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deny, deny, deny...

By Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. (articles ) | May 19, 2003

The current New York Review of Books carries a must-read: Joseph Lelyveld's devastatingly thorough autopsy on Sidney Blumenthal's stillborn memoir, The Clinton Wars. What is interesting is not so much Blumenthal's failure as an author, but Lelyveld's psychologically convincing portrait of an "inside" Clintonite. By a kind of warped this-worldly mysticism, these ideologues effect a death-to-self in order to clothe themselves in the senses and even the emotions of their heroes:

The absence of bite when it comes to his protagonists might be attributed to an excess of partisanship or loyalty, which remains a virtue. But it is more than that. Blumenthal, who is still fighting the Clinton wars, has internalized the Clintons' view of their experience. So what you find in these pages often has the feel of an early draft or preview of memoirs (his and hers) that have yet to appear. Familiar narrative corners are cut in familiar ways; obvious omissions are not remarked upon; and presidential self-pity flows between the lines. When things go awry, it's generally someone else's doing.

In this bizarre and twisted sense of honor, there is nothing wrong in lying about oneself, provided one stretches, or shrinks, or re-sizes oneself to conform to the lie one makes public. Loyalty means throwing yourself totally and ceaselessly into your own fiction. Consider this account of Clinton's humiliating televised confession in August 1998:

Blumenthal watched the speech on CNN in a hotel room in Rome. Ten minutes later the phone rang. "It was the President, asking me what my reaction was," he writes. "I told him that it was all right. Hillary asked me what I thought. I told her the same. The President said he was pleased with it. Hillary also approved." Then as the phone was handed to White House political operatives, Blumenthal writes, "I could hear the President and Hillary bantering in the background. Whatever they would have to do between themselves to get over this episode, they were still working as a team." Blumenthal doesn't make explicit what this passage seems to declare: that the President's acknowledgment on television that he had "misled people" was the only apology Blumenthal would ever get. So much for the inside view.

What's disheartening is not that Blumenthal tries to brush over the blemishes of his heroes, what's disheartening is the characteristics he regards as their virtues and tries to foreground. Can he really not see that he gives Clinton-haters more reason to feel contempt? That any qualms, any residual twinges of sympathy for the First Couple on a human, pedestrian level are obliterated by his memoir? That the picture of Hillary icily gauging "viewer impact" ten minutes after her husband confessed his adultery to the nation is worse than anything that could be dreamed up by right-wing delirium?

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