Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Simon & Schuster, 562 pages, $28.
The Clinton Wars, by Sidney Blumenthal. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 822 pages, $30.
REVIEWER: Steven F. Hayward
It was not to be expected that either of these memoirs would be very good, though it is a mistake, as I shall argue, to dismiss them as simply hogwash or self-serving propaganda. Presidential memoirs are notoriously bland shallow and uninformative (with the notable exceptions of the memoirs of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon), and Hillary's ongoing political ambition circumscribes her derivative effort even further.
Hillary Rodham Clinton calls her book Living History, but she and her (apparently) six ghostwriters labor to make it as dead on the page as possible, thus enabling a reader to resist the tempting tropism that the book should be called Rewriting History. In fact, a deliberate anesthetic blandness serves her political purpose by making people think perhaps she isn't so radical after all. It recalls Whitaker Chambers' description of how Alger Hiss would go about vindicating himself through endless professions of innocence:
Hillary Rodham Clinton has already shown considerable political skill by seizing a New York seat in the U.S. Senate, but she still has a lot of baggage to shed, if she is to be a plausible presidential candidate. Many readers of this book will come away with the impression: "Gee, she doesn't sound so radical to me."
Thus, Living History is a project to mask or soften Hillary's massive will to political power. Perhaps, the most revealing moment of Hillary's time in the White House was her famous 1993 speech on "the politics of meaning." In this speach, she argued that we must "remold society by redefining what it means to to be a human being in the 20th. century," which will require "remaking the American way of politics, government, indeed life." This goes far beyond the usual garden-variety Democratic Party Leftist Liberal Progressivism. The idea of "redefining who we are in this post-modern age" implies that there is no human nature, or that whatever human nature there is defines itself through sheer self-assertion. In other words, the human soul can be transformed at will.
For Hillary Clinton to say that we need to remake the American way of politics, government, and life is to imply that government has the right, even the duty, to change man into something he now is not. This effluvium prompted The New Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier, normally Far Left in his politics, to offer a harsh judgement about the Clintonistas:
Recalling Michael Oakshott's axiom that "the conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny, "Hillary's "vision" is truly frightening.
In her book, Hillary attempts to deradicalize this theme by attributing its inspiration to the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater! Atwater, dying of brain cancer in 1989, understandably mused about his own spiritual deficiencies, and generalized it to the nation as a whole, when writing a magazine article, an article which was published at the time of his death. Expunged entirely from Living History is the actual inspiration of Hillary's speech by the radical Jewish thinker, Michael Lerner. It wouldn't do for Hillary's attempt to grasp the mantle of bipartisan moderation to advertise the real sources of her "politics of meaning." Her most brazen sanitizing effort is an early line paraphrased (without attribution) from Ronald Reagan to explain why she departed from her early political leanings as a Goldwater girl in 1964: "I sometimes think that I didn't leave the Republican Party as much as it left me." See: I didn't move Left; those wascally Wepublicans moved Right.
Sidney Blumenthal's book, The Clinton Wars, is more explicit and honest in several ways, although his well-known partisan hostility and paranoia warp the oveall effort. There is an overwhelming tone of bitterness in both books -- bitterness about Kenneth Starr, Republicans, Ralph Nader, the news media (in the Clinton-Blumenthal hall of mirrors, the media is a captive of the reactionary Right!), and especially Richard Melton Scaife, who lurked behind every corner of what Hillary described as "the dark underbelly of the Republican Right."
Underneath this bitterness is a sense of unjustly insulted propriety. The Clintons and their circle are just such good people, with great ideas for America. The Conservative attack machine prevented Americans from swooning before the Clintons' nobility and brilliance. The unworthy Conservative opposition to the Clintons deprived America of the greatness they had to offer, which would have delivered us into the broad uplit sunlands of modernity. Conservatives are not just wrong; they are illegitimate. "Had the proposals Clinton made for new legislation been enacted," Blumenthal laments, "the United States would now have universal health insurance, affordable prescription drugs for senior citizens, universal day care, more schools, higher teacher salaries and higher educational standards, more gun safety, greater voting rights, new civil rights laws against discrimination, and an even higher minimum wage." He adds: "If Gore had become President, undoubtedly progress would have been made on all these fronts."
The theme of the Clintons' essential goodness is carefully muted in Hillary Rodham Clinton's book, but explicit in Sidney Blumenthal's. "Born in something like a log cabin," Blumenthal writes of Bill Clinton, "he was a member of a loose network that had grown up together politically since the 1960s.... The lingua franca of this network was the language of policy, the specifics of governmental activism. To be part of the network meant to be connected to its ongoing conversation. It was a large moveable feast, meeting at foundations, nonprofit issue-based organizations, universities, think-tanks, journals, and the Democratic Party in all its manifestations." Jeepers, it sounds almost like a Vast Lefrwing Conspiracy.
The Manichean Blumenthal makes sure we understand that these are good people, while Conservatives are bad people. Take, for example, his description of the rival political consultants Lee Atwater and Bob Squier. "Atwater, then a thirty-eight year-old South Carolinian, strutted as a Southern bad boy, masking his insecurities. His pose as an electric guitar playing bluesman added to his image as a rebel.... Bush, the candidate who saw politics as unclean, hired Atwater to do the political dirty work for him." Not the sort of fellow you'd invite to dinner. Squier, on the other hand, "was unusual among politicos for his literary and epicurean interests. He had made PBs documentaries about Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, and he had operated a wine press at his Virginia country home."
It is self-evident to Blumenthal that Al Gore was more worthy than George W. Bush to be President. "Gore had trained to run for the Presidency.... Gore had command of an almost infinite array of intricate details and technicalities of science and social policy. He had mastered difficult fields, one after another, and arrived at innovative solutions to persistent problems." By contrast, "George W. Bush/s advantages had been carefully arranged for him his whole life." In prep school, Blumenthal reminds us, Bush's "chief distinction was as chief cheerleader." Hence, Blumenthal isn't sated merely with refuting, in pains-taking detail, the ethical charges against Bill Clinton that culminated in impeachment, he ends his book with several chapters on the media unfairness to Al Gore and how Bush stole the election in Florida. "Those whom the gods would destroy," the ancient Greek lyric goes, "they first make mad." Blumenthan has written his own epitaph as a serious journalist, just as the Democrats, in their blind fury over George W. Bush, seem poised to drive over the cliff with Howard Dean, the perfect Blumenthal candidate.
It is a double mistake, however, to regard these memoirs as mere score-settling or self-serving revisionism. Blumenthal's book, especially, is built on a purebred Progressivism that is rarely so clearly articulated from the political Left today. One searches in vain in either book for a single mention of limited government, constitutional intent, or individual liberty. Hillary Clinton supposedly channels Eleanor Roosevelt; Sidney Blumenthan channels Woodrow Wilson. "The Presidency is the chief engine of progress in American history," Blumenthal writes; "its leadership and power are central." Progressive presidents "seek to expand democracy by redefining the social contract.... Progressive presidents see themselves as the sole legitimate agent of the majority. In their mission to extend opportunity and rights, they constantly improvise their relationship with the people. They believe it is their unique responsibility and prerogative to reshape the country." Each Progressive president, like Clinton, inherits the unfinished programs of the previous Progressive president. Clinton "wanted to rebuild the inert executive branch and restore it as a Progressive force, in order to turn the national government into an agent of change for American society as a whole. All these institutions [of the national government] were like bent, rusty tools that needed hammering and recasting."
Blumenthal goes on for pages in this vein. He attempts, by sleight of hand (as does Hillary in a more cursory way), to deny the radicalism implicit in this understanding of unending Progressive politics, portraying Bill Clinton's object to be the "Third Way" between political Left and political Right, "neither statist nor laissez faire." (Hillary calls it "the dynamic center.") Blumenthal unwittingly reveals Clinton's Third Way to be a fraud. He repeatedly describes Clinton's successful drive to the White House as being based on repudiating "the perceived failures" of the 1960s Liberalism that shattered the Democratic Party. [Emphasis added.] Blumenthal's use of "perceived" failures, and his quotations of Clinton saying, "We're got to turn these perceptions around," imply that Liberal Leftist social policy was not mistaken, and, if this is their sincere belief, then the "Third Way" represents not an authenic moderate synthesis, but a marketing tactic.
As dreadful as these books are in a literary sense, they are politically instructive, even though in a manner not intended by their authors. Living History reminds us about the cleverness and determination of Hillary Rodham Clinton. One fears that she has learned only too well from her mistakes. And Sidney Blumenthal.s narrative awakens us to the realization that the concentration on the Clintons' scandalous behavior distracted from the real political game -- a game Conservatives are still losing in too many places.
American Government & the U.S. Presidency
Liberalism & Conservatism in American Politics
Liberals, Statists, Socialists, & Other Leftists
Steven F, Hayward is a fellow of the Claremont Institute for Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and the author of The
Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980. Hayward's review of Living History and The Clinton
Wars was originally published in the Claremont Institute's monthly periodical, The Proposition (August, 2003),
and was adapted from a longer article which appeared in the Fall, 2003, issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
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