Clinton Agonistes

Former President Bill Clinton speaks with the media before the start of a book signing of "My Life Bill Clinton" in Indianapolis, Wednesday, June 8, 2005.
This column was written by Eric Alterman.
John Harris's history of the Clinton Administration, "The Survivor", has met with almost universal praise from reviewers, much of it deserved. Harris, who spent six years covering the Clinton White House for the Washington Post, has done an admirably thorough and empathetic job of re-creating the zeitgeist of the Administration. Unlike Bob Woodward, Harris does not seek to sensationalize his material by ripping it out of context and trumpeting it as the newest Watergate-style outrage. Instead, he patiently weighs motive, perspective and memory to provide a richly nuanced and knowing version of events.

Still -- and you knew this was coming -- there's a massive hole in this book where the role of Harris and his colleagues should be. Over and over, Harris points to some political explosion over a ridiculously minor issue and treats it as if it's the result of a meteorological disturbance rather than an outgrowth of the self-conscious irresponsibility of the media. Early in the book, for instance, we hear that Clinton "was judged for his haircut," which cost $200 and forced the closure of two runways at LAX, where it took place. Harris notes that "initial reports that air traffic was kept circling for hours turned out some weeks later to be wrong. By then, Clinton had long since apologized.... Too late -- this trivial episode had already entered the anti-Clinton mythology."

Note the use of the passive voice: Clinton "was judged"; note also that the episode "entered the anti-Clinton mythology" as if on its own wings. No matter that the story turned out to be based on false information. No planes were delayed, and yet the trumped-up media hysteria forced a presidential apology. And note that the truth, finally, did not matter. No less ridiculous, Harris later describes another nutty phony crisis because Clinton, after an hour of schmoozing reporters in the back of Air Force One, averred that he hoped "to get people to get out of their funk." You see, Harris explains, "'Funk' sounded a bit as if Clinton thought the country was facing 'malaise.' 'Malaise' was the word people associated with the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter." Etc., etc. Reels the mind...

More significant, Harris ignores the de facto alliance forged by the far right's sliming machine, talk-radio, the cable news networks and an irresponsible mainstream media, which has been detailed in books by yours truly, Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, Jeffrey Toobin, Marvin Kalb and by Clinton himself. One does not have to embrace the authors' politics to be impressed by the amassed evidence.

Harris does believe that Hillary Clinton's allusion to a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was conveyed by the media to give her argument a "more paranoid tone than the interview in full context," and he goes on to note that "her general points were entirely defensible, including that the Lewinsky allegations were promoted by those 'using the criminal justice system to try to achieve political ends in this country.'"