Eric Alterman: Review of John Harris' "The Survivor : Bill Clinton in the White House." (Random House, 2005)
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.'"
And yet, in his rendering of the Whitewater/Lewinsky investigation, Harris never once delves into the cozy (and potentially illegal) relationship between Ken Starr's leaky prosecutorial staff and the credulous reporters who ran its political interference; this despite the fact that the judicial investigation of these nefarious tactics was itself a large part of the story.
Harris also glosses over Starr's connection to the uppermost reaches of his own, extremely powerful, newspaper. Harris does discuss the President's (profane) reaction to reading Sally Quinn's infamous apologia for Establishment Clinton-haters, but Harris does not quote Quinn explaining, "Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He had a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools." In her 3,579-word article, Quinn did not find the space to mention Judge Starr's much-appreciated dismissal of a $2 million libel judgment against the Post. Neither does Harris.
Harris also does Clinton, and history, a significant disservice on terrorism. He seems to want to hold Clinton accountable for the media's--and Congress's--unwillingness to heed the President's frequent warnings on Osama bin Laden and the terrorist threat. As former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer has pointed out, "The press corps was oblivious, and the Republican Congress simply opposed anything Mr. Clinton proposed. Then, after George W. Bush became President, when the G.O.P. had a chance to do something about terrorism, they slashed counterterrorism funding, ignored intelligence concerning Al Qaeda and chased after chimeras like a national missile-defense system."
Recall that the media's hero during this part of the terrorism story was FBI Director Louis Freeh, the object of an embarrassingly adoring New Yorker profile by Elsa Walsh--Mrs. Bob Woodward--for his willingness to treat the Clinton crew as near criminals. We now know that Freeh's incompetence helped pave the way for 9/11. The bureau's failure to share the most basic information with the White House and the rest of the security apparatus allowed Al Qaeda to plan and execute its murderous plot undisturbed. According to the just-released Justice Department Inspector General's report, the bureau missed at least five opportunities before 9/11 and this proved "a significant failure that hindered the FBI's chances of being able to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks."
Because Harris largely ignores his colleagues' anti-Clinton animus, he is at a loss to explain the phenomenon to which he continually alludes: the consistent "dichotomy" between the reaction of the media elite and that of most of America to l'affaire Lewinsky. As insider Washington defines its values, Clinton's failed attempt to mislead the nation about whether he had "sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" is a far worse crime than George Bush & Co.'s successful deception to lead the nation into a ruinous war. It is a minority viewpoint in most of the world, including the United States; but one that is treated with contempt and condescension in our SCLM (so-called liberal media).
Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.
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