It seems that just about everybody who has ever met Bill Clinton has recorded the experience in print, from his mother to his mistresses and, now, his intellectual gurus. But this is not one of the endless books of interest only to collectors of Clintonabilia. Benjamin Barber, a distinguished US academic, played a major role in formulating the Third Way philosophy - and especially the discourse on civil society - that purportedly informed Clinton's policy and has been imported wholesale to Britain.
Barber's account of his attempts to inject a coherent intellectual agenda into a White House obsessed with day-to-day pragmatism and tomorrow's headlines makes instructive reading for anybody who cares about the success (or otherwise) of new Labour. From the start of his "affair" with Clinton, Barber was fascinated to explore whether intellectuals could influence politicians in any meaningful way. To him, the role of intellectuals is to "speak truth to power", his paradigm being Plato's journey to enlighten the rulers of Syracuse. Through a series of annual seminars advising the president on his State of the Union Address, Barber discovered just how problematic that ideal is.
Clinton's flaws, which scuppered Barber's high aspirations, are very much those of Tony Blair. At countless points in this text, their names could be interchangeable, such as when Barber curses Clinton's insistence that he did not need to choose between two competing belief systems because "we can do both". Many of the most stinging criticisms travel worryingly well across the Atlantic: Clinton was described as a "brilliant communicator who said nothing memorable". Or how about this criticism of Dick Morris (the equivalent of Philip Gould): "He misses something elementary about leadership . . . You [Clinton] don't always have to tack to the polls. Our extraordinary eloquence and capacity to mould opinion can change how polls read and where the wind blows."
Blair seems to be overcoming some of these flaws, and therefore to have learnt from the painful emptiness of the Clinton legacy. Yet he does not seem to have laid aside the Clintonian addiction to intellectual one-night stands. There is a clear pattern with both leaders: they enthusiastically talk up a thinker, promote a "debate" about his work and then, when the practical implications of his work are shown to be politically dangerous, quietly forget him. In Blair's case, this approach can be traced as far back as his dalliance, when he was still in opposition, with Will Hutton. The latest victim of this scholarly bulimia is clearly Anthony Giddens, whose recent Fabian Society pamphlet on the Third Way, Where Now for New Labour?, was glanced at with embarrassment by new Labour types, in the manner of Naomi Campbell regarding last year's Prada handbag. Barber had to endure a similar humiliation. He painfully admits that, by 1998, he knew that his "themes" were "White House pap - 'public- private partnerships' and 'civil society' and 'third way' serving as general-purpose cliches rather than as engines of specific policy".
Barber gradually realised that he was having no impact: "God knows he was a superb thinker, but he seemed to actually take critical decisions in a manner pretty well insulated from thinking of a philosophical kind." If an ultra-sympathetic intellectual with considerable access can't sway even one of the most fiercely intelligent world leaders in living memory, what hope is there that intellectuals in general will ever have influence? Enemies of Giddens would be well advised to post him a copy of this book. It could well prompt him to hurl himself off the roof of the London School of Economics.