| "The Clinton Wars"|
Author and Former Senior Adviser to President Clinton
Tuesday, June 10, 2003; 11:00 a.m. ET
In "The Clinton Wars," Sidney Blumenthal, former assistant and senior advisor to President Bill Clinton, gives his account of what went on in the White House during the president's second term.
The "right-wing conspiracy," the inside workings of Kenneth Starr's office during the Whitewater investigation and the "campaign" against Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment, foreign policy, the "deliberate suppression of the black vote in Florida that helped deliver the state to George Bush" and the "disregard by the Bush transition team of security issues (Islamic terrorism and Osama bin Laden) pressed upon them by Clinton aides" are some of the topics covered in the controversial book.
Blumenthal was online Tuesday, June 10 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss his book and his depiction of influential figures and events during the Clinton years.
Blumenthal has written for The New Republic, The Washington Post and The New Yorker. He served as assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton from 1997 until 2001. His other books include "The Permanent Campaign," "The Rise of the Counter-Establishment" and "Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War."
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Mr. Blumenthal, thank you for joining us today. A lot of Clinton book news lately -- Hillary's "Living History" just came out and just before that, your "The Clinton Wars." Yours has been described as "part history, part memoir." It's 800 pages. What was your reason for writing the book and how are you reacting to your critics of your account of Clinton's second term?
Sidney Blumenthal: As someone who was able to be witness and to participate, in the real West Wing of the Clinton White House I wanted to write about the history in order to establish the rcord as I understand it. Journalism has been called the first rough draft of history and the first draft on the Clinton presidency was very rough and often wrong.
With some perspective and new facts I hope my book sheds new light for all readers and especially for historians on this crucial period in our history. Reviews of my book have been divided. No one, however, has challenged the historical accuracy or the facts in The Clinton Wars, and even my harshest critics, even a conservative writer like Andrew Sullivan, has conceded that my account is not only accurate but the best account of these tumultuous events. Four historians have so far written about the Clinton wars including Robert Dallek, David Greenburg of Columbia, Sean Wilentz of Princeton and Jack Bass of the University of Charleston and all of them have acclaimed the book as a valuable contribution to history, and as Dallek wrote in the New York Times Book Review, the place to begin to understand the Clinton presidency.
However, there have been some critics -- all members of the press corps -- who have been extremely critical and virtually all of them were participants in the events described in The Clinton Wars and these critics have been self-defensive about their own actions involving what I consider either pseudo-scandals or serving as tools of right-wing operatives, Republican congressional staffers and/or Ken Starr's office. What their intent defensiveness reveals is that they haven't come to terms with these events or their own role in them. It is the historians who have been able to approach The Clinton Wars with more perspective.
North Carolina: Did you and Hillary Clinton compare notes in writing your books? Have you read her book? If so, how does it compare factually with the way you remember things?
Sidney Blumenthal: I did not show my book to either Hillary or former President Clinton until it was in final proofs and couldn't be changed. Hillary read it quickly and told me she didn't know half of what was in it. I told her maybe that was because at a certain point she stopped reading the newspapers. Former president Clinton told me that he thinks The Clinton Wars is the only book that puts his White House into historical perspective.
I haven't had a chance to read all of Hillary's book. I have read some of it. I think it's frank, authentic and tells her real story. Rush Limbaugh set in motion a false story that's run through some of the media that there is a discrepancy between our accounts but, in fact, they're not only consistent but complementary. She tells stories about being first lady that I don't tell in my book and I tell stories about the political drama that she doesn't tell in hers.
Fairfax, Va.: How often do you see President Clinton these days? Do you think he enjoys not being in Washington or do you think he really misses it?
Sidney Blumenthal: I talk to him occasionally. I actually plan to see him tonight in New York. He misses being president. He really does wish that the 22nd Amendment were repealed and that he could run again. As I recount in my book, he was extremely frustrated during the 2000 election and told me, "I wish I could run again. I'd run their asses down."
He likes being in New York and he travels around the world a lot and not only does he give speeches and is building his presidential library in Arkansas, but he's engaged in philanthropic projects, like the International AIDS Trust that he co-chairs with Nelson Mandela.
Washington, D.C.: To be honest, I am not a big fan of your style, but I am asking a question that I feel you may have some insight to. Mrs. Clinton has said that she has been shocked at the extracurricular activities of her husband. I maintain that she knows everything that goes on (not literally, but in theory) and that they are really just two morally bankrupt, skewed people that are in it for the power. Your thoughts?
Sidney Blumenthal: No one knows what goes on in other people's marriages. I do know as a friend of both of the Clintons, that they're very devoted to each other. When I speak to each of them separately they talk proudly about the other and what they're doing. Some people who oppose the Clintons' progressive politics project motives onto them. They claim to be able to read their minds and even their souls. This sort of resentment has produced enormous divisiveness.
The personal attacks on the Clintons and on many of those who served with them, including myself, come from more than personal animosity. These sentiments reflect profound hostile political opposition that refuses to establish any boundary between political debate and personal attack.
Somewhere, USA: I saw a poll on TV last night that shows Hillary's favorables at 44 percent, unfavorables at 46. How do you think that bodes for her in '08?
Sidney Blumenthal: I would say first of all that I would hope that Hillary would endorse the incumbent Democratic president in the election in 2008. Nonetheless, it's clear from that poll that Hillary, like former president Clinton, creates divergent polls in politics. The country remains sharply divided since the 2000 election which Al Gore, after all, won in the popular vote. When Bill Clinton was elected, he was regarded by some Republicans as illegitimate and the efforts to overthrow him finally culminated in an unconstitutional impeachment trial in which he was finally acquitted. He was a threat to the power of the Republican Party and a host of special interests from the tobacco companies, the health insurance industry to the gun manufacturers. His conciliatory manner and moderation and ability to create a new political center only made him that much more threatening.
Hillary is an extension of all that and she draws and creates around her a similar magnetic field. It seems as though it may be about the Clintons personally and there's no doubt that charisma plays a role here but there are deeper issues that involve the American people that are subject to conflict that underlie the divided opinion that remains at the heart of American politics.
Crystal City, Va: Good morning, Mr Blumenthal. How do you respond to the charges made by right-wingers that Clinton is to blame for 9/11? Didn't he try to put an anti-terrorism bill through Congress, and wasn't it watered-down by the GOP?
Sidney Blumenthal: After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 President Clinton proposed a host of anti-terrorism measures, a number of which were defeated through an unlikely alliance of right-wing Republicans and left-leaning Democrats. Some of these measures were finally passed, like roving wiretaps after 9/11. President Clinton, after the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, organized a concerted campaign against al Qaeda. He tried to kill bin Laden, but the missile strike against his Afghan base camp missed him by just hours. We rolled up terrorist cells and stopped the plot of the millennium bombings around New Year's of 2000. President Clinton wanted to drop Special Forces into Afghanistan to kill bin Laden but the Pentagon, including Gen. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was opposed.
The Clinton national security team gave three extensive briefings on the present danger of al Qaeda to the incoming Bush administration. In my book, I quote three-star general Donald Kerrick who was Deputy National Security Adviser under Clinton and served during the first four months of the Bush Administration on the National Security Council. Gen. Kerrick tells me that he wrote a memo for the Bush NSC stating, "We will be struck again." Gen. Kerrick says he received no response to his memo and was not included in any meetings. Dick Clarke, head of counterterrorism on the NSC, was very frustrated during the first nine months of the Bush Administration. As he tried to get the principals committee, the central body of top national security figures in any administration, to take up terrorism as an issue. The principals committee discussed terrorism finally only once, in that case, deciding against funding the unmanned predator drone plane over Afghanistan before 9/11.
I believe it's essential that all the details of the so far unreleased 9/11 report become public so that the American people can understand what happened and have an informed opinion about what changes must be made in regards to our intelligence agencies and government to meet the challenge of terrorism.
Arlington, Va.: I'm intrigued by "the deliberate suspension of the black vote in Florida ..." in the intro. Can you expand on that?
Sidney Blumenthal: The votes were not fully counted in the 2000 election in Florida. There were under-votes and so-called over-votes in which the intent of the voter was clear -- thousands of them. After the election was all over in 2001, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigated and issued a report. Most of the votes that were uncounted were cast by African Americans.
In my view, what happened in Florida was the greatest violation of voting rights since the end of Jim Crow.
Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Blumenthal, What would be your assessment of the Bush administration to date? John Dean and others have recently called for his impeachment. Do you feel there is a case or is this just a left wing conspiracy?
Sidney Blumenthal: George W. Bush is beginning to suffer from credibility problems. There are serious, unanswered questions about th use of intelligence involving the rationales for the Iraq war. Bush consistently suggested that there were links between al Qaeda and Iraq, thereby drawing the connection to 9/11. A majority of Americans believed him and this was the number one reason they gave for supporting the war. Bush also insisted that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which, as we know, have yet to be located. I believe Saddam did have a capability for WMD but the Bush Administration's insistence that they have found proof of WMDs has only undermined their claims when such proof has been shown to be empty.
I was supportive of removing Saddam Hussein. I thought the diplomacy conducted by the Bush Administration was erratic and disruptive of our alliances with potentially dangerous consequences for long-term U.S. national security.
The debate over the rationale for the war is a separate issue. It involves what President Bush believed and what he and others knew from intelligence assessments about purported links to al Qaeda and WMDs in asking the Congress for a war resolution. This is a serious unresolved question that is an international issue and so far, Bush has not closed this credibility gap.
Sterling, Va.: Can you comment on the input or influence which Al Gore brought to the Clinton presidency? Do you have any opinion or idea how Clinton or Gore might have reacted to the events of 9/11?
Sidney Blumenthal: Al Gore was an incredibly innovative vice president. He was chiefly responsible for putting the issue of global warming on the table. He was central in U.S./Russian relations and helping to stabilize democracy there. He was in charge of making the federal government more efficient through reinventing government and brought the U.S. government to its leanest work force since the Kennedy presidency, while at the same time, the government assumed new, productive and progressive functions. In short, Gore was an extremely constructive public servant.
Had he been allowed to become president, given that he won the popular vote and certainly the vote that was uncounted in Florida, he would have reacted in some ways as George W. Bush did to the events of 9/11. Undoubtedly, he would have sent the U.S. military to Afghanistan, overthrown the Taliban and routed out al Qaeda there. But his world view would have been more internationalist and less unilateral in diplomacy with our allies, his investment in nation-building and in social programs to deal with many of the discontents in the Muslim countries. He would not have abandoned for two years the Middle East peace process as Bush did.
The political reaction to what a Gore presidency would've done after 9/11 would have been very different at home, I believe, than it was toward George W. Bush. The difference would have been in the alignment of partisanship. For a long period of time after 9/11 all Americans -- Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike -- rallied to support the president. I think that if Gore had been president within a short while after 9/11, Republicans would have attacked him as having opened the country to such an attack. They would have demanded investigations. There would have been a much more divisive, vituperative political atmosphere and it is not far-fetched to imagine many on the right would have demanded Gore's impeachment. nd this what-if of history underlines the remaining and current polarizations of our politics that carry on from the Clinton years.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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