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When in 1997 Bill Clinton appointed Sidney Blumenthal as a senior advisor, the former writer was catapulted into the front lines of the Clinton wars. From his first day in the White House until long after his appearance as the only presidential aide ever to testify in an impeachment trial, Blumenthal acted in or witnessed nearly all the battles of the Clinton years. His ...
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When in 1997 Bill Clinton appointed Sidney Blumenthal as a senior advisor, the former writer was catapulted into the front lines of the Clinton wars. From his first day in the White House until long after his appearance as the only presidential aide ever to testify in an impeachment trial, Blumenthal acted in or witnessed nearly all the battles of the Clinton years. His major new book—part history, part memoir—is the first inside account we have of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.
The Clinton Wars begins in 1987, when Blumenthal first met Bill and Hillary Clinton. His chronicle of Clinton’s first presidential campaign and first term draws on his experiences as confidant to both the President and the First Lady, and is enriched with previously unpublished revelations about both. This remarkable personal interpretation goes far in explaining the polarizing nature of Clinton’s presence on the national scene.
The narrative of Clinton’s second term is even more dramatic. Blumenthal takes special note of the battle that was waged within the media between the President’s detractors and defenders, which he expands into a vivid picture of Washington society torn apart by warring factions. But he does not neglect the wars fought on other fronts—in Kosovo, against Congress, and for economic prosperity. His remarkable book ends with the inside story of the fight to elect Al Gore in 2000 and extend the legacy of the Clinton-Gore Administration.
Every page of this unrivaled, authoritative book, with itsintimate insights into Clinton’s personality and politics, attests to Blumenthal’s literary skill, profound understanding of politics, and unique perspective on crucial events of our recent past. The Clinton Wars is a lasting contribution to American history.
The Challenge to the Old Order
Bill Clinton had been president for only a few weeks, less than half of the fabled First Hundred Days by which all presidents have been early judged since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first burst of the New Deal. "Action, action, and more action," FDR had demanded. Now it was March 1993, sixty years later, and President Clinton was coming to Hyde Park.
I arrived early because I wanted to wander around Roosevelt's presidential library to soak up the atmosphere before the clamorous entourage wheeled in. Usually, the press corps traveling with the president misses any sense of place. The media are everywhere and nowhere at once. Acrobats in the circus get to see more of where they are while the tent is pitched. The press corps lives with the motorcade. My White House pass, showing that I represented The New Yorker magazine, got me quickly past the checkpoints of the local police and the sentries of the Secret Service. Their cordon for the new president made this plot of land something of a sanctuary, untrammeled by tourists or even stray scholars burrowing in the yellowing archives.
The cold gray sky cast no shadows down the long lawn stretching from the road to the single-story library. I walked undisturbed and alone past the exhibits. The whole Roosevelt life was encapsulated there. A bronzed statue of the lanky, carefree boy Franklin lounged on his back. Campaign buttons and banners traced the journey from the New York state senate to his last race for the presidency in 1944. Around the corner was the matter-of-fact typewritten letter from Albert Einstein in 1939 urging Roosevelt to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did. The artifacts displayed in the old oak cases were like pieces of bone in a natural history museum. The fragments could just hint at the passions, hatreds, and turmoil aroused by the squire who often conducted the swirling business of the nation from his serene Hudson Valley estate. Neatly contained, row after row, from beginning to end, from bucolic boyhood to world statesman, here it was: the past under glass. The story has been drummed into us as though foretold. Every chapter makes complete sense because we know every twist and turn, including the death of the President near Easter in 1945 on the eve of a redemptive victory in war, as Lincoln's death had been. The story, told in retrospect through our parents' lives in the Depression and the Second World War, remains vibrant in almost every family.
But to those who bore its responsibilities, much of this story of an American president appeared as an unlit passage, and the ghosts were not speaking. Their silence was a false signal that what had occurred before was, if not simpler, then always clearer to those working their way through the events. Roosevelt and those around him, even those in his "brain trust" who had been ascribed omniscient understanding, could not predict the storms that would envelop them. No matter how bold their devices, they were constantly disrupted and recast. The president and his advisers could not see around every turn or know when dangerous obstacles might suddenly appear. Often, they could not predict the consequences of their own plans. Exactly what destiny they would arrive at and by what rendezvous they could not say. It is easy to imagine the past as an epic, like a movie seamlessly edited and comfortably paced; it is hard to imagine it as it was experienced. No matter how vivid a vision of the future one may have, the real future is always wrapped in obscurity.
I could hear my own footsteps as I walked past black-and-white photographs of FDR grandly gesturing to roaring crowds. Then, suddenly, came whirling lights, sirens, and black vans soon catching up with their alarms. Out tumbled aides and reporters, hitting the ground running, like an army landing on a beachhead. The present was invading the preserve of the past.
I mingled inside the library with the expectant trustees and dignitaries. The chairman of the library, William vanden Heuvel, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and former ambassador, keeper of the perpetual Roosevelt flame, lovingly opened a book as large as a Gutenberg Bible with vellum pages. It was an unusual guest book: he tamed to the signatures of Winston Churchill and then Lyndon Johnson.
If the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was that of cousins, the one between Roosevelt and Johnson was between a "daddy," as LBJ called Roosevelt, and his boy. The gangly congressman from Texas, an ardent New Dealer, saw his own presidency as fulfilling his political daddy's mission, realized at last as the Great Society. But Johnson's shattered presidency had left an unfinished legacy for another generation. What would Clinton make of it? The book was readied for Bill Clinton to sign his name.
President Clinton brought in with him a stream of cool, brisk air from outside. At six feet, two inches, with a jutting jaw, gray-green eyes, a ruddy complexion, and loose long limbs, Clinton was the most physically imposing person in the room, as he almost always was. He was immediately accessible, never at a loss for words, yet the strangeness of having a brand-new Democratic president roaming around FDR's home created what seemed a startle reflex among the older legatees. Suddenly, the Hyde Park library didn't feel like Harvard's Peabody Museum. The dust started to be shaken; the pinned exhibits almost seemed to want to move; the past was no longer at rest. It would in time be seen in a new shadow and a new light. But nobody knew what those would be.
Just before New Year's Eve in 1987, I had gone to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for what was then a little-known gathering called Renaissance Weekend, attended by a few hundred mostly Southern participants. Almost everyone there appeared on one or another panel, on any number of political, cultural, and religious subjects. Friends of mine had suggested to me that if I should go to this weekend, I should try to meet a contemporary, the forty-one-year-old governor of Arkansas. I was then a writer on the national staff of The Washington Post.
Clinton and I sat squinting in the winter sun and talked for an hour about his ambitions to be a national figure. He just didn't know how that was going to happen. He was little known beyond Arkansas and had little hope of getting recognized. Governors knew him, of course, but to the general public he was a cipher. I thought he was being perhaps too blunt about his ambition with someone he had just met. He fitted into the enduring category of rising stars to whom nothing might ever happen. Energy in politicians does not necessarily equal mass or the speed of light. Governors and senators from larger states, touted by newspaper columnists as future presidents, regularly melt away. With the Democratic primaries about six weeks away, Clinton wasn't even a candidate. The political talk was focused on the chances of Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Clinton was on the sidelines, yet he was feeling his way to a starting gate in the distant future. In his conversation with me, however, he grasped that he was venturing forth during a moment when politics was changing, in particular because of the evolving role of the media, which were disturbingly erasing the distinction between public and private life. Already, two prospective Democratic candidates, Gary Hart and Joseph Biden, had been forced out of the race by the increasingly antagonistic media. Reporters had staked out Hart, who they believed rightly was having an affair, and at a crowded news conference one asked him if he had ever committed adultery. The invisible barrier protecting politicians from probes into their private behavior that had no public impact or appearance was removed. With the heat shield gone, Hart was incinerated. Biden's sin was that he had engaged in a rhetorical flight of fancy about his family's grit, from time immemorial as common a technique for a candidate as extolling his own patriotism, and had done so in words borrowed from a British politician. The intense media glare wilted his financial backers and campaign staff overnight. For his old-fashioned stem-winding eloquence, Biden was shamed into quitting as an exaggerator and a plagiarist.
Though different in detail, the Hart and Biden incidents together showed that power had shifted. Long before the voters entered into the presidential selection process, the media had changed their unwritten rules. A story sparked by one newspaper or television outlet rapidly spread into what was hailed in newsrooms as a "firestorm." Prestigious news organizations that had once disdained stories about sex inevitably wound up justifying covering them as part of a reality they just couldn't ignore. It was not simply that the press was rightfully being more independent in its scrutiny of politicians' claims. In the new game, the politicians' effort at self-presentation would be met as a challenge to the media's self-proclaimed prerogatives.
That winter evening in 1987, Clinton stepped onto the stage at Renaissance Weekend and spoke extemporaneously for about a half hour about his decision not to run for the presidency in the coming campaign. He admitted that he wanted to run, but wasn't ready. Clinton explained himself at the same time as a member of his generation and as a completely engaged politicians Politics was clearly his calling — how he thought, felt, and spoke. At forty-one, he vibrated with the idea of running for national office but was unprepared to enter a terra incognita, and he worried aloud about what the erasure of the distinction between public and private life would mean. Even in voicing his uncertainty, he was involving his listeners in his drama, enlisting their hopes and anxieties; they were caught up in concern about his fate. Later he drew on a number of them for posts in his administration.
A heated discussion ensued about the fate of the leaderless Democratic Party, still entrapped in the age of Reagan. In the middle of the free-for-all, a woman with shoulder-length brown hair and thick glasses stood up. It was the thirty-nine-year-old Hillary Rodham Clinton. She spoke deliberately and pointedly. Her thoughts were framed with great logic. She was emphatic but composed. She referred to what her husband had said and provided steel bracing for his expansive talk. Hillary had the effect of settling in Bill's favor whatever matter was at issue. The issue here, of course, was Bill himself. When the formal session concluded, Bill and Hillary stood a few yards apart, continuing the discussion with separate knots of people, but they were a team.
The next day I noticed that Clinton was carrying a book filled with papers under his arm as he made his way from table to table at the buffet lunch: it was The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, by William Julius Wilson. This was a rethinking of the reasons for job loss and welfare, and it focused on how the deindustrialization of America's cities had left blacks there structurally removed from employment. Clinton and I chatted about Wilson's policy approach compared to others. After a few days' exposure to him, my initial impression of a young man in a hurry was evolving and deepening. To be sure, he had ambition, but he possessed more than that essential quality. He was a charismatic if loquacious speaker who had an easy facility with the arcana of public policy. His formidable wife was a force in her own right. He was ambivalent about his future in a swirling political world and hinted at personal difficulties. Underlying it all was a determination to bring the Republican era to a close and alter the coordinates of politics.
Copyright © 2003 Sidney Blumenthal
|1||The Challenge to the Old Order||3|
|2||The Forces Are Arrayed||46|
|4||Clinton's Strategic Offensive||137|
|5||Hillary Under Siege||166|
|6||A Political Education||193|
|8||Inside the West Wing||257|
|9||Clinton's Third Way||298|
|10||Seven Days in January||318|
|11||In Starr's Chamber||380|
|12||The Reign of Witches||432|
|14||The Twenty-first Century||629|
|15||A New York State of Mind||676|
|16||The Stolen Succession||700|
|17||The Sands of Time||773|
|18||The American Conflict||788|
Barnes & Noble.com: The Clinton Wars painstakingly documents the time you spent working in the Clinton White House and, among many other episodes, your involvement in the Ken Starr Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation. When did you decide to write this book, and was it difficult to recall events you'd probably like to forget?
Sidney Blumenthal: I had a unique vantage point and a special responsibility to record what I saw for history. My book is the complete story, not only from inside the West Wing but from sources in the Congress and even from the Office of the Independent Counsel. During my work in the White House and while writing The Clinton Wars, many people, including my former colleagues, gave me crucial factual information that was not in the news accounts at the time.
If there was anything that was difficult to write about, it was the constant vilification that I was subjected to, along with others, not least the president and first lady. Starting with my first day at work, when Matt Drudge posted a defamatory lie on his Internet site smearing my wife (who was the director of the White House Fellows program) and me -- inspired by partisan right-wingers -- the falsehoods never really stopped. I describe in the book how I had to put on armor every day, wear a game face, and try not to allow myself to be distracted from the important work on the president's program. That was the case for many of us in the White House. Writing the truth about this "reign of witches" (a phrase of Thomas Jefferson's that I take for one chapter title) -- from Drudge's lie to being falsely accused of the very smear tactics of personal destruction that the right wing was engaged in -- was cathartic, not only personally but in setting the historical record straight.
B&N.com: How many times during Starr's investigation did you think, OK, it's finally over -- we can relax?
SB: After the midterm elections of 1998, almost everyone in the White House believed that the Republicans would not push forward with a partisan impeachment. They had just lost seats because of their extremism on the issue -- an unprecedented result for a midterm for a second-term incumbent president. But, as I relate in the book, through an extraordinary interview with one of the key House managers, they were living in a self-enclosed universe of their own, isolated from larger realities, in denial about the public's rejection of their plan for impeachment, and stoking up their self-image as warriors. It took a full month for us to realize that the Republicans had no intention of listening to the voters and intended to force an impeachment.
B&N.com: Should Ken Starr even have been in the position of running what seemed to many to be a partisan inquiry?
SB: At the time of his appointment, as I point out in The Clinton Wars, Ken Starr was acclaimed by the Washington establishment as a judicious figure. But he turned out to be more than temperamentally unsuited for the job. He was a weak, indecisive man who was easily won over by the appeals to toughness by his thuggish deputies. He had conflicting ties to the political right, including the Paula Jones legal team, that should have disqualified him from the post in the first place, but which he did not disclose at the time of his appointment. And he had no prosecutorial experience whatsoever, so he deferred to his rough-and-ready crew that even, as I report, called the professional prosecutors among them "commie wimps."
Starr was also a culturally narrow man, with an obsessive fixation on President Clinton and consumed with his own sense of piety, which he confused with the truth. As I report in the book, on Whitewater and all the other so-called scandals before him, his own legal counselor, Samuel Dash (famed as a former Watergate counsel), reviewed all the prosecution memos and told Starr that there was absolutely nothing to indicate wrongdoing by the Clintons and that his responsibility as a prosecutor was to drop it all. "They had nothing," Dash told me. "Zero plus zero plus zero equals zero," Dash informed him. Another of Starr's top professional prosecutors told me for The Clinton Wars: "It was clear that this was a mean-spirited, political motivated investigation."
B&N.com: You make it very clear in The Clinton Wars that Bill Clinton was well aware of the threats posed by Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and you document his attempts to deal with them both. How much did the attention paid to Clinton's personal life distract the president from protecting the homeland?
SB: President Clinton was never distracted from the struggle against terrorism and against Osama bin Laden in particular. In August 1998, after the East Africa embassy bombings, he ordered the missile attack on bin Laden's base in Afghanistan that only barely missed killing him by hours. And there were many, many other actions taken. Unfortunately, some Republicans said that the war on terrorism was a ruse to distract from impeachment. They claimed it resembled a movie, Wag the Dog, about a president who fabricates a war. And they were encouraged in this by some in the media. But this was a very real war to President Clinton. And terrorist attacks timed for the millennium celebration were thwarted.
When we left office, the Clinton national security officials held several lengthy briefings for the incoming Bush administration, warning that terrorism was an imminent danger. I reveal in The Clinton Wars that Don Kerrick, a three-star general, who was our last deputy national security adviser, stayed on for several months into the new Bush administration, and sent its national security officials a memo stated: "We will be hit again." Kerrick said that his memo was ignored. "They were not focusing," he told me. "They didn't see terrorism as the big mega-issue that the Clinton administration saw it."
B&N.com: Coincidentally, as your book is being published, Hillary Clinton's long-awaited memoir is also just about to come out. Have you and Senator Clinton discussed your respective book projects? Have you been able to read any of her book?
SB: I did not give copies of my book to former President Clinton and Senator Clinton until it was finished. They've read it now, and they think it provides a true history and context of the times. Hillary told me she didn't know "half of it." And the former president told The New York Times: "It's a roaring good read." I haven't read Hillary's book yet, but I'm sure it tells a real story and will also be an important contribution to history. Our books will be complementary.
B&N.com: Many in politics and the media scoffed when Hillary Clinton spoke of "a vast right-wing conspiracy." In a sense, you yourself became a victim of that conspiracy, didn't you?
SB: I don't think of myself as a victim at all. I was proud to stand up against the right-wing assault on the progressive Clinton presidency and against the Constitution. I was hauled before Starr's grand jury three times because he wanted to intimidate everyone by making an example of me. I was being very critical of his bullying tactics, his political motivation, and his illegal leaking of stories to an all-too-compliant, sensationalizing media. I describe in The Clinton Wars what it was like in the grand jury to be asked endless, paranoid questions by the prosecutors, and how my speech on the courthouse steps, saying that I would not be intimidated, helped the American people to see Starr's inquisition for what it was.
B&N.com: Have you ever had a chance to confront Ken Starr privately? Is there one question you'd like to ask him?
SB: Starr never questioned a single witness in his grand jury, yet he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee as the only fact witness on the "evidence." Like the other witnesses, I never met him. The question I'd ask him is why didn't he listen to his own counselor, Sam Dash, who told him there was nothing to Whitewater and all the other pseudo-scandals and who urged him as a professional matter to wrap up the investigation with a report declaring that the Clintons had committed nothing wrong, which is what happened in the end, in any case, but only after years of tearing the country apart in his effort to get President Clinton.
B&N.com: How frustrated were the Republicans at not being able to "get" President Clinton?
SB: The effort to stop President Clinton from enacting his progressive agenda to get the country moving again began from the moment he assumed office. I describe in The Clinton Wars that when the Republicans captured the Congress in 1994, their new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, turned more than 20 committees into investigative bodies. The Republicans were so determined to get Clinton that they were willing to lose two speakers of the House to gaudy sex scandals of their own; they were willing to attack President Clinton for his struggle against terrorism and Saddam Hussein; they were willing to prevent a resolution in the House of support for our armed forces in the Kosovo War from passing.
And, of course, the House Republican leadership and then Whip Tom DeLay especially, as I detail in the book, coerced through threats Republican members to vote for an impeachment that failed to establish any constitutional standards. Congressman Peter King, Republican of New York, told me: "Most of the pressure [on Republicans] went through the Christian right network. It happened over a ten-day period. The whole world changed."
B&N.com: Can one argue that the right wing's assault on the Clintons effectively delivered the presidency to George W. Bush, in that Al Gore was reluctant to use a scandal-battered Bill Clinton to campaign for him -- a move that might have given Gore the needed electoral votes to win.
SB: Al Gore won the popular majority of the votes handily -- and if they had been counted, he would have almost certainly have emerged as the winner in Florida. Gore's hesitance to send President Clinton out to campaign for him fostered an issue that the Republicans turned into a "character" issue about Gore. The systematic stream of stories they created about Gore as a liar and exaggerator were false and distorting, but the Republicans, through a tabloid-minded press, managed to turn Gore's image into a negative one.
In Florida, Republicans even used mob violence against county supervisors to stop the votes from being counted. Most of the votes that turned out not to be counted were cast by African Americans. When the Supreme Court gave the presidency to Bush by a vote of five to four, it was the worst case of voter suppression of black voting rights since the days of Jim Crow.
B&N.com: To play devil's advocate for a moment, in a time of war and economic malaise, why should readers want to read your book? Isn't all this "old news?"
SB: History will make its own judgment of the Clinton presidency. But I think its achievements provide clear guidelines for the future.
As I write: "The Clinton wars over the progressive presidency and its uses of government had a partisan cast, but they were not about one side versus another as in some sporting match. They focused on Clinton the man because he personified his office, but at issue was how the executive would use the instruments of government. Would they be wielded on behalf of the interests of the great majority of citizens, allowing the Constitution to be a living document for advancing the people's rights and social equality and the nation's needs -- 'the organic law,' as Lincoln called it -- and the United States to be a vital nation advancing public purposes? Or would the executive branch define the nation as a shell, a confederation of states, clearing the way for private special interests, and asserting the armed forces as the only expression of national power?"
This underlying conflict between democracy and the old order will go on. To quote the book, "Bush's efforts to repeal the progressive policies of the twentieth century were bound to provoke a new politics of crisis. The Clinton wars were over, but there would be intense conflicts to come."