Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars arrives at an interesting time in this country's changing political climate. Blumenthal served as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton during his second term, and while the book focuses primarily on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Blumenthal also provides an in-depth account of the events leading up to the impeachment proceedings, as well as President Clinton's final two years in office and the 2000 presidential election.
Blumenthal's reflection on Clinton's second term is also revealing in light of the current state of politics. Many of the Republican figures in positions of influence today rose to power by attacking Clinton. It is a remarkable coincidence that Philip Roth's The Human Stain has just been made into a film. Between the two works, we get to relive 1998 all over again.
Leo Tolstoy admitted that there was no reason War and Peace needed to be as long as it was. Blumenthal ought to have taken a cue from the Russian master; his account of the Clinton presidency didn't need to encompass 800 pages. Many aspects of his story are repeated several times throughout the book. However, his account is so complex and intertwined that, as tiresome as his repetition sometimes is, it seems unrealistic to expect him to present all aspects of his narrative as a single, easily comprehensible whole.
Blumenthal's account is fairly comprehensive, compiled from sources and material that were not available during the investigation into Clinton's unfortunate affair with Lewinsky. As a senior adviser to the president, he was in a unique position to relate his own impressions of the president. But the biggest disappointment of The Clinton Wars is that Blumenthal does not spend much time discussing his boss as a person. There are a few passages where Blumenthal discusses his personal relationship with Clinton and his wife and Clinton's astounding work ethic, but not much else. The attacks on President Clinton were so vicious and of such a personal nature that it seems Blumenthal really lost an opportunity to show the reader that the cost to Clinton was not just political.
Blumenthal devotes portions of the book to highlighting President Clinton's successes in addition to his failures. Shortly after the Senate trial ended, NATO, under Clinton's leadership, began the bombing campaign in the Balkans against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Many critics believed the war there was being staged to distract from the difficulties President Clinton was having at home. Clinton considered U.S. involvement there to be humanitarian, and Blumenthal's account stands in sharp contrast to the current administration's rationale for war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed with Clinton, saying that the Kosovo war was a humanitarian war "in defense of our values, rather than our interests."
It's surprising that Blumenthal doesn't have harsher words for the current Bush administration. He stays objective throughout his account, but some of the historical evidence he presents reflects poorly on President Bush. For example, Blumenthal recounts how Clinton staffers briefed members of the incoming Bush administration, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, several times on the threat the United States faced from international terrorism. Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, mentioned Osama bin Laden specifically. But the Bush staff was uninterested; they didn't see terrorism as a particularly high priority. Bush's administration was indifferent and unprepared for the threat posed by terrorism, but after 9/11, the new president was able to use the issue to legitimize his presidency after nearly a year of weak leadership.
The Clinton Wars will be of interest to anyone concerned with the history of Clinton's presidency or the current state of politics. Those interested in a biography should probably look elsewhere, but Blumenthal's thorough account of the people involved in President Clinton's second term is engaging all on its own.
-- Eddie Kovsky
The Clinton Wars
by Sidney Blumenthal
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York)