The (un)friendly witness of Christopher Hitchens

The journalist brings all his bile to bear on the president he hates.

Published June 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton," a slim little book by Christopher Hitchens, comes to a close with a slim little index. As anyone who has ever dieted knows, slimness is not achieved without sacrifice. As evidence of the sacrifices Hitchens has made, and as a service to the prospective reader, allow me to offer some names you will not find in the index, nor anywhere else in his trim, tidy tome: Rutherford Institute, the; Arkansas Project, the; Hale, David; Scaife, Richard Mellon; Steele, Julie Hiatt; McDougal, Susan.

But worthiness is not measured by size alone, and though "No One Left to Lie To" is diminutive, it aims to be the Brave Little Diatribe That Could, the book that will once and for all expose the mendacity and corruption and just plain rottenness that is Clintonism. To accomplish that goal, Hitchens will muster all the contempt he had nurtured for Clinton over the past seven years and set off chugging uphill.

It seems appropriate to invoke a children's story, since the element of instruction lies heavy upon "No One Left to Lie To." Hitchens means to illuminate those fissures in the Clinton saga that have escaped us -- or more probably, according to him, that we have chosen to ignore. And in doing so he has, unconsciously or not, adopted the guise of two familiar figures of moral instruction, shifting between the idealistic Capraesque hero inspired with a shining vision of what government should be and the stern Victorian father upholding virtue by remaining forever on guard against the serpent worming its way into the bosom of decency. You can glimpse this father figure at work in the book's preface, in the service of a story that, Hitchens eventually gets around to telling us, is not true. His approach in these passages reveals something about the essence of the book.

This story begins in 1995, when Hitchens and his editors at Vanity Fair were approached by a woman claiming to have had a child by Clinton. Photos of the baby provided "an almost offputting resemblance to the putative father." The reasons Hitchens and his editors decided against pursuing the story are worth quoting:

First of all -- and even assuming the truth of the story -- the little boy had been conceived when Mr. Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas. At that time, he had not begun his highly popular campaign against defenseless indigent mothers. Nor had he emerged as the upright scourge of the "deadbeat dad" or absent father. The woman -- perhaps because she had African genes and worked as a prostitute -- had not been rewarded with a state job, even of the lowly kind bestowed on Gennifer Flowers. There seemed, in other words, to be no political irony or contradiction of the sort that sometimes licenses a righteous press in the exposure of iniquity.

As a rationale for not pursuing a story, this line of thought is on par with the question "When did you stop beating your wife?" Hitchens decides that you can't charge someone with hypocrisy retroactively -- that's the only quarter Clinton is given -- and then congratulates himself on his journalistic ethics. But follow the logic of the passage: Had Clinton -- "even assuming the truth of the story" -- done something to provide for this woman and her child, it would probably have taken the form of padding the public payroll. That he didn't, Hitchens surmises, is probably due to his racism.

We have entered a strange realm here, where divination meets character assassination. Like someone who gets tipsy on one glass of cheap champagne, Hitchens gets so buzzed on the black-baby scenario that it isn't until three pages into the tale that he gets around to telling us it proved to be false. And even then he doesn't come all the way down from his high: "Still, I couldn't but notice that White House spokesmen, when bluntly asked about the ... story by reporters, reacted as if it could be true." What a beautifully Orwellian construct! And how convenient. Hitchens can claim he's fulfilled his ethical obligations as a journalist while spreading a smear story. "For reasons of professional rather than political feeling," he concludes, "I felt glad that [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter and I had put privacy (and scruples that arose partly from the fatherhood of our own daughters) ahead of sensation all those years ago." So fatherhood (Hitchens has dedicated the book to his daughters) and, he claims, concern for Chelsea Clinton are what held him in check. Young womanhood can sleep soundly tonight. Vicar Hitchens is on the watch.

It's interesting to note, though, that Monica Lewinsky is only occasionally the recipient of this paternal benevolence. When accused of being a stalker, she is "a defenseless and vulnerable young woman." But when it's time to assail Clinton's behavior, she becomes "the president's comfort-woman-du-jour" and, more bluntly, "the minx." Luckily for Hitchens, there are other maidens whose virtue needs defending. These include Paula Jones, who, we are told, has been smeared as "a woman so common and dirty that she might even have enjoyed an encounter with Clinton" (though there is mention neither of the funding of her lawsuit by the right-wing Rutherford Institute and its eventual dismissal nor of Jones' own inability to distinguish a clumsy pass from sexual harassment); Juanita Broaddrick, who, we are told unequivocally, "was raped by Clinton" (though there is no mention of the way she has waffled on that story); and, of course, Kathleen Willey (though there is no mention of Willey's numerous lies, which have been reported by, among others, Hitchens' fellow Nation contributor Florence Graves). The feminine victim can have no better friend than Christopher Hitchens.

As far as Hitchens is concerned, to take Jones, Broaddrick or Willey at anything less than face value, to question their motives in any way, is tantamount to a smear. Thus, we can assume that he would consider even proof of Willey's past duplicity -- such as Time magazine's report that she had lied about being pregnant in order to punish the younger soccer coach who had broken off with her -- an unspeakably low tactic. Willey first denied that story to the Office of the Independent Counsel; she admitted to it only when the OIC told her it had independent confirmation and reminded her that she had been given immunity. Yet Hitchens considers it perfectly legitimate to print a rumor that Clinton was having "a liaison" with one of the contributors who stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, though he offers no evidence -- let alone proof.

Invective has always been one of Hitchens' finest talents. But in "No One Left to Lie To," his invective is joined, more often than not, to the telltale sign of the bluenose: the barely concealed excitement over what disgusts him. Dick Morris, in particular, pushes Hitchens to heights of repelled oratory ("wasting his substance ... with harlots and high living") that seem more appropriate to Victorian potboilers:

He and Mr. Clinton shared some pretty foul evenings together, bloating and sating themselves at public expense while consigning the poor and defenseless to yet more misery. The kinds of grossness and greed in which they indulged are perfectly cognate with one another -- selfish and fleshy and hypocritical and exploitive. "The Monster," Morris called Clinton when in private congress with his whore. "The Creep," she called Morris when she could get away and have a decent bath.

It's easy to forget, while wallowing through passages like that, that there is a thesis to this book. Its essence can be found in the subtitle "The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton," and it boils down, more or less, to the notion that Clinton has courted the left with his stated intentions while appeasing the right with his actions. And the damnable thing about "No One Left to Lie To" is that had Hitchens focused on that argument, he might have produced a very compelling and very damaging book. Early on during the 1996 presidential campaign, when it had become evident that leftists were willing to accept policy decisions from Clinton that they would have condemned from a right-winger, I decided that I couldn't support his reelection. The callous Welfare Reform Act (a name that disguised its true intentions); the (similarly misnamed) Defense of Marriage Act, with its craven middle-of-the-night signing; the First Amendment-trashing Communications Decency Act -- those were pieces of legislation that might have been expected of the far right. And when I expressed that opinion to liberal friends, they told me darkly that failing to vote for Clinton was risking a Dole victory. But the liberals I knew simply refused to acknowledge that a significant number of Clinton's policies were anathema to their beliefs.

Those policies -- which may have delivered the final blow to old-style Democratic liberalism and at any rate gave rise to the disguised, often rigid, conservatism of what has come to be characterized as "centrist" positions -- could have been the basis for a book about America's turn to the right. Certainly Hitchens recalls some episodes that bring nothing but shame upon Clinton, that make him look just as calculating and slimy as Hitchens claims he is. Perhaps the worst was Clinton's return to Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally handicapped death-row prisoner named Rickey Ray Rector. The execution went horribly wrong, with Rector's arm finally being slashed to insert a catheter when a vein for the lethal injection could not be found. (Rector was clearly unable to comprehend what was happening -- thinking that his executioners were doctors coming to his aid, he attempted to assist them.) And it's not particularly difficult to conclude that, taking place as it did during the New Hampshire primary, this execution was Clinton's preemptive strike against charges of being soft on crime -- that he was damned if anyone was going to catch him off guard by asking what he'd do if Hillary were raped and murdered.

At moments like this, Hitchens is once again the writer who has such a talent for marshaling exactly the facts people don't want to hear -- a talent he has taken a lot of flak for even when he's been on solid ground. I know of no better way to startle people than to give them Hitchens' brilliant polemic "The Missionary Position," which should have laid the myth of Mother Teresa's saintliness to rest once and for all.

But in "No One Left to Lie To," Hitchens almost always overplays his hand, coloring in decisions that are incompetent or mendacious or just plain wrong with hints of dark and covert deeds. In the case of the disastrous August 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, we are told that Clinton was appeasing Southern Christians who were lobbying Congress to prohibit business with countries that discriminate against Christians. At other times Hitchens writes with the outraged disgust of someone just discovering that politics, much like journalism, is an incredibly dirty business that brings you into contact with all sorts of disreputable people.

When there is no real evidence of wrongdoing, Hitchens allows mere association to suffice. It isn't making excuses for corruption to suggest that a political writer of some years' experience is striking a note of willful naiveti by pretending shock that certain shady people have easy access to political leaders. Those people are, to Hitchens, exactly the sort with whom the Clintons belong, and the inference he makes again and again is that theirs is a particularly Southern species of depravity. He is not as obvious as most writers who can barely hide their disgust with white Southerners. "He had successfully imported unsavory Arkansas business practices to Washington": Note that the practices are intrinsic not to Clinton or his tenure as governor but to the state. Hitchens raises the charge of racism in the story of Clinton's withdrawal of Lani Guinier's nomination. (Cowardly, yes, but racist?) In the midst of a passage describing the results of Clinton's scaling back welfare, Hitchens tosses in the wholly unsubstantiated complaint that women who still receive benefits are "not infrequently pressed for sexual favors as the price of the ticket"; the clear implication is of a plantation state presided over by debauched Massa Bill.

Elsewhere there are out-of-the-blue references to "the tawdry pieties of Baptist and Methodist hypocrisy" and to Clinton's making "the most of his Dixie drawl." And in the spirit of the late Albert Goldman's famous reference to Elvis' "uncircumcised ... ugly hillbilly pecker," Hitchens eventually gets around to jeering the presidential member: "Indeed, [Paula Jones] implied that it would have taken two of his phalluses to make one normal one, which could even be part of the reason why he paid her the sum of $840,000 to keep quiet." Not only a lying, whoring, wholly corrupt Bubba but a small-dicked one as well.

Like the Republicans who drove the impeachment machine, Hitchens is motivated by his disgust for the man. Like them he trots out the ludicrous rationale that Clinton's relations with Monica Lewinsky are the public's business both because they took place in a public building, the White House (are the relations between the president and his wife subject to the same scrutiny?), and because Clinton's efforts to involve Vernon Jordan in obtaining a job for Lewinsky amounted to obstruction of justice (though the time line Clinton's lawyers demonstrated in the Senate hearings pretty thoroughly demolished that supposition). And like the right-wingers who were determined to get Clinton, he refers to the president's head inquisitor with the respectful appellation "Judge Starr" -- a correct title, to be sure, but one that tells us a good deal about the person who uses it.

Suffice to say that Hitchens is not concerned with Starr's abuses -- the leaks, the intimidation of witnesses, the smearing of reputations and the burdening of lives with legal bills -- nor with the consistent rejection of Starr's charges by both the public and the juries who heard the cases that were the withered fruits of his investigation. He isn't concerned with Starr's ties to the Jones lawsuit ("It's not much of a riposte ... for Clinton's people to say that the unfashionable nobody [Jones] had some shady right-wing friends. However shady they were, they didn't fall to the standard of Dick Morris") or with the notion that the impeachment was an attempted coup: "a coup refers, properly as well as metaphorically, to an abrupt seizure of power by unelected forces." But what happens when the elected flout the will of the electorate?

Yet perhaps we should be grateful that Hitchens doesn't go too far into the impeachment; we are thus spared further embarrassment. When an unnamed Democratic senator points out that the Republican House managers "haven't presented the case very well," Hitchens' response is "as if the Republicans had really been allowed to present their case at all." What do you do with a claim so far removed from reality?

Perhaps the only place you can venture from there is even further into fantasy, which Hitchens does when, inevitably, he gets around to the matter of the affidavit he submitted to the House Judiciary Committee. Immediately he adopts the language of the victim: "At this point, I became the hostage of a piece of information that I possessed." Hitchens had come into possession of the information that turned him into Fay Wray at a lunch with his friend Sidney Blumenthal, the White House aide, when Blumenthal told him he had learned from Clinton that the president was being threatened by Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens' defense of the affidavit is much the same as it has been since February: that he had already told the story many times, including once in print, and that before signing it he had "made it plain that I would not testify against anyone but Clinton, and only in his Senate trial."

It's hard to separate the sheer deceit in that claim from the self-deceit. A signed affidavit to a Congressional committee is, unlike a press story, a document with legal ramifications, and Hitchens knew it. And he obviously knew that the damage inflicted by an affidavit stating that Blumenthal had lied in his testimony could not be limited to Clinton. The idea that Hitchens wouldn't be hurting his friend was clearly a fantasy -- but perhaps fantasy is where Hitchens has been heading all along. "I would not testify against anyone but Clinton, and only in his Senate trial." Having been denied that opportunity, he has presented us with "No One Left to Lie To," the star turn he didn't get on the witness stand. And as the book builds up to the rhetorical flourishes of its conclusion ("It took no time to make up my mind that I wouldn't protect Clinton's lies, or help pass them along. I wasn't going to be the last one left to lie to"), we can hear music swelling, see the spotlights focusing, take in the camera rolling -- "I'm ready for my close-up now, Justice Rehnquist." The issues Hitchens is writing about are big. It's his ethics that got small.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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Bill Clinton Books Christopher Hitchens Dick Morris