Just Our Bill?

The Left Reconsiders Its Relationship to Clinton and Comes Out Swinging— Especially at Christopher Hitchens

Ever since he signed an affidavit last February claiming that his friend Sidney Blumenthal told him Monica Lewinsky was "a stalker" — thereby contradicting Blumethal's sworn testimony— Christopher Hitchens has been the scourge of the literary left. Hitch the Snitch is the mildest of the nicknames that have been pinned on him. "A Judas," Alexander Cockburn snarled. "An informer," Victor Navasky railed. "I don't think anyone would call you a feminist," Katha Pollitt wrote in a "Dear Christopher" letter that ran in The Nation as a response to his own apologia. Lefties who lunch have hurled even harsher charges. The writer Edward Jay Epstein claims he once heard Hitchens deny the Holocaust. ("A demented liar," is Hitchens's response.)

For his part, Hitchens is crying all the way to Meet the Press. Though he staunchly denies taking a fall for fame, notoriety is the best publicity for a brainy Brit who can't even say "Yipee-kay-yie-yay." As a result of his sins, Hitchens's forthcoming book about Clinton— which turns on the thesis that the president's sexual proclivities are an apt metaphor for his political corruption— is likely to be taken far more seriously than if he had confined his thoughts to The Nation and Vanity Fair.

Hitchens's book, No One Left To Lie To, will join a pack of tell-alls that seem destined to turn April into the cruelest month for Clinton. There's George Stephanopoulos's $2.75 million memoir, All Too Human, in which the author casts himself as John Doe 1, another victim of the Great Compartmentalizer; and Michael Isikoff's Uncovering Clinton, in which the Newsweek sleuth inserts himself into the middle of Monicagate— as every insider journalist with a clothing budget seems compelled to do. "Clintonism poisons everything it touches," as Hitchens writes.

Hitch the Snitch: delighted to be despised
Hitch the Snitch: delighted to be despised

Whether or not you consider him a pinko self-promoter, Hitchens has accomplished something tangible with his telltale ways. He has thrown into high relief a roiling debate about whether progressives are soft on Clinton. There are no trends on the left— only tendencies— but an unofficial survey of writers and activists who call themselves radicals, socialists, or just plain progressives affirms that the Clinton Question has become the hottest topic of debate since, well, Israel.

Like most disputes on the left, this one has gone unnoticed by the mainstream media, which prefer to cast the battle of Bill in neatly dichotomous terms: liberals adore him, conservatives abhor him. In fact, on the left, Clinton inspires feelings that are ambivalent at best. "I don't feel any attachment to him," says Gloria Steinem, who is widely considered a feminist Friend of Bill. "I feel an aversion to his adversaries."

To many progs, the impeachment seemed like a clear and present danger— "a peaceful attempt to assassinate the president," in Steinem's words. Though Hitchens dismisses the idea that the campaign against Clinton was an attempted coup, it certainly seemed to many activists that his removal from office would have ushered in a period of right-wing dominance. Even a hardcore radical like Mary Lou Greenberg of the activist group Refuse & Resist speaks of "the dire consequences for the people" in a takeover by the Christian right. That's why Greenberg, who is also a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, felt compelled to defend a president who declared that "the age of big government is over." She took her cue from "the errors of the Communist forces in Weimar Germany. One error was not taking fascism seriously, and another was not uniting with a segment of the ruling class to defeat these fascist forces."

While Clinton's appeal remains unwavering among minorities (he's the most popular figure in the black community except for Jesse Jackson, says Manning Marable, who recently completed a nationwide survey of black political attitudes), in activist circles he has long been regarded as a wolf in multiculti clothing. "I don't really get it," says Gwendolyn Mink, the author of Welfare's End. "The president has added more death-penalty crimes than any of his predecessors, and you certainly know about the racial effect of the death penalty. He's enacted a welfare reform that not only cancels an entitlement but also takes away rights from a certain caste of women. He pushed through NAFTA, which undermines the position of American workers. If there's a right-wing conspiracy, it's Bill Clinton."

Manning Marable has an explanation for the spell Clinton has cast on the African American community. "I mean, he's one of the few white people who knows all three stanzas of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' " says the director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African American Studies. "And when he works a black audience, everything in his behavior shows that he feels at home." Then, too, notes Marable, "black people are not surprised by the contradictions in Clinton's conduct. We understand the gross behavior of the white ruling class." Finally, there's a certain realpolitik behind the song and dance: "Clinton appears to many black people as the left of what's possible in national politics."

A similar sense of Clinton as the lesser evil informs what many feminist and gay activists feel about him. "I lived through Reagan and Bush on AIDS," says Urvashi Vaid, director of the Policy Institute at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "It was a nightmare. You had Bill Bennett and Gary Bauer throwing up all sorts of obstacles. To me, that's immoral— so I don't see a greater moral deficiency in this administration."

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