The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton

By Christopher Hitchens

Verso. 122 pp. $19

Reviewed by Alan Wolfe

The preponderance of British journalists writing for American magazines, a blessing for American prose, has had less salubrious effects on American politics. One cannot help loving their flair for language; they not only write like Evelyn Waugh, they actually know who Evelyn Waugh was. But, whether expressed in the Nation or the National Review, their views tend toward ideological extremism and haughty contempt, neither of which sheds light on America and how it works.

I love to read Christopher Hitchens -- except when he writes about politics. An essay of his on one of my obsessions, the British novelist Anthony Powell, was the shrewdest analysis of that writer's 12-volume exploration of this century I had read -- until Hitchens started throwing charges of Powell's "extreme and splenetic conservatism" around. Recently Hitchens was a tempest in the Clinton impeachment teapot, volunteering evidence that the president did indeed tell one of his aides that Monica Lewinsky had "stalked" him. Now he has come out with a little book aimed mostly at his left-wing readers. You were fools to trust Bill Clinton is his message to them, for his regime has stood for little else than "personal crookery" and "cowardice and conservatism."

Clinton's presidency has been a disappointment to just about everyone who pledged either personal or political loyalty to him. But there are two kinds of disappointments in politics. One stems from flaws in a politician's character. The other involves those expectations that are shattered because, as much as we want him to do what we think best for the world, he also has to please others whose views are different from ours. The first of these flaws can be avoided if the politician is a good person. But the latter are necessary and inevitable; indeed, another name for them is politics. Having sex in the White House and then lying about it under oath is something a bad man does. Dropping Lani Guinier's nomination to head the Civil Rights Division is something a good politician does. It is true that Guinier's views were unfairly labeled as those of a "quota queen." But it is also true that the ideas expressed in Guinier's academic writings were so far out of the mainstream that she could never have been effective in the job.

None of this matters to Hitchens, for whom Clinton's quite sensible decision not to take on a fight he could not win becomes instead proof positive of the man's evil nature. Hitchens is so much out to get Clinton that he calls Guinier's self-serving and terribly written memoir of the event "extremely literate and persuasive," a judgment he would never make as a literary critic.

And so Hitchens drags up every disappointment Bill Clinton handed to the left -- welfare reform, Jocelyn Elders, the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, the hiring of Dick Morris -- and uses it to demonstrate why something like Monica Lewinsky was inevitable. But being unable to distinguish between the man's character and his capacities, No One Left to Lie To, for all its venom, winds up absolving Clinton. For if the president's penchant for living dangerously exists at the same moral level as his penchant for political compromise, and if the latter is indeed a requirement for democracy, then no good ground exists for criticizing the former.

Conservatives who hate Bill Clinton, faced with the public's refusal to join their crusade, knew that they had to choose between democracy and principle, and many of them, to their credit, chose principle. But what is a self-proclaimed leftist, presumably a believer in the people, to do when the people do not share his anger? Like the British aristocrats of old, Hitchens resorts to snobbery. "The essence of American politics," he writes, "consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism." The people, he writes patronizingly, basically share Hitchens's dislike of bankers and war-mongers, but, alas, they are easily fooled by promises and polls. Indeed so deep is the rot in America, according to Hitchens, that "nobody on the left" noticed what conservatives like David Frum saw right away, which is that under Bill Clinton it was the right and not the left that triumphed.

When Hitchens, a left-winger from Britain, finds common cause with Frum, a right-winger from Canada, one wonders if the American people aren't better off thinking for themselves. They did not like Clinton the man. But they did like Clinton the politician and steward of the American economy. It is precisely that kind of muddling through, undramatic as it is, that our visiting journalists, sparkling and entertaining as they may be, consistently fail to understand.

Alan Wolfe's books include "Marginalized in the Middle."