Up close and impersonal

The Clinton Wars: an insider's account of the White House years

Sidney Blumenthal <em>Viking, 822p

America's Clinton years, like so much else that occurred before 11 September 2001, feel today like a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But not for the Clintonite Trekkie Sidney Blumenthal. While the rest of us were busy with wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan and against terror, "El Sid" was fighting - and still is - the Clinton wars. He believes that the American right, abetted by a sleaze-addicted media, sabotaged the potentially great presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. He is not about to let any of us move on. If the title of his lethally long book, The Clinton Wars: an insider's account of the White House years, suggests to you that those wars are over and done with, think again.

Blumenthal knows better: the Clinton wars rage on in some circles, however tiny. Knowing better is not one of Blumenthal's most endearing qualities; "Sid Vicious" (as he was also called) knows better than you or I about so, so many things. But his passion as a former senior adviser to Clinton, his undisguised devotion to almost all things Clintonian (Bill and Hillary), does fuel a remarkable defence-cum-diatribe that would qualify in most countries as a blood sport. His exegesis is packed, not compactly, into more than 800 pages. The result is, even for the most addled aficionados of the Clinton era, slower going than the latest Harry Potter, which is of comparable length.

Is it worth it? This book presents several problems to readers. It is, for a start, a number of books stuffed into one: a memoir (not the most interesting bit), a too-restrained political biography of Bill'n'Hill, a vivid autopsy of the not-so-independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his office, and (I have to say) a delectable deconstruction of the American media circa 1998. If you, in your idleness or fervency, are inclined to revisit the Clin-ton years, and the political wars that accompanied them, then you should tackle this book.

Blumenthal was a fan of Bill Clinton before most of us had heard of him. He was drawn early to this post-Reagan beacon of the new American left in the way that Joe Klein, formerly of Newsweek and (like Blumenthal) the New Yorker, also was. Klein went on famously - far earlier than Blumenthal - to create a fictitious Clintonesque figure in the excellent novel Primary Colors, written under the pseudonym "Anonymous". It is a credit to both men that their portraits of Bill Clinton are so similar.

It is with the real-life Clinton, however, that Blumenthal struggles, and not always successfully. He knows Bill, and indeed Hillary, quite well. But he's got a problem. The central thesis of his book is the demonisation of the Clintons by the American right, which determined that the best attack on the first family was up close and personal. But Blumenthal, steeped in the decency that he says was so lacking in the right's attacks, is loath to attack back by invading the privacy of the Clintons, and this blunts his arrows. He simply doesn't tell us as much about the Clintons as he could or should.

Let's step back for a minute. Long before Blumenthal went to work at the White House in 1997, he co-wrote a piece for the New Yorker (which the magazine never published) called "The malicious style". It was about the savagery of the American right's unrelenting personal attack on both Clintons: git 'em, whatever it takes.

His argument, fashioned with his New Yorker colleague of the time Adam Gopnik, was this: "The sins of American liberalism are many . . . One of the problems with American liberalism is that it tends to be high-minded and abstract to the point of opacity." The American right, the authors maintained, had no such scruples: "[T]he American right, for a variety of reasons, is out for blood, velociraptors in bow ties."

By the time Blumenthal got to the White House he was, let's face it, a velociraptor himself. Not at first. He wallowed, more or less tamely, in the policy discussions of The West Wing. But then he felt the bite of the right. One summer night, he was surfing the internet and came upon the Drudge Report, a gossipy internet news site. There was the headline: "Charge: new White House recruit Blumenthal has spousal abuse past".

There was no truth in the charge. It was a classic smear. The falsity of the charge, combined with the vicious and often equally off-the-mark assault on the Clintons, turned Blumenthal into a true believer with newly sharpened teeth. He became one of them: a velociraptor.

Well, almost. He would never adopt the tactics of the enemy - or would he? In his book, he himself sometimes takes the low road. He retails lurid sex charges against Ken Starr (that Starr had "an affair with a lady"). On the one hand, he is perfectly entitled to bring this incident up, as he had himself been (apparently falsely) fingered as the source of this Starr smear. On the other hand, he then says that another writer dismissed the allegation against Starr as "risible". It all seems, on Blumenthal's part, a gratuitous tit-for-tat.

All of which brings us back to the central problem of the book. Here is a brilliant, well-educated baby boomer writing about one of his own. (He, Clinton and I were all born within a year of one another.) Clinton was the first US president born in post-Second World War America. Many thought Clinton would live up to the ideals forged in the 1960s and early 1970s in America. I really wanted Blumenthal to tell us more about what went wrong - and not just to blame it all on the American right.

But here lies Sidney Blumenthal's knottiest dilemma. He so hated the way the American right tore into his president that he is not, in his own book, about to invade the privacy of the Bill Clinton he so loved and respected. So we never get the unplugged, intimate Clinton that we are certain Blumenthal knows. Too bad. Maybe some day we will. In the meantime, we are left with the account of the man who, three years before he went to work for the White House, was described by a Washington Post writer as being so enamoured of Clinton as to be "in the tank". Judging from The Clinton Wars, Sidney still is in the tank - and proud of it.

Stryker McGuire is the London bureau chief of Newsweek magazine