Posted: August 26, 2003
A review of Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and The Clinton Wars, by Sidney Blumenthal
ears ago I developed a standardized measurement for the agony involved in reading and reviewing tendentious books. I call it the "Donaldson Scale," after Sam Donaldson of ABC News, whose book I once had to suffer. "One Donaldson" means that a full bottle of scotch or its equivalent is necessary to grind out a review.
Hitherto few books have rated more than a Half-Donaldson, though the occasional effort of a French literary critic, or any John Irving novel, comes close to rating a Full-Donaldson. The memoirs of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal have shattered the Donaldson Scale. To paraphrase one of Hillary's previous offerings, these books take a whole distillery.
Both Rodham-Clinton and Blumenthal have achieved new levels of groan-inducing banality. Consider this Blumenthal sample: "[Clinton] did not peer through a hazy lens into a nebulous future. Rather, he saw sharply defined problems requiring constant engagement to achieve practical solutions." Whoa! Stop the presses. Not to be outdone, Rodham-Clinton offers this profundity about the old Fleetwood Mac song that became the semi-official anthem of the Clinton years ("Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow"): "I had taken those lyrics to heart. It may have been a cliché, but the phrase that best summed up my political philosophy was: 'It's always about the future,' about what must be done to make America safer, smarter, richer, stronger, and better, and how Americans can prepare to compete and cooperate in a global community." More: "This [Bangladesh] was another country I had long wanted to visit, because it was home to two internationally recognized projects—the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, and the Grameen Bank, a pioneer of microcredit."
Here and there, Rodham-Clinton manages to achieve some unintended wit in her banalities, usually in connection with her husband. "His ability to eat anything put in front of him is one of his many political talents," she writes, which may help explain his taste in women, too. Concerning the second most famous woman in Clinton's life, Rodham-Clinton offers this: "Bill told me that Monica Lewinsky was an intern he had befriended two years earlier when she was volunteering in the West Wing during the government shutdown. He had talked to her a few times, and she had asked him for some job-hunting help. This was completely in character to Bill. He said that she had misinterpreted his attention, which was something I had seen happen dozens of times before." Now that's funny. (But the biggest howler may be this one-liner: "I did my best to educate myself about cattle futures and margin calls to make it less frightening.")
It was not to be expected that either of these memoirs would be very good, though it is a mistake, as I shall argue, to dismiss them as mere self-serving propaganda. Presidential memoirs are notoriously bland and uninformative (with the notable exceptions of Dwight Eisenhower's and Richard Nixon's), and Hillary's ongoing political ambition circumscribes her derivative effort even further. Hillary calls the book Living History—though she and her (reported) six ghostwriters labor to make it as dead on the page as possible—thus resisting the tempting title Rewriting History. In fact, a deliberate anesthetic blandness serves her political purpose by making people think that perhaps she isn't so radical after all. It recalls Whittaker Chambers's description of how Alger Hiss would go about vindicating himself through endless professions of innocence: "What is vindication for him? It is the moment when one of the most respectable old ladies in Hartford says to another of the most respectable old ladies: 'Really, I don't see how Alger Hiss could brazen it out that way unless he were really innocent.'" Rodham-Clinton has already shown considerable political skill by seizing a U.S. Senate seat in New York, but she still has a lot of baggage to shed if she is to be a plausible presidential candidate. Many readers of this book will come away with the impression, "Gee, she doesn't sound so radical to me."
Thus Living History is a project to mask or soften Rodham-Clinton's massive will-to-power. Perhaps the most revealing moment of Rodham-Clinton's time in the White House was her famous 1993 speech on "the politics of meaning." In this speech she argued that we must "remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the 20th century," which will require "remaking the American way of politics, government, indeed life." This goes far beyond garden-variety liberal progressivism. The idea of "redefining who we are in this post-modern age" implies that there is no human nature, or that whatever human nature there is defines itself through sheer self-assertion. In other words, the human soul can be transformed at will. For Rodham-Clinton to say that we need to remake the American way of politics, government, and life is to imply that government has the right, even the duty, to change man into something he is not. (This effluvium prompted The New Republic's literary critic Leon Wieseltier, normally far-left in his politics, to offer a harsh judgment about the Clintonistas: "There is a certain sensibility, for which Mrs. Clinton's generation is famous, and which she perfectly exemplifies, that hates being preceded. Everything it experiences it experiences for the first time. When it sees, there is light; and when it fails to see, the whole world is covered in darkness.") Recalling Michael Oakeshott's axiom that "the conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny," Hillary's "vision" is truly frightening.
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Rodham-Clinton attempts to de-radicalize this theme by attributing its inspiration to, of all people, the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Atwater, dying of brain cancer in 1989, understandably mused about his own spiritual deficiencies, and generalized them to the nation as whole in a magazine article published upon his death. Expunged entirely from Living History is the actual inspiration of Hillary's speech by the radical Jewish thinker Michael Lerner. It wouldn't do for Hillary's attempt to grasp the mantle of bipartisan moderation to advertise the real sources of her "politics of meaning." Her most brazen sanitizing effort is an early line paraphrased (without attribution) from Ronald Reagan to explain why she departed from her early political leanings as a Goldwater girl in 1964: "I sometimes think that I didn't leave the Republican Party as much as it left me."
She also dissembles about her senior thesis at Wellesley on radical community organizer Saul Alinsky. In Living HistoryHillary plays up her disagreements with Alinsky. She says she rejected the then-popular radical idea of revolution—even if there was one, she says she concluded in 1968, I wouldn't participate—and says she fundamentally disagreed with Alinsky that "the system" could not be changed through conventional politics. This is narrowly true, though Rodham-Clinton's thesis (I have read it) clearly sympathizes with Alinsky's radical viewpoint that the Great Society's liberal social policy didn't go far enough because it didn't redistribute power to the people. Hillary rejects Alinsky's "bottom-up" community organizing because she believes in "the role of centralized social planning in social change." She notes at the end of her thesis that many ideas considered "radical" at that time were mainstream policy in European social democracies. "Societal comparisons raise again questions about the meaning of 'radical' and even 'revolutionary' within a mass production/consumption state, particularly the United States." This is the Hillary of the health care fiasco of 1993, in which she brazenly declared that she couldn't be responsible for all the undercapitalized small businesses that could not afford health insurance for their employees.
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Although Blumenthal's book is more explicit and honest in several ways, his well-known partisan hostility and paranoia warp the overall effort. There is an overwhelming tone of bitterness in both books—bitterness about Kenneth Starr, Republicans, Ralph Nader, the news media (in the Clinton-Blumenthal hall of mirrors, the media is a captive of the reactionary Right!), and especially Richard Mellon Scaife, who lurked behind every corner of what Hillary described as "the dark underbelly of the Republican Right."
Underneath this bitterness is a sense of unjustly insulted propriety. The Clintons and their circle are just such good people, with great ideas for America. The conservative attack machine prevented Americans from swooning before the Clintons' nobility and brilliance. The unworthy conservative opposition to the Clintons deprived America of the greatness they had to offer. "Had the proposals Clinton made for new legislation been enacted," Blumenthal laments, "the United States would now have universal health insurance, affordable prescription drugs for senior citizens, universal day care, more schools, higher teacher salaries and higher educational standards, more gun safety, greater voting rights, new civil rights laws against discrimination, and an even higher minimum wage." He adds that "If Gore had become president, undoubtedly progress would have been made on all these fronts."
The theme of the Clintons' essential goodness is carefully muted in Rodham-Clinton's book, but explicit in Blumenthal's. "Born in something like a log cabin," Blumenthal writes of Bill Clinton, "he was a member of a loose network that had grown up together politically since the 1960s.... The lingua franca of this network was the language of policy, the speci-fics of governmental activism. To be part of the network meant to be connected to its ongoing conversation. It was a large moveable feast, meeting at foundations, nonprofit issue-based organizations, universities, think tanks, journals, and the Democratic Party in all its manifestations." Jeepers, it sounds almost like a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.
The Manichean Blumenthal makes sure we understand that these are good people, while conservatives are bad people. Take, for example, his descriptions of the rival political consultants Lee Atwater (Republican) and Bob Squier (Democrat). "Atwater, then a thirty-eight-year-old South Carolinian, strutted as a Southern bad boy, masking his insecurities.... His pose as an electric-guitar-playing bluesman added to his image as a rebel.... Bush, the candidate who saw politics as unclean, hired Atwater to do the political dirty work for him." Not the sort of fellow you'd invite to dinner. Squier, on the other hand, "was unusual among politicos for his literary and epicurean interests. He had made PBS documentaries about Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and he had operated a wine press at his Virginia country home."
It is self-evident to Blumenthal that Al Gore was more worthy than George W. Bush to be president. "Gore had trained to run for the presidency.... Gore had command of an almost infinite array of intricate details and technicalities of science and social policy. He had mastered difficult fields, one after another, and arrived at innovative solutions to persistent problems." By contrast, "George W. Bush's advantages had been carefully arranged for him his whole life." In prep school, our author reminds us, "his chief distinction was as chief cheerleader." Hence Blumenthal isn't sated merely with refuting, in painstaking detail, the ethical charges against Clinton that culminated in impeachment; he ends his book with several chapters on the media unfairness to Al Gore and how Bush stole the election in Florida. "Whom the gods destroy," the ancient Greek lyric goes, "they first make mad." Blumenthal has written his own epitaph as a serious journalist, just as the Democrats, in their blind fury over George W. Bush, seem poised to drive over a cliff with Howard Dean, the perfect Blumenthal candidate.
It is a double mistake, however, to regard these memoirs as mere score-settling or self-serving revisionism. Blumenthal's book especially is built on a purebred progressivism that is rarely so clearly articulated from the Left today. One searches in vain in either book for a single mention of limited government, constitutional intent, or individual liberty. Rodham-Clinton supposedly channels Eleanor Roosevelt; Blumenthal channels Woodrow Wilson. "The presidency is the chief engine of progress in American history," he writes; "its leadership and power are central." Progressive presidents "seek to expand democracy by redefining the social contract.... Progressive presidents see themselves as the sole legitimate agent of the majority. In their mission to extend opportunity and rights, they constantly improvise their relationship with the people. They believe it is their unique responsibility and prerogative to reshape the country." Each progressive president, like Clinton, inherits the unfinished programs of the previous progressive presidents. Clinton "wanted to rebuild the inert executive branch and restore it as a progressive force, in order to turn the national government into an agent of change for American society as a whole. All these institutions were like bent, rusty tools that needed hammering and recasting."
Blumenthal goes on for pages in this vein. He attempts by sleight-of-hand (as does Hillary in a more cursory way) to deny the radicalism implicit in this unending progressive politics, by portraying Bill Clinton's object to be the "Third Way" between Left and Right, "neither statist nor laissez faire." (Hillary calls it "the dynamic center.") Blumenthal unwittingly reveals Clinton's Third Way to be a fraud. He repeatedly describes Clinton's successful drive to the White House as being based on repudiating "the perceived failures" of the 1960s liberalism that shattered the Democratic Party. (Emphasis added.) Blumenthal's use of "perceived" failures, and his quotations from Clinton saying "We've got to turn these perceptions around," imply that liberal social policy was not mistaken. If this is their sincere belief, then the "Third Way" represents not an authentic moderate synthesis but a marketing tactic. Who's practicing Straussian concealment now? The substance and rhetoric of Clintonian progressivism represent a greater corruption of American government than either Whitewater or Monicagate.
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Here it should be acknowledged candidly that Blumenthal, and to a lesser extent Rodham-Clinton, are correct that the intense focus on the Clinton scandals was a distraction from engaging the serious political argument that the Clintons represent. From time to time, especially during the health care debate of 1993-94, political argument turned on the clash between broader principles, which certainly contributed to the smashing Republican victory of 1994. (Both Rodham-Clinton and Blumenthal admit that the Clinton health care plan was a huge political blunder.) But once the Whitewater scandal cycle took over, serious political argument receded. Perhaps conservatives can't be wholly blamed for this in the way Blumenthal does; a media frenzy will always sweep away serious argument like a tornado does a trailer park. But at the end of the day the Clintons succeeded through an endless series of small gestures in shifting the political ground to the Left, such that George W. Bush was compelled to run for president as a compassionate conservative, similarly dedicated to policy gestures large and small that add up to an affirmation of big government.
Blumenthal tacitly underscores the failure of conservative argument during the second half of Clinton's presidency through his only substantive discussion of a conservative argument—the federalist jurisprudence of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "The so-called original jurisprudence notion in which Rehnquist believes," Blumenthal writes, "that the United States is merely a compact of states, that state sovereignty nullifies national authority, that local control is more representative and expresses a superior 'majority,' harks back past John C. Calhoun, ideological forerunner of the Confederacy, to the anti-Federalists who campaigned against the Constitution in the early years of the Republic."
This is crude and incomplete, but essentially correct. Clinton, Blumenthal tells us, considered making a public speech before leaving office directly taking on Rehnquist, but ran out of time. (All those pardons required much burning of midnight oil.) Had Clinton done so he would have bored in on contemporary conservatism's weakest point.
As dreadful as these books are in a literary sense, they are politically instructive, even though in a manner not intended by their authors. Living History reminds us about the cleverness and determination of Rodham-Clinton. One fears that she has learned only too well from her mistakes. And Blumenthal's narrative reveals that the Right's concentration on the Clintons' scandalous behavior distracted from the real game—a game conservatives are losing in too many places.