The West Wingman


The last thing Clinton White House strategist Sidney Blumenthal’s groin-pull of a hagiography can be called is objective. That’s OK though, because you don’t read a former adviser’s memoir looking for a detached take on events; nevertheless, The Clinton Wars (re-) constructs a history so selective that it calls into question his veracity on almost every point. You know the truths are in there somewhere, buried beneath mounds of overwrought prose (“Chicago politics had little romance. Its operations were daily, not just about Daley,” “Born in something like a log cabin, Clinton . . . “) and score-settling, but when you come upon them, you don’t want to trust them—Blumenthal’s breath reeks too much of Kool-Aid.

From the outset, he sketches a portrait of a boss who walked in the progressive footsteps of Kennedy and Lincoln. Clinton did many great things as president, and historians will be arguing over his legacy for years. But with Blumenthal, we know we’re going to need a shovel straight off.

Blumenthal blames almost everyone but Clinton for Clinton’s problems: “To the right, he was satanic; to the left, a betrayer; to the media, a target whichever way he moved.” And though there may be much truth to such a claim, there is no countervailing accounting of Clinton’s many fumbles and political sellouts. The author credits Clinton for “policy gains” such as those made on crime, without reminding readers he did little to slow the skyrocketing prison population—mostly from petty drug convictions—during his two terms. When candidate Clinton promised that gays would be welcomed as equals in the military, then crumpled in the face of opposition from the Pentagon, Blumenthal, whose journalistic background boasts extensive work for both The New Republic and Vanity Fair, claims he only “appeared to crumple.” He describes Clinton’s campaign attacks on bullshit rapper Sister Souljah as a principled stance against racist invective aimed at both black and white audiences, and not as the Willie Horton moment it was. Worse, he attributes the unchecked genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda (when he discusses them at all) to European opposition or Colin Powell’s intransigence, never noting that Clinton was Powell’s boss, and ultimately responsible for what Powell did and did not do. Simply stating that the so-called Powell Doctrine held sway among the generals at the time does not exonerate Clinton for his early Bosnian inaction; in fact, it makes his successor—whose military exploits have decimated that flawed doctrine—seem positively steel-girded by comparison.

But as an insider’s take on a perpetually besieged White House, The Clinton Wars is an often fascinating and exhaustive look at the bunker mentality that set in at the West Wing. He gives us detailed, reportorial glimpses of a Bill and Hillary that we rarely get, such as the president’s love of card-playing, which he did even when stressed, sometimes keeping foreign dignitaries waiting as he finished a game with aides in the presidential limo.

The book’s greatest value may be as a companion volume to Jeffrey Toobin’s detailed deconstruction of the right-wing Clinton-bashing machine, A Vast Conspiracy (2000). Blumenthal’s recounting of the forces behind the Monica Lewinsky scandal and resulting impeachment proceedings conjure all the fury and bile we felt the first time around.

Blumenthal is at his pettiest, however, when he describes his infamous spat with his former friend Christopher Hitchens, wherein the hard-talking British columnist filed an affidavit against Blumenthal claiming that the latter perjured himself (thanks to details revealed during a lunch the two shared with Hitchens’s wife, Carol Blue, in 1998) in his testimony during the impeachment trial. It takes up almost 30 pages, which, along with Hitchens’s own published accounts of the split, creates a dizzying he said/he said of insult and countercharge. Hitchens argues that Blumenthal covered for Clinton’s attempts to discredit and slander Lewinsky, and Blumenthal in turn claims that the information he shared at that lunch (specifically, that Monica was known around the White House as “the stalker”) was already part of the public record. Who to believe? At this point, who the hell cares?

It’s an ugly and dishonorable feud, fueled by Hitchens’s rabid anti-Clinton zealotry (he admits he was out to take Clinton down) on the one hand, and Blumenthal’s loyalty (an admittedly admirable quality, but useless for a historian) on the other. When I sat down last spring with Hitchens for a profile I was working on, it was obvious that the incident still bothered him (he did, after all, betray a longtime friend), as he volunteered unflattering, unsolicited characterizations of the man he once called “cousin.” Equally obvious is that Blumenthal is still wounded, as his ad hominem references to Hitchens’s storied drinking capacity make numbingly clear (note to all Hitch critics: Until you can out-debate him, no matter his intake, you have no “he drinks too much” leg to wobble on).

In the end, though, Blumenthal’s own zeal undermines his credibility, and he exhibits little irony when he ascribes to his right-wing hunters a blindness to which he’s an unwitting victim: “The intensity of reaction, defying logic and reason, acquires its own logic. Rage and hatred swiftly develop images that masquerade as ideas, and the heightened imagination can make the figures on the cave wall appear to be a higher truth. The stronger the feeling, the more ingenuous it feels. Once in its grip, a person can make any remark or incident fit the mesmerizing pattern and confirm its reality.” Someone, please, buy the man a mirror.