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The Clinton Wars: An Insider’s Account of the White House Years
Sidney Blumenthal
Penguin Books, 2003.
£25.00, 822 pages, ISBN: 0-670-91204-2 (hardback).

Mokhtar Ben Barka
Université d’Angers


From August 1997 to January 2001, Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist and political thinker, served as Assistant and Senior Advisor to President Clinton. Prior to his entry to the White House inner circle, he had worked at The New Yorker, The Washington Post, New Republic and Vanity Fair, and published several books, including The Rise of the Counter-Establishment and Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War.

As the subtitle clearly indicates, The Clinton Wars is an insider’s account of the Clinton presidency, drawing on the author’s experiences as confidant to both the President and the First Lady. 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 participated in nearly all the battles of the Clinton years. In this massive volume (822 pages), part history and part memoir, the author chronicles Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign and term of office through his second term, focusing on both domestic and foreign affairs (like Bill Clinton’s conflicts with Congress and the Bosnian crisis). Enriched with previously unpublished revelations about the Clintons, Blumenthal’s work offers an insightful explanation of the polarizing nature of Bill Clinton’s presence on the national scene.

The Clinton Wars, which is divided into eighteen chapters, begins in 1987 when the author first met Bill and Hillary Clinton at “Renaissance Weekend”, a gathering held in Hilton Head, South Carolina. On that occasion, Bill Clinton spoke about his decision not to run for the presidency in the coming campaign. He admitted that he wanted to run but was not ready. “[Bill Clinton] had ambition,” Blumenthal comments, “but he possessed more than that essential quality. He was a charismatic if loquacious speaker who had an easy facility with the arcane of public policy. His formidable wife was a force in her own right” (7). After summarizing the middle-class background of Bill Clinton, Blumenthal compares the latter to Franklin D. Roosevelt. For him, they had much in common. Both were activist Democrats assuming the presidency after twelve years of conservative Republican leadership. Both were confronted by immensely difficult problems. Both had ambitions and both were committed to changing the face of American politics.

A substantial amount of space (about one quarter of the book!) is devoted to the various controversies and “pseudoscandals” (66-67) that plagued the Clinton presidency, namely Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair, culminating with the impeachment trial. As the author notes, “Clinton had all sorts of natural opponents” (49). Their hatred of the Clintons was characterized by a level of malice that transcended normal partisan opposition. They were just out to get him any way they could, and when sex proved a convenient route, they used it. In chapters three, five, ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen, the author pieces together the various components of what Mrs. Clinton called “a vast right-wing conspiracy”, from Little Rock enemies and haters to the lawyers of the Federalist Society who worked their connections to the Office of the Independent Counsel to shift its focus from real estate to sex. Despite their statements that they lost money on the project, the Clintons were said to have benefited from Whitewater. While nothing major seemed to have involved the Clintons, the picture wasn’t edifying. And the Independent Counsel, Kenneth Starr, was continuing his broad investigation. For Blumenthal, Whitewater was a phony political affair ginned up by the GOP and the Christian Right. “There was never anything to Whitewater. There was never anything to it in the beginning, middle, or end” (65). Richard Mellon Scaife, Cliff Jackson, Theodore Olson, Lucianne Goldberg, Floyd Brown, Jerome Marcus and Richard Porter are portrayed as master manipulators of the all-too-compliant media. But, in the last resort, it was Kenneth Starr, the Independent Counsel who connected the Whitewater real estate and banking deals to Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct within the precincts of the White House. As for Monica Lewinsky, Blumenthal paints her as a predatory and unstable stalker. Finally, he blames the reporters who allowed themselves to be used by Kenneth Starr and his team. In this regard, it should be noted that Sydney Blumenthal failed to say that many journalists were misled by Kenneth Starr.

In the 1994 Congressional elections, the Republicans gained control of the Congress, including the House of Representatives, for the first time in forty years. As a result of the titanic battle between the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress, the reform of health care coverage—meant to make coverage universal and more certain—was defeated. In the fall of 1995, the Republican majority in Congress, led by the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, forced the shutting down of the Federal government in a budget showdown with Bill Clinton. All services stopped. Particularly given the timing, coming some months after terrorist Timothy McVeigh had bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, the move was a fiasco of the first order.

These events led to Clinton’s sharp turn to the right (chapter four). To outplay his Republican enemies, President Clinton adopted a policy of “triangulation”—occupying middle position between the Gingrich revolutionaries on the right, and the Congressional Democratic Leadership on the left. In 1995, he signed a balanced budget, and turned historic deficits into surpluses, co-opting the Republican Wall Street constituency. The president’s turn to the right did not go unnoticed; on the contrary, “[h]is sharp movement caused misapprehension and consternation” (143).

After the impeachment failed, Sydney Blumenthal went back to his normal work as political thinker in residence, preparing for the millennium and setting up seminars on the “Third way” so that President Clinton could compare notes with centrist political leaders, and more particularly with Tony Blair. Blumenthal is actually credited with introducing the two men and helping cement the relationship.

The final chapters of the book include firsthand accounts of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign in New York, and of the fight to elect Al Gore in 2000, with its denouement in Florida, as well as an eloquent assessment of what the Clinton legacy means for the future of America: “just as the presidents of the late twentieth century operated in the shadow of FDR, those of the first part of the twenty-first century will stand in the shadow of Clinton” (794). The book closes with three stanzas from the poet Walt Whitman whom Blumenthal describes as “Abraham Lincoln’s great admirer.”

This book provides a profound understanding of politics and a unique perspective on the crucial events of America’s recent past. It will therefore appeal to the general reader as well as to the professional historian. As an insider, Sydney Blumenthal is well-qualified to tell the real story of the Clinton presidency. The Clinton Wars attests to its author’s exhaustive knowledge of campaigns and presidencies, literary skill, and feeling for history. Blumenthal’s closeness to and sympathy for the Clintons are incontestable. The fact still remains that this book is far from a partisan account; the balance is kept between fair treatment and loyalty. It is no easy feat.

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