Carla Anne Robbins is a former New York Times editor and Wall Street Journal reporter. She is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a clinical professor at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.
It is no surprise that so many Americans mistrust Hillary Clinton. Her Republican presidential rival Donald Trump’s puerile attacks (“Crooked Hillary”) are undoubtedly driving those numbers. But so are reports about her private email server, the Clintons’ $100 million-plus in speaking fees, and former president Bill Clinton’s chummy relations with billionaire philanthropists who may or may not be special pleaders.
The puzzle is why the Clintons have been willing to cast doubt on lifetimes of public service, and Hillary’s presidential aspirations, by operating so blithely and so messily in the gray areas. Joe Conason’s “Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton” may provide an answer — albeit unintentionally.
The book enthusiastically chronicles Bill’s philanthropic efforts since he left the White House: slashing the cost of AIDS treatments; improving health systems in Africa; getting sugary drinks out of American public schools; rallying the great and the near great at the annual Clinton Global Initiative to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to their own charitable projects. Much of this has been covered in more lively and skeptical reporting in this newspaper and others, and at a time when the Clinton Foundation’s many good works are dismissed as merely pay to play, Conason’s hagiography won’t correct the record.
The real contribution comes from watching Conason’s exertions as he tries to justify the Clintons’ more dubious actions. I’m convinced that he must be channeling their denial, injured pride and conviction that the ends not only justify the means, but anyone who questions their means is part of a right-wing conspiracy or, in the case of the news media, a tool of those conspirators.
In just one such flight, Conason describes Bill Clinton’s “lashing” by his “adversaries in politics and the media” after his parting pardon of financier Marc Rich. “If anything, the compulsion to pursue their old quarry seemed to be swelling, now that he was no longer the leader of the free world but just another defenseless citizen.”
This is ground Conason has trod before in his 2000 book with Gene Lyons, “The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton,” and in columns in the political newsletter and website National Memo, where he is editor in chief.
Consider a few of this book’s arguments/rationalizations:
•The Rich pardon had nothing to do with campaign and library contributions from Rich’s former wife, “all of which she had given months and years before she approached him on behalf of her ex-husband.” Bill was doing a favor for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had asked him to “consider” the case because of Rich’s service to Israel.
•Other former presidents have been paid big bucks for speeches, and for Bill Clinton, “haunted by the specter of debt,” the money was a necessity, given the couple’s post-White House mortgages and massive legal fees — incurred as a result of prosecutorial abuse — in the Whitewater and Monica S. Lewinsky investigations.
•Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private email server while secretary of state was “confirmed” by advice from a predecessor, Colin L. Powell, at a dinner party in early 2009.
•A 2008 New York Times investigation of Bill’s relationship with Frank Giustra, a major Clinton Foundation donor who sealed a uranium mining deal in Kazakhstan soon after the two men dined with its despotic leader, is dismissed because, Conason says, the deal was completed “well before Clinton left New York”; it was with two private firms, not the Kazakh government; and Bill (there to sign an AIDS agreement) did not fly in on Giustra’s plane — as the Times reported — just out. Giustra’s visit “coincided” with Clinton’s and he “seized the chance to travel on with him through Asia.”
•A 2015 Times report on how foundation donors (former Giustra partners) made millions selling the Russians their stake in American and other uranium mines is dismissed because the Hillary-led State Department, “had only one vote out of nine” on the U.S. committee that had to approve the deal. The report is also dismissed because some of the information came from Peter Schweizer, the right-leaning author of “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.” The Washington Post also got a pre-publication look at Schweizer’s book. “To anyone in the Clinton camp who remembered the Whitewater ‘scandal’ . . . this collaboration between the two leading print outposts of the ‘liberal media’ and hostile Republican sources looked all too familiar.”
On this narrative of victimization by the media, Conason and the former president are completely in sync. After the Times’s Michiko Kakutani described his 2004 autobiography as “sloppy, self-indulgent, and often eye-crossingly dull,” Bill complained that it “was because I pointed out the level of dishonesty in their coverage of Whitewater.”
At this point, I should note that I spent more than five years as the deputy editorial page editor at the Times (which may make me complicit in their view) and was a member of the editorial board that endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
What most stretches the imagination — are politicians this clueless? — is Conason’s too-good-for-this-world explanation for why the Clintons keep tripping themselves up. Describing Hillary’s struggle to rebut criticism of her Wall Street speaking fees (“not out of line with the level of her celebrity”), he writes, “Like her husband, she felt such confidence in her own probity that she was unable to imagine how others might view her acceptance of enormous sums of money from special interests.”
For all the roiling, there is no proof of wrongdoing by either of the Clintons. Still, it is impossible to assess Conason’s rebuttals, because he offers only the Clinton camp’s perspective and, despite his access, there is no sign that he pressed any of them, including either of the Clintons, to reexamine their decisions.
This is especially frustrating when he does present an anecdote that might have given us important insight into Hillary’s decision making. According to the book, she was reluctant to vote to authorize the 2003 Iraq War when she was a senator: “ ‘I just don’t trust Bush,’ her husband recalled her complaining.” The former president “advised her to vote ‘yea,’ ” arguing, “ ‘we don’t want to leave Saddam with that stuff’ — meaning chemical and biological weapons — ‘if he’s got it.’ ” But we never hear from Hillary, the Clinton now running for president. Why did she follow her husband’s advice?
Conason then recounts how President Clinton, at the behest of Britain’s Tony Blair, tried to rally support from the leaders of Chile and Mexico for a second U.N. resolution that would have given weapons inspectors more time and possibly headed off the war. Washington objected and the resolution died. Lest anyone miss this attempt at dual absolution, Conason writes that “Hillary Clinton, on record in support of Bush’s war resolution, would shoulder a substantial share of blame for its catastrophic consequences. It would not matter that her husband, who urged her to vote for the resolution, had tried to prevent the war.”
More than anything, Conason is a master of deflection. Yes, the right is out to get the Clintons. Yes, other presidents have given high-priced speeches. Yes, other charities have accepted Saudi cash. Yes, it would be tragic if the Clinton Foundation’s programs were ended. But what he never acknowledges is that the foundation isn’t just any charity and Bill Clinton isn’t just any former president. Since he left the White House, his wife has either been a senator, the secretary of state or twice a candidate for president. The standards — for the sake of the system’s credibility, if not their own — have to be different.
Like all the Clinton aides who apparently never warned them (or warned them loudly enough) about the potential damage from that server, or the speaking fees, or the road trips with donors, Conason does the Clintons no favor. Someone needs to tell them what they should have figured out long ago: Probity is as probity does.
By Joe Conason
Simon & Schuster. 486 pp. $30