Sidney Blumenthal, The Clinton Wars (Farrar Straus & Giroux 2003)
Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars is a hefty omnibus of a book, an amalgam of different genres: history, memoir, and biography. As such, it covers many weighty subjects - including Clinton's background and rise to power; Whitewater; Monica Lewinsky and Clinton's impeachment; the war in Kosovo; Clinton's resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland and efforts to try to resolve the crises in the Middle East and Korea; Hillary Clinton's run for Senate; and Gore's run for President.
Throughout, it also describes Blumenthal's own role, as both observer of it all, and at times, a pivotal player in the events. In addition, it covers Blumenthal's own travails: His libel lawsuit against the Drudge Report, and his receipt of a Kenneth Starr grand jury subpoena.
Fortunately, what could, in other hands, have been an unwieldy muddle turns out, due to Blumenthal's skills, to be a well-organized, important and insightful read. Blumenthal - formerly communications director for Clinton - is also a journalist with twenty-seven years experience prior to joining the White House.
Blumenthal's dual background lends depth and interest to his account. It also makes his conclusions all the more damning. In the end, this is not just a portrait of a presidency, or even of the political forces that tried to wrest the presidency away from Clinton. It is also a portrait of the media gone wrong.
Blumenthal's Views on the Media, Image Politics, and Clinton's Attackers
Early in the book, Blumenthal explains what motivates Clinton's enemies to attack him. He writes that Clinton, like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, is a progressive president, who "represented new and broader forms of democracy" and so was "perceived as personifying dangerous threats to established order and morals."
Blumenthal illustrates how important image has become to politics, and how the media is both pawn and manipulator of politicians' images. The book also shows the role of the Internet - an especially dangerous weapon in making and destroying images, because it makes communication cheap, quick, and potentially anonymous.
Where Blumenthal is most astute is in his focus and commentary on the media's role in bringing on Clinton's impeachment and Gore's election loss. For instance, he details how rumors and false stories planted by (and funded by) the conservative religious right picked up momentum in the media, and caused damage to Clinton, and then Gore, as a result. Here is where Blumenthal turns from observer to subject: he relates how he himself was targeted by the Right because of his role in sending reporters pro-Clinton stories.
As both journalist and Administration insider, Blumenthal finds himself in a unique position to comment on the media's role in fanning the impeachment flames against Clinton. Blumenthal shows how the mainstream media began to parrot false stories in their pages and on television as if they were gospel truth. He also offers a reason why they might have done so: "there was protection in conformity, as there always is in packs, and in social panics one loses status only by standing alone."
It's not only the recent Jayson Blair story that demonstrates the perils of a system that includes little or no factchecking. Blumenthal shows how the fallibility of that system was running amok during the Clinton years.
How Anti-Clinton Attacks Gave Way to Anti-Gore Attacks
Later in the book, Blumenthal explains how the same tactics that were used against Clinton, came to be used against Gore as well. He depicts the RNC as busy "creating new stories in the Gore-as-liar saga, its opposition research unit churning out material to an eagerly awaiting press." And again, he faults the reporters, publications, and TV morning shows which pick up on and publish false stories - leading to a domino effect in which even reports that are not credible end up shaping public perception anyway.
Blumenthal notes that besides painting Gore as a liar, Republicans also fed the media a portrait of a sleazy man tainted by a campaign finance scandal. Blumenthal quotes Mark Halperin, the ABC News political director, as saying, "Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his political skills, his motivations."
Meanwhile, according to Blumenthal, what came around did not go around: "the press that was disrespectful toward Gore was submissive toward Bush. By thrashing the one, they proved their independence; by going soft on the other, they demonstrated their fairness."
The book portrays Gore's failed bid for the presidency and the debacle in Florida. Blumenthal reports that, there, thousands of votes by black voters were discounted, so that the "disenfranchisement of Florida's voters fell most harshly on the shoulders of black voters." Indeed, Blumenthal declares that the 2000 election "was the latest, most spectacular, and most consequential case of the systematic abridgment of black voting rights since the years of Jim Crow."
The book ends with a moving list of what Clinton could have achieved had the proposals he made for new legislation been enacted - and what Gore could have achieved had he had been elected and thus been able to carry out Clinton's plans for the country.
Blumenthal concludes by returning to his thesis that the media and the Right's demonizing of Clinton is not unique, but rather that his experience is typical of that of progressive presidents. He writes, "[f]rom Jefferson to Jackson, from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, from Kennedy to Bill Clinton, the progressive presidents have met the challenges of new eras by widening the scope of democracy. Their opponents have charged, against them all, that their actions were scandalous and their innovations illegitimate. But the people have made their own judgments."
Blumenthal's book is a worthy effort to influence the public's judgment of Clinton and his legacy. What the book makes evident is that as events happen, the media controls the images that are portrayed at that moment, and people's judgments are made for them. The value in a book such as this is that it can digest the recent past, deconstruct the negative media images of the Clinton Presidency and the subsequent Gore campaign and hopefully move us toward a more balanced view.