Our dumb media: Do we need to know more about Lewinsky?

Newsweek’s Evan Thomas faults Taylor Branch for not pushing Bill Clinton to reveal more — about his sex life. Oy

October 07, 2009
By Joan Walsh


After hailing the possibilities of blogging a book review last week — in my first thoughts on Taylor Branch’s epic “The Clinton Tapes” — I’ve found a good reason not to blog, real-time, about what you’re reading: You don’t have to finish the book to opine about it, and thus (if you’re busy) you might never finish the book.

But I am finishing “The Clinton Tapes,” busy as I’ve been, because I love it, with reservations. My reservations differ hugely from Evan Thomas’ in the Washington Post, which was another prod to blog about the book again, I admit. What a disappointment: Because of his Robert F. Kennedy biography, which I loved, and because his grandfather was Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas (a bit of journalism/history trivia I also love), I always expect Thomas to be smarter than he often is. And he underperformed hugely in his “Clinton Tapes” review.

Thomas’ main point was that Branch’s friendship with Clinton — as young folks working for George McGovern in 1972, revived after 21 years when Clinton became president — skewed his perspective on key political and historical issues. I think Thomas could be right — in my opinion there is too much on Haiti in the book, I’m sad to say, mainly because President Aristide was a friend of Branch’s and Haiti’s evolution toward democracy was one of his passions. There were probably other questionable focuses. But what omission does Thomas question? Branch’s failure to delve into the causes and effects of Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky affair. Thomas writes, painfully:

“How could Clinton have been so foolish as to take up with a White House intern just as he was turning back the tide of Gingrichism in the fall of 1995? The reader longs for some insight, some Shakespearean narrative to help explain Clinton’s self-destructive recklessness. But Branch does not deliver; he merely reports that Clinton said he “just cracked.” Branch seems almost too embarrassed to try to find out more. Partly because Clinton did not summon him for several months as the Lewinsky scandal was breaking in the winter of 1998, Branch skips past the drama of the darkest days, when Clinton’s presidency seemed to hang in the balance.

“By the time Branch catches up during the impeachment phase, Bill and Hillary have reconciled, sort of … One wishes Branch could have confronted his friend more directly and persistently; he might have more effectively redeemed him.”

Jesus, take me now. We know way too much about the Lewinsky mess; we know not nearly enough about the collapse of healthcare reform, the compromises over Clinton’s crime bill, the strategies of GOP leaders in those years, and yes, certainly, Haiti. Who really thinks we don’t have enough insight into what Clinton thought and felt about the Lewinsky affair? What grown-up journalist who lived through Whitewater, the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, in the prosperous days before 9/11 and the Bush economic collapse, doesn’t hate themselves in the cold light of (post-Bush) day?

Sadly, most of them don’t. Many are reliving minor Clinton issues through the lens of Branch’s book, at the neglect of the major ones, including my friend Chris Matthews on “Hardball.”

Having said that, I must admit I found the next 130 pages of “The Clinton Tapes,” after the first 80 pages that I loved, a bit of a slog. I think the book suffers from Branch’s bias toward history and away from journalism — as a journalist (but also as a lover of history) I wish he’d made choices to distill his insights, observations and raw interview data into a fixed set of topics that he drilled into. The chronological, “Clinton told me this, and then that” approach isn’t totally working.

Still there’s a wealth of insight here, and (my biggest passion) much that’s relevant to the travails of President Obama and the Democratic Party as they struggle to change the country while merely possessing both houses of Congress and the presidency. That sounds more cynical than I mean it to. Clinton faced a GOP that was, 15 years ago, already the party of “No,” already convinced that the only way back to power was thwarting a sitting Democratic president, and that’s an important insight. I think they were right. But it’s not clear what the answer was or is.

In my opinion, both Clinton and Obama were hurt by their efforts to regularly pick off a couple of conservative or vulnerable Democrats to help their cause. But we are still waiting for someone to try hardball Democratic populism, the GOP be damned, as a way to hold on to power. We don’t know that that will work, and yet we can look at the troubled Clinton experiment to know that bipartisan groveling and triangulation didn’t keep the wolves at bay.

Specifically, Branch’s book is profoundly illuminating about:

  • The way a small conservative cadre of Democrats in the Senate Finance Committee blocked Clinton’s efforts at healthcare reform: specifically, current Obama headaches Max Baucus and Kent Conrad, plus former senators John Breaux (a healthcare lobbyist today, no surprise) and the frequently useless Democrat David Boren of Oklahoma. Painful to read.
  • Hillary Clinton’s prescient opposition to the appointment of a special counsel on Whitewater issues. Sure, conservatives will say she was saving her ass, but her reasoning was correct: First of all, the deeds in question (which the Clintons denied) didn’t occur while he was president, so the court system could and should handle them after his time in office. Second (and more important), she laid out for Branch the way the House Judiciary Committe, which she worked for, narrowed the specs of the Watergate investigation, in a way her husband never forced Congress to do. “The committee had narrowed its scope to specific allegations that Nixon had abused presidential powers,” Hillary Clinton told Branch, “adopting careful standards to reduce partisan bickering, and, more important, to confine the dangers inherent to the struggle between the branches of government.” She trashes Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his silly advocacy of a special counsel, given his relative smarts (and it’s funny to read, knowing how she kissed his ring to run for his Senate seat). Remarkably, Hillary predicted the moderate bipartisan Robert Fiske would eventually be dumped — and he was, after finding that Vince Foster had killed himself, rather than having been murdered by the Clintons — for Kenneth Starr. Ouch.
  • The brilliant Bob Somerby may skewer me (and he won’t not skewer me because I called him brilliant), but I was struck by Clinton’s self-pity as he recounted his belated decision to intervene in Haiti on behalf of democracy and controversial President Jean-Baptiste Aristide. This was a real problem for Clinton; I don’t believe it was fabricated by the MSM. But I was also struck by Clinton’s conviction, in hindsight, that he shouldn’t have stopped the migration of Haitian refugees in 1993, because, in fact, people were concerned about the refugees only “because they were black, and now they don’t care [to intervene] because Haiti is black.” He concluded he could have and maybe should have framed intervention as an anti-crime/national security initiative, and then he might have had national support. Ouch again.

I stopped reading tonight at the end of “Yeltsin and the Gingrich Revolution.” It culminates in the stinging rebuke of the 1994 midterm elections. Once again Branch captures Clinton’s “gallows humor” — Thomas would call it “self-pity” — that he’d accomplished the creation of “five million new jobs, peace intiatives around the world, headed into a third year of unprecedented deficit reduction,” and yet his party had lost control of Congress. Clinton blamed “too many little scandals. Health reform had failed … [H]e had pushed change too rapidly for voters to digest.” He predicted House Speaker Newt Gingrich “was power mad, and would make many mistakes,” and concluded “he would have to counterpunch from the center.” I think history will show he was wrong about that, but I’m looking forward to Branch’s take on it.

I’m still reading, and will pick up this thread as soon as I am able. For now I am mainly struck by the consistency of the GOP’s “Just say no” strategy, and the importance of the Obama White House knowing the lessons of history. If anyone else out there is reading the book, please share your thoughts in comments!