A president worth fighting for

Sidney Blumenthal talks about his new tell-all Clinton memoir, the New York Times scandal bigger than Jayson Blair, why liberals shouldn't run from Fox News, and how Democrats can beat the Bushes.

Published May 22, 2003 12:33AM (EDT)

Sidney Blumenthal was raised in the rough and tumble world of a Chicago Jewish family, where men were not above using their fists to settle arguments or getting job offers from Bugsy Siegel and double-dating with Jack Ruby. His first political job came as a boy working for the bare-knuckled Daley machine and his first political hero was the handsome young Jack Kennedy, who swept through Chicago on his way to the White House -- a man who embodied an idealistic vision of the future, but whose family was also not above scrapping their way to victory.

Blumenthal would take both his idealism and his combativeness with him when he joined the Clinton White House in 1997 as a senior advisor. Blumenthal began his career as a political reporter, but other journalists later denounced him as a partisan hack for writing in glowing terms about the Clintons, whom he met during their rise to national prominence, and then going to work for them. Conservative enemies branded him "Sid Vicious" and "Bill's Dirt Devil" for the way he gave as good as he got during the savage impeachment battle. But many Clinton supporters came to respect Blumenthal for the shrewd toughness he brought to politics -- an attribute in short supply in weak-willed Democratic circles.

Blumenthal faded from the spotlight after the Clinton administration gave way to the Bush restoration. But he is back -- some would say with a vengeance -- with his new book, "The Clinton Wars," recently serialized by Salon and in stores this week. Some have called the riveting, inside look at the Clinton White House and the political bonfires that besieged it "Blumenthal's payback," his chance to get even with all those who brought him and his president misery -- from Ken Starr to Matt Drudge (who falsely accused Blumenthal of being a wife-beater) to Christopher Hitchens (who betrayed his old friend in an 11th-hour gambit to convict Clinton in the Senate). But Blumenthal insists he is simply trying to "set the record straight."

We caught up with Blumenthal this week at the W Hotel in midtown Manhattan, as his book tour began. He chatted about the pleasures of jousting with Fox News' Sean Hannity, why the New York Times' Whitewater coverage remains a bigger journalistic scandal than any offense committed by disgraced reporter Jayson Blair, and what Democratic presidential contenders can learn from Clinton when it comes to beating the Bushes.

How's the book tour going? Are you getting attacked by the right-wing conspiracy?

As a matter of fact, I just finished doing Sean Hannity's radio show. He had me on for 45 minutes; he wanted me to do the whole hour, but I told him I had to run for this interview.

David, excuse me, it's the president on the other line. Can I call you back?

[Twenty minutes later]

So how's the president doing?

I'm sorry, I couldn't get him [Clinton] off the phone -- he's pumped about all this stuff. It's the first book that puts his administration in a historical context and conveys all the inside details of what went on.

So, back to Hannity and Fox.

Hannity apparently liked the book, we had a good time together; he seemed to like talking to someone with a different point of view. We talked about the Starr inquisition. I asked him, "Would it have helped the country if JFK had been investigated for his affair with an intern by a Ken Starr during the Cuban missile crisis?"

Hannity said to me, "Come on, am I and the people here at Fox really part of the vast right-wing conspiracy?" I said, "Why on earth do you want to deny that you and your friends are running the country? Just buy my book and look at the index -- you'll see who's in the vast conspiracy."

Why did you decide to go on Hannity's show? A lot of liberals boycott Fox because they feel they're just used as chum for the sharks.

Hannity's is the second biggest radio show after Limbaugh and he's the second biggest cable TV pundit after O'Reilly; I hadn't paid a lot of attention to him before. But I was glad to go toe to toe. I didn't find him mean-spirited. He tried to ask slanted questions that pushed me back on my heels, but I felt fine firing back -- and he let me speak. In fact he just asked me to go on his TV show this week.

In some ways it seems the liberal New York Times has a more antagonistic relationship with Clintonites like you than Fox does.

Well, the Times has taken the book seriously. David Carr did a fair and balanced report. Janet Maslin's review fit in with a number of other journalists -- she took every single thing out of context. She never challenged any facts, said my portrait of Starr was correct, and called the book highly readable -- but she acted as if Whitewater was a settled matter and that it was indeed a scandal. Whereas everyone who knows the facts knows that every single federal agency has cleared the Clintons. I have found that some journalists simply write for other journalists -- they write for the pack.

But Robert Dallek's review in the Sunday Book Review section, on the other hand, was by a very serious American historian. He's an uninterested party and he reviewed it as a contribution to history. That's a marker and a standard.

"The Clinton Wars" is far from an apologia like one of those Nixon aide memoirs that were written from prison. I set out to write a political history and firsthand memoir by someone who had immediate access to the West Wing, the president, the first lady, and was a participant in the events of the time. Not only to write about the important turning points, but the sensibility in the White House, and to put the Clinton administration into historical context. To have written otherwise would have been very detrimental to history. Do you know the book "Reveille in Washington," by Margaret Leech -- about life in Washington during the Civil War? It had a big impact on me. My book is life in Washington during the Clinton wars.

And yet many people simply see your book as a settling of scores, Blumenthal payback for all the grief that you and Clinton took during those years.

I don't think of this as a settling of scores, but a clarifying of the record. I couldn't talk about people like Christopher Hitchens at the time, because it would have been against the interests of the president to have focused on a sensational story at just the moment the president was being acquitted. I haven't written this book with a mean spirit, with invective.

I write about people who were an important part of the story but who have never been chronicled -- in some cases, because they're in the media, and the media doesn't cover itself. I show how parts of media got the story all wrong, from Whitewater on, how they got invested in it, became Starr "informers" to use his word, how social Washington became a vicious anti-Clinton clique and did not reflect the confidence of a governing class that once existed.

Why were official Washington and the media establishment so anti-Clinton?

They didn't share his commitment to shaking up the old order. And then, at the beginning of his administration, he was too embroiled in political conflicts -- over the economy, gay rights, healthcare and trade issues -- to sufficiently stroke the Washington and media gatekeepers. The Bush administration's attitude of utter contempt toward the press seems to work better. The press is sociologically much closer to the Democrats. Everyone's always going on about the liberal media. It's no mystery -- there's a natural selection process that goes on, the profession attracts certain people for the same reason that some people become heads of pharmaceuticals. Why get all exercised about it -- it's like accusing bankers of having conservative leanings. But as a result of this sociological affinity, the press feels both closer and more competitive with Democratic administrations than they do with Republican ones. The competitiveness inherent in journalism was brought to bear on many of the media's peers in the Clinton administration.

Many Washington journalists felt -- and in some cases, still do -- a special antipathy toward you, particularly after you crossed over from the working press to the Clinton White House. Do you understand this hostility?

There's a lot of confusion about my role -- I stopped writing about the Clintons in '94.

When [New Yorker editor] Tina Brown took you off the White House beat because she felt you were too close to the Clintons.

Correct. My sin was I broke with the Washington press corps over Whitewater. That's when I got into trouble -- because I thought Whitewater was bogus. I looked into it, as I tell in the book, and I came to the conclusion there was nothing there. Hillary gave me a two-hour explanation of her side of Whitewater -- she did the same with a couple of other Washington journalists, including [Washington Post executive editor] Len Downie. I was inclined to believe her -- and, as I say, I looked into it for myself to make sure. Over time, everything she said turned out to be true. Downie, on the other hand, took another position, and he decided to launch the Washington Post on a tireless and fruitless investigation. The press pack became so frenzied in its hunt for Whitewater crimes that they turned on anyone who didn't share their enthusiasm as a traitor.

This saga was much more damaging to journalism than anything that Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass did --- the New York Times' and the Washington Post's persistent pursuit of the empty, politically manipulated story of Whitewater. The fact that these leading papers adhered to this hoax over the years by suppressing contradictory, relevant and exculpatory facts that disproved their premises, including the Pillsbury report and many other facts -- that's the real journalism scandal of the past decade or more. And the top editors at these newspapers arrogantly confused all efforts at correcting the facts with assaults on the integrity of their institutions. They couldn't think their way through the Watergate syndrome -- they'd lost their ability to reason. This was Watergate turned on its head -- they became part of the dirty tricks. When the Clinton administration objected to these groundless probes, these journalists simply got their backs up and redoubled their efforts.

The review of my book by [former New York Times executive editor] Joe Lelyveld that recently ran in the New York Review of Books was a defense of the Times' Whitewater coverage -- which he was responsible for. And in the course of the review, he repeated a number of the mistakes and errors made by the press during Whitewater. He used the review to justify one of recent history's most egregious cases of journalistic irresponsibility.

After their Wen Ho Lee debacle, the Times attempted to set the record straight. They did the same with Jayson Blair. It's long past time for the Times and Post to review their Whitewater coverage, and to learn from the experience, in order to avoid being used politically in the future.

There are many reporters and editors who share these sentiments within the Times and Post. But now we've moved from journalism to history. If journalism is a first draft of history, well, it was extremely rough. But now it's time for history to set the record straight on Whitewater.

Who in the media got the story right?

Lars-Erik Nelson, the late New York Daily News columnist, was a hero of mine, Gene Lyons, Bob Scheer, Joe Conason. The Wall Street Journal did its job and reported at length on the exculpatory Pillsbury report on Whitewater. The Los Angeles Times printed a number of reports that over time undermined the myth of Whitewater. Just good, basic reporting. The Washington bureau of the L.A. Times was not caught up in same frenzy that other news institutions were. And I know it's Salon that's doing this interview, but Salon got it right, too.

Why did you abandon journalism to join the Clinton team?

I believed in what Clinton was doing and it was a great chance to be a participant at the heart of a presidency I believed in. I was friends with both Clintons, I believed in the administration's policies, its political struggle, I thought I could make a big difference.

Can you go back now to your old trade?

Well, I believe that serving in government really informs you in ways that you can never be on the outside. For one thing, you quickly learn how little you know even at the center of governmental power.

Clinton is credited with making the Democrats a winning party again. But the latest crop of presidential candidates looks pretty hapless as the Democrats gear up against Bush. What can Democrats learn from presidents who knew how to play to win -- like a Kennedy or a Clinton?

Don't lose the plot. Don't go talking as if history began with George W. Bush. Don't forget the progress we made under Clinton: 22 million new jobs, full employment, the greatest rise in family income and real wages in a generation, a 25 percent reduction in poverty, the greatest rise in living standards among African-Americans since the end of Jim Crow. Use the markers to draw the comparison: Bush losing 3 million jobs so far, opposing women's rights, increasing wage disparities.

Presidents matter, they matter in the lives of ordinary people. By law, they're responsible for the economy and its instruments. The economy is not the weather. Clinton took the tough decision of fighting for passage of the 1993 budget -- not one Republican voted with him -- and by doing that, he reduced the deficit by three-quarters and helped to ignite the economy. So it matters what the president does.

Let's look at compassionate conservatism -- the reality vs. the rhetoric. In fact, Bush has undermined and attacked the very programs that were supposedly at the heart of his philosophy. All the programs he listed in his speeches, he hasn't done a damn thing about them -- tax credits for low-income people for health insurance and rental housing; funding for homeless shelters. He's even cut Meals on Wheels for seniors and cut the children's health insurance program. Where's the compassion? It's all hot air.

On the international side, we see similar reversals. Bush is seen as a strong leader now because of the military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet the U.S. somehow still seems more in danger. In today's world, it's diplomacy backed by force that makes the U.S. stronger. We understand that collective security and our allies are crucial to attaining our goals -- not only in winning wars, but in fighting global diseases, and promoting education, women's rights, environmental protection, and labor standards. All of which have not just been neglected by Bush, but opposed.

But the Democrats' current leaders don't just fail at underlining their policy differences with Bush, they also fail in the trenches of political combat.

I believe that no attack should go unanswered. You have to correct the record. There are two reasons for that: If you don't, people won't understand you, and two, if you don't fight for yourself, why should people believe that you'll fight for them?

The rebellious Democratic legislators in Texas showed terrific courage against the anti-democratic authoritarianism of Tom DeLay. That's an example of politicians standing up for themselves and getting respect for it. I'm looking forward to the Democratic presidential candidates getting out there and doing the same. You know, 2004 is not a lost cause at all. There's plenty of time for people to see the myriad failures of the Bush administration.

Now that so many self-righteous, conservative windbags have been exposed as hypocrites, from Newt Gingrich to William Bennett, do you think that the era of the politics of personal destruction is finally coming to an end?

I would hope the American people are onto this GOP game by now. But no, I don't think it's over. Because it has worked so well for the Republicans. What is good is that the institution of the independent counsel -- an unaccountable perversity -- has been abolished.

It's in the history and nature of the Bush family and Karl Rove, when they're hard-pressed, to use harsh and divisive tactics in order to win -- just ask John McCain who was subjected to them in South Carolina. And they know how to do it in underhanded, untraceable ways. They did the same thing to Dukakis. They tried it on Bill Clinton, but he beat them -- by his stamina and his unwavering focus on great public goals. He made the American people see how his programs helped them in their daily lives, how it was in their self-interest to support him. That's why Democrats can't lose the plot. That's why remembering the history in my book is important, what the Clinton administration was all about.

Many of your political enemies would say you play just as down and dirty as the Bush family.

I show in my book that these accusations were phony. The day that the New York Post ran a front-page photo of me as "Bill's Dirt Devil," I simply shrugged it off. I came in to a White House meeting that day, singing the Stones' song "Sympathy for the Devil" -- "Please allow me to introduce myself ..." You have to remind yourself it's just politics.

Were you insufficiently critical of President Clinton for his behavior in the White House?

I don't think so -- I think I was tougher on him than anyone else. I told him to his face that his behavior had given ammunition to our enemies. If you know Bill Clinton, that's about the toughest thing you can say to him. Look, I'm not married to him -- I believe that marriages belong to the people who are in them. And even then, husbands and wives don't always have a complete understanding.

The point is this: It was an easy choice for me to stand up and fight for this presidency and this man against the virulent, unconstitutional attack on it. Against the efforts to use private, consensual behavior to reverse the will of the people. It was easy for me to stand by him - all great presidents are flawed. President Kennedy certainly had more flaws than we knew at the time; DNA tests on Jefferson showed he was a very flawed man; FDR died in the arms of his mistress.

Let me say one more thing about Bill Clinton the man. I tell a story in the book about the time when a group of senior advisors, including me, met to brief the president in the Oval Office. We thought we did a great job, covered all the bases. But after we finished, he looked at us and said, "You are the dumbest bunch of white boys I have ever seen." He roasted us for coming into the Oval Office as an all-white, all-male group. "Don't let it happen again," he said. It wasn't for public consumption, he wasn't trying to look good, he was simply a person committed from the very fiber of his being to social equality. And ultimately that was partly why they were trying to remove him. And now of course they're trying to reverse all his public policies. They're trying to create the biggest federal deficit in history to crush all those social gains, from Clinton to as far back as the New Deal.

So no, I had no problem standing up for Bill Clinton and his administration -- and I still don't.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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