Trading Places


I have a very clear recollection of the first day and night of the Clinton presidency, some of which I spent in the home of Christopher Hitchens. At the last minute, Vanity Fair had assembled a post-inaugural celebration there that quickly became the capital’s hippest
invite (not an especially tall order,
even with 12 years of Republican
culture on the wane). At some point
in the evening, a buoyant George Stephanopoulos was working the room, with sycophants in and out of government trailing behind him like vapors from a jet. A bemused Hitchens, wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo, sidled up to me and whispered something cynical along the lines of: “There’s your big chance, Ledbetter. Make good with him and you’ll guarantee yourself scoops for the entire term.”

I didn’t take the advice, except to absorb the irony with which it was offered. But even before President Bill Clinton had done anything but put his hand on a Bible, a theme emerged that night: namely, there is no greater tragedy for left journalism than the rise of a Democratic president with “friends” in left media circles. Stephanopoulos, brimming with success and power, could not that night have perceived the reaches of the tragedy; Hitchens, as left journalism’s high-flying bad boy, may well have seen himself as its anti-hero—or at least believed that he would be able to rewrite its ending.

Six years later, the fate of the two men seems oddly reversed, as evidenced in their books All Too Human and
No One Left To Lie To. Now it is Stephanopoulos who spins outsider cynicism into gold. When Stephanopoulos used the word “impeachment” on an ABC News broadcast in the early days of the Lewinsky debacle, he may have lost his onetime White House friends, but he practically guaranteed that the memoir he was writing would be a bestseller. He writes about watching Clinton’s videotaped grand jury testimony from the comfort of an ABC studio: “His face fell, the last breath from an all-but-deflated balloon. Off camera, I quietly started to cry.” No TV crocodile ever said it better—if only Barbara Walters had been in the building.

Hitchens, on the other hand, finds himself denounced by much of the left-wing press that once revered him, and burned by the game of White House chicken he once mastered. His tirades against Clinton have often been brilliant, right from the start. But their
single-minded intensity, which often casts Hitchens awkwardly into the same pen as Clinton’s worst and silliest right-wing enemies, suggests an urgent and newfound idealism, an anti-
Clintonism so pure and consuming that it has become a psychological crusade.

These two books, then, can be read as the rising and falling action lines of a tragedy. What’s remarkable is the large number of places where those lines intersect. Both men mark Clinton’s signature on the welfare “reform” bill to have been a moment of maximum betrayal, both are obsessed with Dick Morris, and both conclude that Clinton is incapable of telling the truth in any situation where it might dent his political fortunes.

The temptation to pigeonhole the books too neatly must, however, be resisted. Stephanopoulos, it turns out, is a decent storyteller, but his volume is almost irredeemably shallow. Like Clinton, he is a master of the politics of personal denial; it’s hilarious to hear him denounce the media’s superficiality when clearly much of it was his own spin thrown back at him. He literally spends more time in this book detailing the nonscandal of the president’s runway haircut than he does the needless death of dozens at Waco; his assessment of Clinton’s performance in the Middle East consists almost entirely of a discussion of the famous Arafat-Rabin handshake photo-op. Indeed, Stephanopoulos neatly eludes all substantive discussion of how his “liberal” views on foreign policy might conflict with Clinton’s by saying early on that it doesn’t matter much because the Cold War was over, thereby shirking the responsibility of discussing the administration’s reflexive bombing strategies in Iraq or its poll-orchestrated foreign engagements.

Such self-blindness is precisely the point of Hitchens’s slim but powerful book (some of which reprints material he’s published before). Clinton’s minions must by definition blind themselves to what Hitchens calls the administration’s “banana republic side; its missing evidence, malleable witness, deniable operation, and private security side.” Hitchens excoriates the liberal establishment for reducing every Clinton scandal to questions of personal privacy, and ignoring the soft-money sleaze and political sellouts that have dominated his reign.

But while Hitchens could once distance himself from the slime brigade, he now finds himself marching along. Of his infamous dine-and-tell with Sidney Blumenthal, Hitchens writes: “It took no time to make up my mind that I wouldn’t protect Clinton’s lies, or help pass them along.” Clintonism as individual Rubicon: the political has, for Hitchens, become truly personal—and in that sense, Hitchens today looks like the mirror image of Stephanopoulos, circa 1993. Indeed, maybe the best way for Hitchens to maximize his impact would have been to publish an annotated dissection of Stephanopoulos’s book since, like too many memoirists, Stephanopoulos’s immersion in palace intrigue prevents him from recognizing the degradation all around him. Stephanopoulos discusses, for example, Dick Morris’s twisted lobbying to get him to join the 1996 reelection campaign. “Sweetening the offer with a bribe, Dick later added that if I left the White House and formally joined his team, he would pay me a million-dollar fee—my cut of the ad buy.”

Stephanopoulos rejects it, but he is nearly silent on the venality of Morris’s million-dollar offer (had it been proffered, it might well have been illegal). To anyone but Stephanopoulos the question arises: who on the ’96 campaign did get a million-
dollar cut of Clinton’s ad buys? And who in the White House besides Stephanopoulos was aware of it? Probably the most revealing portions of All Too Human are the points where Stephanopoulos discusses his psychological stress and the ways he tried to address it, which included a prescription for the antidepressant Zoloft. Clearly a psychopharmacological history of the modern White House is long overdue. Whether it’s Bud McFarlane trying to kill himself with a fistful of Valium, George Bush puking up a Halcion tab into the lap of the Japanese prime minister, or Stephanopoulos trying to stop the screeching in his head, Washington is one big
candy store. It’s striking how much time the contemporary campaign spends examining what a candidate has done with his penis, and how little examining what he does with the mind.

Hitchens is less forthcoming about his stress relief techniques, but he writes as if a public beheading of Clinton might do the trick. His indictment is convincing, but also emits a tragic hopelessness. Hitchens takes great swipes at JFK and could hardly have been a fan of Jimmy Carter, and so a left-symp reader is stuck wondering what possible alternatives exist. At one time, Hitchens’s answer might have been socialism (little in evidence here), at others, the retreat into literary irony. While it’s probably impossible for Hitchens to completely lose his ironic capacity, his indelicate dance with Sidney Blumenthal has clearly damaged him. He has more than earned the last word: “The consequences in my own life have made a literal truth out of what I had once written only metaphorically: Clintonism poisons everything it touches.”