maybe they had grown convinced of Clinton's arrant immorality. Most likely, they simply lacked the nimbleness of mind to see the issue in its broader context; superficiality and groupthink remain the cardinal sins of press corps, especially television reporters. Yet in the end these journalists were left marooned with their sources on a rock of Clinton-hating long after the public had repaired to higher ground.

To be sure, many worldly-wise, professedly neutral Washington types will read this book as the self-serving defense of a wounded partisan. And there certainly are many places where Blumenthal does seem too charitable toward Clinton (for example, he faults Lani Guinier herself more than the president for the failure of her 1993 nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights). But the central problems with our political culture that Blumenthal identifies and smartly analyzes remain with us--from the Right's win-at-all-costs methods to its religious wing's antipathy to the tolerance of diversity. Whatever their view of Blumenthal or the president he served, inside-the-Beltway skeptics should remember that for the most part, when it came to the motives and goals of the conservative movement, the Tim Russerts, Susan Schmidts, and so many other "neutral" reporters were wrong, and Sidney Blumenthal was right.

David Greenberg is a visiting scholar at the Academy of Arts and Sciences and a columnist for Slate. His book Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image will be published in September.


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