Critics and cheerleaders alike have misinterpreted Sidney Blumenthal’s invaluable account of his years spent before, during, and after service as advisor to President Clinton. The new millennium, afflicted by so much grim political news, has suffered from a lack of hearty laughter. Blumenthal has supplied 560 pages of it. Given its lack of anything approaching insight, surely The Clinton Wars is a vast put-on, meant to amuse rather than inform.
Blumenthal must be joking, for example, when he writes in self-congratulatory tones of Harry Evans, the former editor in chief of Random House, who praised the author in the days when Blumenthal was pretending to be an objective journalist at The New Yorker at the same time that he was flacking for the Clintons. Harry, writes Sidney, “was never-failing in his buoyancy and in having an encouraging word for you, ‘dear poet.’ He was a true prince among men.”
And certainly, the “dear poet” can’t be serious when he goes into anticlimax mode: “Lewinsky’s immunity talks with Starr were continuing and subpoenas were flooding in. I was also preoccupied with preparations for another imminent event: Tony Blair was about to arrive at the White House. There were many decisions to be made, many messages to send, not all of them political and diplomatic. Capricia Marshall, the social secretary, asked me what I thought of Stevie Wonder playing with Elton John at the state dinner.”
Here he is recalling Hillary Clinton’s decision to run for the Senate, doing his hilarious impression of a twittering West Wing sycophant: “She was, like millions of others, drawn to the greatest city of all. (She discovered that her Rodham ancestor from England had landed on Ellis Island.) Her running there could not but flatter New Yorkers’ self-conception. Hillary had spent eight years in Washington. She was shaking those ‘little town blues.’ Now it was time for Broadway.”
Blumenthal also presents his zany overview of history, past and future: “Just as the presidents of the late 20th century operated in the shadow of F.D.R., those of the first part of the 21st century will stand in the shadow of Clinton.” Then there are his pages of ludicrously self-referential photos, including one of Sidney with Hillary and a bust of George Washington.
Indeed, despite Blumenthal’s straight face, his very title gives the show away. The Clinton “wars” were, after all, skirmishes with the likes of Kenneth Starr. Later, a real shooting war began, thereby trivializing the career of the 42nd president and his apologists. They have yet to recover. Under these circumstances, Blumenthal should receive praise, rather than blame, for wearing the cap and bells with such flair.
Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s new book, Living History, ghostwritten by three different authors, clearly intends for us to take it seriously. But though some 600,000 copies apparently flew off the shelves of bookstores nationwide in the first week of publication, few readers were likely looking for Mrs. Clinton’s philosophy of childcare. They wanted the dirt on her husband’s liaison with a White House intern. In this, they’ll be disappointed.
New York’s junior senator, in fact, adds little to the storehouse of gossip, and she spins violently the few items she does offer, portraying herself in the dual role of domestic victim and national heroine. “I hadn’t decided whether to fight for my husband and my marriage, but I was resolved to fight for my President.” Hillary does, however, have something to say about the aftermath of L’affaire Lewinsky. Her winning entry in the Moral Equivalency sweepstakes includes this extraordinary excerpt: “It was a challenge to forgive Bill; the prospect of forgiving the hired guns of the right wing seemed beyond me. If Mandela could forgive, I would try.” Translation: Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in South Africa’s Robben Island prison for his battles against apartheid. Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself publicly embarrassed by her husband’s extramarital caper, which made him vulnerable to conservative critics. How could anyone fail to see the parallel agonies? Or the parallel evils inflicting those agonies?
This 562-page doorstop is not entirely empty of substance. We learn, for example, that Hillary’s father was a stern Republican, a member of the waste-not, want-not school. As a result, Hillary (with her phantoms’ help) reports, “To this day, I put uneaten olives back in the jar, wrap up the tiniest pieces of cheese.” Talk about candor!
Yet even though her book is long, Mrs. Clinton somehow overlooks some details that might have added piquance to her presentation. How did she magically turn $1,000 into $100,000 in the commodities market? Sorry, she can’t be bothered with such trivia. Travelgate—the non-sexual scandal involving the wholesale dismissal of civil servants so that Mrs. Clinton could replace them with her pals? Unworthy of discussion. The billing records for her former employers, the Rose law firm—the ones that disappeared for more than a year and then mysteriously appeared as the law closed in? Dismissed in a few ill-chosen and implausible words: the papers were misplaced during the time “we found ourselves in the midst of a major renovation of the heating and air-conditioning systems to bring the White House up to environmental energy standards.” Her husband’s pardon of Marc Rich, among other malefactors? No part of Mrs. C’s History.
All the same, there is a consistency to this autobiography, a grim sense of purpose running through it. Mrs. Clinton needed something to remind voters that she is still a celebrity, a politician to be reckoned with—a woman with national clout. That is the main purpose of Living History, perhaps the only one.
The number eight figures strongly in Senator Clinton’s life: she was the First Lady for eight years; she landed an $8 million advance for the book; and she is now positioned to run for the White House in 2008. Will she make it to the presidency? Stranger things have happened in American politics. Still, despite her armor and her spinmeisters, the author, like all those without humor, is vulnerable. The week of publication, that renowned literary critic, Jay Leno, fired the kind of verbal salvo that will be amplified in the hustings to come: “Hillary said that when she first set eyes on Bill Clinton back in college he had a beard and he reminded her of a Viking—which is perfect because she reminded him of Iceland.”