The Clinton Wars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2003, 12:00am

The Clinton Wars

by Sidney Blumenthal

Viking $140

When not knocking Bill Clinton for his womanising, critics such as the Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens called him soft on terrorism. The charge appeared to have some justification. After Osama bin Laden's 1998 bombing of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, about all Clinton did in response was wipe out a Sudanese aspirin factory. But, unlike the current White House incumbent who supposedly has the lowest IQ of any modern president, nobody could fairly claim Clinton lacked mental firepower.

According to The Clinton Wars, the insider memoir penned by Sidney Blumenthal - a presidential assistant from 1997 to 2001 - Slick Willie was a whiz, especially on overseas issues.

'Clinton's thorough knowledge of government policy was prodigious. Rarely did anyone in the room know more than he about a given policy's details or implications when it was discussed,' Blumenthal writes. Better, he would base foreign policy decisions on the facts, often overriding his political leanings. Blumenthal excuses his occasional 'cloudbursts of anger' as primarily the product of reason.

But Blumenthal highlights one engrossing flaw that until now was not common knowledge: his self-indulgently poor timekeeping. 'Even when world leaders were kept waiting, he took his time, seeing sights, reading and dawdling ...'

Such low-key revelations about the president's character prove more engaging than the author's insights into the hoary themes of Monicagate and the impeachment saga. Blumenthal also excels at portraying the president's foes, who come across as satanic, in particular the arch fiend Newt Gingrich. In 1990, the House Republican whip supposedly commissioned his pollster to 'test-market' words that could be used to demonise the Democrats. The resulting document, Language: A Key Mechanism Of Control, was plain 'Orwellian', states the former Washington Post and New Yorker journalist. He cites how it advocated the use of a slew of damning words ranging from 'pathetic' and 'sick' to 'traitor'. Gingrich's henchmen too had a sinister way with words, supposedly smearing the charismatic Washington State Speaker of the House, Thomas Foley, as a closet homosexual. 'We hear it's little boys,' one allegedly told a reporter, upping the ante.

Richard Armey of Texas, the Republican majority leader who, like Gingrich, was a failed professor, understood the art of black propaganda equally well. For instance, the author claims he said that Hillary Clinton consorted with Marxists and was 'overrated' in the charm department. Party politics is depicted as a viper pit, or 'shark tank' to use a Blumenthal phrase. He himself was bitten badly, his tormentor Matt Drudge, creator of the online rumour mill known as the Drudge Report. In 1997, Drudge accused Blumenthal of spousal abuse apparently without any grounds. Drudge apologised and retracted the allegation but, in true American spirit, Blumenthal sued for libel anyway without success, the verdict inconclusive.

The question is whether Blumenthal, nicknamed Sid Vicious by his detractors, will now face a libel suit or two. His memoir has already triggered controversy in the US press. Clinton critic Hitchens has made a point-by-point rebuttal of almost every comment Blumenthal levels against him. The Washington Times asked if the disgraced former New York Times hack Jayson Blair was one of Blumenthal's sources. How much can you trust a supporter of a president whose most famous political utterances are two devious denials ('I did not inhale' and 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman')?

Worse, despite his journalism background, Blumenthal drones on like his boss, his bloated tome weighing in at over 800 pages. But thanks to its acrimony and intimacy, The Clinton Wars works. At least it beats the platitudinous yawner published at the same time by Slick Willie's wronged but rising wife.