On January 21, 1998, President Bill Clinton confided to an advisor, Sidney Blumenthal, that he felt like a character in Darkness at Noon, the Arthur Koestler novel about a former commissar charged with treason by a totalitarian state. Clinton was accused of lying under oath about sex with a White House intern. Koestler's central character, alone in a cell, faced death at the hands of a Stalin-like leader; Clinton, surrounded by an army of lawyers, faced embarrassment and, at worst, the loss of his job as president. But mentioning Darkness at Noon injected the grandeur of history into his squalid situation.
Clinton was a self-dramatist, as we could tell by watching him. He loved to shed public tears, and soon became notorious for insisting "I feel your pain," another way of attracting attention. My guess is that he rarely felt anyone else's pain. In public, certainly, he was an exaggerated version of a familiar character type, the narcissist. The record suggests he was a man of infinite self-pity entirely lacking perspective. He never understood that many of his troubles were not the work of his enemies but the result of his own failings.
Almost from the beginning, an unmistakable air of fishiness arose from the Clinton White House. Bill and Hillary were garrulous when speaking of the wonderful things they planned to do but tight-lipped when questioned on anything even slightly dubious. Particularly in dealing with the financial facts of their lives, they were parsimonious with the truth. They responded so slowly to legal demands for documents that their reluctance convicted them long before the evidence was in -- even if (as with Whitewater) the final judgment found them guilty of nothing worse than routinely shabby political behaviour. Their infinite slipperiness made their friends nervous, and greatly encouraged their enemies.
Can it be only two years and a bit since Clinton retired? He seems now like a figure from another era, and when he appears in public he's like an apparition. That's because his presidency lives on the other side of 9/11. A new age of terrorism and war changed the tone of U.S. life and made the Clinton years seem far more distant in time than they are.
This week masochists have been struggling through Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), an appalling souvenir of Clinton's time -- that "dead, dishonest decade," as W.H. Auden said of the 1930s. It's an 822-page attempt to justify everything the Clintons did while viciously maligning their critics. The Clintons kept most journalists at a distance, but discovered even before the 1992 election that they could trust Blumenthal, a writer successively for The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. He earned their trust so well, in fact, that many reporters considered him their private scribe. No one was surprised when he joined the White House staff in the second term.
What Blumenthal says now is just as predictable as what he said when he worked in the White House -- and equally unpersuasive. He writes with what William Gladstone defined as "a spirit of courtierlike adulation." Emotionally and intellectually he remains locked in the White House, answerable to both Clintons for whatever he thinks or says. Instead of a book, he's written a lawyer's brief, conceding nothing to the other side. All charges against Clinton were trumped up by the vast right-wing conspiracy that Hillary Clinton identified and in which Blumenthal seems to believe with equal fervour. Apparently, a cabal of millionaires and ideologues hated Clinton for being a brilliant liberal and did all they could to thwart him.
They seem to have been remarkably ineffective, since he got elected twice, but that kind of contradiction doesn't interest Blumenthal any more than it interested the Clintons. They clung to their status as victims. Having become for more than eight years more powerful than anyone else in the world, they insisted on feeling sorry for themselves.
Much of what Blumenthal tells us seems highly incredible on its face. He calls Clinton "the poorest president elected in the twentieth century." That might be true of his childhood, though it was also true of Truman's, Eisenhower's, and Johnson's. But when he was elected? People who are actually poor would be unlikely to apply that term to a graduate of Yale Law who had attended Oxford and acquired an army of rich friends.
Rather surprisingly, Blumenthal's account makes the inner life of the president seem even emptier than it did when he was in office. In 1998, testifying before a grand jury, Clinton answered a question: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If 'is' means 'is and never has been' that's one thing -- if it means 'there is none,' that ..." etc. Clinton's babbling legalisms resembled the prose-poetry of Gertrude Stein and will probably ensure him a place in dictionaries of quotations for centuries. Blumenthal's partisan account of a hollow man in the Oval Office unintentionally recalls the most famous of all Gertrude Stein remarks, on her home town of Oakland: "There is no there there."