As Washington has evolved into the Galapagos of global public life, separated from the development of all other life forms, so Christopher Hitchens has captured the niche of the Darwinian finch that shits everywhere, then rolls in his own excrement. He wears his flecks of turd as jewels and imagines his stench to be the perfume of power. For entertainment, he ushers guests to the scenes of his earlier droppings, fondly recalling the moment his sphincter opened.
Hitchens offers this Little Book of Poison as an essay on the Clinton presidency, the lies, the corrupt indulgences, the gleeful destruction of whatever remained of prewar liberal democracy. He blames Clinton's success on Dick Morris, the political consultant and presidential confidante, who coined the amoral, destructive strategy known as "triangulation" that has kept Clinton's poll ratings high. This, like many other styles of political propaganda, employs sophisticated public opinion surveys and focus groups to develop the coded language to appeal to multiple constituencies - without ever implementing the policies the language promises. Morris didn't develop the idea. It came from Republican campaign consultants 15 years before Morris re-entered Clinton's life in 1994, but then Hitchens wouldn't know that, because history didn't begin until he arrived in Washington. He is right, however, that these techniques may have helped Clinton to hold the political centre by promising (or, at least, implying) bold social policies to the left but delivering repressive law to the right. Variations on the strategy had been practised by James Carville in 1992 to allow Clinton to win the White House in the first place, but by the time Hitchens arrived, Carville had faded back into the bayous, so he gets little attention here.
Morris, "the only one to whom Clinton told the truth", according to Hitchens, is the one friend or associate that Clinton trusted. Like Clinton, he believed only in satisfying his own impulses and desires. He, too, lived to ejaculate. Hitchens admires his lack of hypocrisy, even as he reminds us of some of Morris's more despicable professional accomplishments on behalf of such right-wing Republicans as Jesse Helms. Hitchens even seems to hold a bit of affection for the old whore.
No one else receives much sympathy here. Hitchens flits from character to character screeching, "Liar, liar". He lands only long enough to quote himself: "I called him a liar in 1992, and I was right." So correct has he been for so long that he quotes himself from Vanity Fair, from the Nation, from the Washington Post and from his own affidavit in the Clinton impeachment trial. Come to think of it, there may be more references here to Hitchens than to Clinton. They are the only two characters who won't have to look themselves up in the index. They're everywhere.
Though his admiration for himself blocks his view most of the time, Hitchens is not entirely blind. He glimpses some of the more significant themes that ripple through the Clinton presidency, pausing for instance on Clinton's maudlin eulogy to Nixon, but he fails to recognise Clinton's admiration - and mimicry - of Reagan's mastery of symbolism and propaganda. He notices Clinton's easy abandonment of friends who get into trouble, he reminds us that Clinton has aggressively avoided cultivating the press or Capitol Hill. Yet he offers no insight into Clinton's genius at picking his opponents - George Bush, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Ken Starr, the House managers. If Clinton is such a moral pygmy, and if there is indeed no one left to lie to, is there also no one else left to lead?
Perhaps if Hitchens had a broader view of American political history, he would have tempered his tweeting. Instead, he dismisses such scholars as Arthur Schlesinger, who opposed impeachment, as a "polka-dotted popinjay". Schlesinger must still be trying to recover. Must have been his tie. Hitchens doesn't wear ties.
Hitchens writes cleverly, even beautifully sometimes, but he doesn't often have a lot to say. And why not? He comes to the role of Washington observer as an outsider, unbound by the rules of ownership that cripple the credibility of so many members of the Washington press corps. But he carries even heavier baggage, an inappropriate and irrelevant notion that American public policy should fit into a mid-century European model, a left-centre-right continuum layered horizontally into an elite at war with populists. Class analysis doesn't work for a society as fluid as America. Worse, Hitchens exhibits no feel for the politics of race that dominates American life, nor for the continuing war between urban America and its agricultural past, a conflict reflected in the racial mirror.
Instead, he has settled comfortably into the exotic island life that Washington has offered to journalists during the Clinton years, an entertaining court of intrigue, speculation, self-absorption and self-indulgence producing little of lasting value. And in the process he has applied the worst of British journalistic standards, the need for entertainment above reliability, for posing rather than enlightening.
Hitchens holds Clinton in contempt because he knows him. He wanted so much more from this president, to be among the best, not so that America could enjoy more progressive public administration but so that Hitchens could take credit for shaping a great leader. Not many of Clinton's supporters ever shared the president's own view of himself as a potential Jefferson, Jackson or Kennedy. They didn't even expect much in the way of progressive policy, not after his inept handling in his first month in office of an attempt to drop the ban on gay people in the military. They expected little enough, and he has met their expectations, a rooster of a president, not an eagle, surrounded by finches like Hitchens and by parrots, penguins and vultures. But enough of the avian analogies. Hitchens prefers canine ones in this little essay, so he might remember as he dwells on Clinton's utter selfishness how much people come to resemble their dogs, and commentators their subjects.
Albert Scardino is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. "No One Left To Lie To" is available to "NS" subscribers, post-free, for the discounted price of £10.99. Tel 0800 731 8496