D’Antonio lets it go at that, but the notion of scapegoat sacrifice deserves more thoughtful exploration. In the ancient world, it was a death sentence. It was the most profound and sacred of all rituals because the scapegoat was always guilty. It was a necessary expiation, a symbolic cleansing of society’s ills. “In Greek mythology, the scapegoat is never wrongfully accused,” René Girard, the author of “Violence and the Sacred,” once told me. “But he is always magical. He has the capacity to relieve the burden of guilt from a society. This seems a basic human impulse. There is a need to consume scapegoats.” (The Jews civilized the ritual by replacing humans with actual goats.)
This may be the best anthropological explanation for the demented and relentless “hunting” of Clinton and her husband. They are perfect scapegoats for the caricatured excesses of the baby boom generation. They represent the permissiveness — sexual for him, feminist for her — that terrified and entranced, and tempted, their opponents.
The Clintons were also stupendously guilty of the more subtle failings of their (my) generation, the solipsistic idealism and sense of entitlement; the belief that they could cut corners — fly free on private planes, give speeches for fabulous sums, indulge in insider stock trades — for the greater good. Early on, D’Antonio produces a quote from the revered Arkansas liberal Dale Bumpers, who later defended President Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial: “Clinton ought to be most grateful . . . but he never is. You can never do quite enough for him and Hillary. . . . They are the most manic obsessed people I have ever known in my life, and perhaps even the most insensitive to everybody else’s feelings. Everything centers around them and their ambitions. It is precisely the reason Bill got beat [for governor of Arkansas] in 1980. People felt, and correctly, that they were being manipulated.”
D’Antonio produces occasional nuggets like that one throughout “The Hunting of Hillary,” which raise the hope of a more insightful book than the one he has produced. But his aim is simple: to lay out, in detail, the often lunatic 40-year campaign to destroy Hillary Clinton. We’ve read most of this before. D’Antonio is a workmanlike compiler of other people’s reporting and insights — he produces a new book every year or so — and his intentions are good. But there is no art to it. Indeed, quite the opposite: The book plods along through Whitewater and Lewinsky and Benghazi and the email non-scandals, and a host of others. There is the familiar cast of twisted characters: Richard Mellon Scaife, who funds a scad of hit groups to “investigate” the Clintons, and then winds up voting for Hillary against Donald Trump; Congressman Dan Burton, who shot a melon in his backyard to prove that Clinton’s close friend Vince Foster didn’t commit suicide but was murdered (by the Clintons, of course); the eternal “investigator” David Bossie, who turned conspiracy-mongering into millions; special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who took a weirdly salacious interest — worthy of a scapegoat sacrifice — in Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. There are Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh and all the right-wing fake-news promoters. And there are the mainstream journalists — William Safire, Michael Isikoff, others — who pasteurized the poison for public consumption. I could go on; D’Antonio certainly does. Clinton-hating was, and remains, a lascivious phenomenon.
There are occasional revelations — or rediscoveries — along the way. George Conway, the current Trump scourge and husband of Kellyanne, makes a special guest appearance as one of the “Elves,” the lawyers representing Paula Jones against Bill Clinton: “[Conway] was so virulently anti-Clinton that he typically referred to the president not by name but by the term scumbag and literally jumped for joy” when he saw a TV report of new sexual allegations. And then there’s future Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, working for Starr, who seemed demonically fixed on Foster’s suicide and “persuaded” Starr to reopen the case as a murder investigation, which lasted three years and cost $2 million. “Members of Foster’s family were interviewed again and again, resented the interference, but Kavanaugh pressed on,” D’Antonio claims, “and even sent FBI agents to collect a sample of Foster’s daughter’s hair.”
I suppose there is value in compiling all this vile stuff. There will be first-time voters in 2020 who weren’t even born when Bill Clinton was president, and they should know where the Trumpist wing-nuttery came from. For the rest of us, though, there is a larger question, unasked in this book: In the end, what are we to make of Bill and Hillary Clinton — not just as “magical” scapegoats but as public servants.
They are not in very good standing now: Bill, laid low by the #MeToo movement; Hillary, by her ineffective campaign against Trump. But Bill Clinton was an admirable and substantive president (except for his personal life). He taxed the rich, balanced the budget, reformed welfare and passed a scad of laws to benefit the working poor. He didn’t pursue silly wars overseas. When there was trouble — like the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing — he could soothe and lead the country.
Hillary Clinton’s legacy is more complicated. D’Antonio’s assessment is saintly, although he does allow that she has a temper. He does not mention that it was Hillary who nixed The Washington Post’s offer to go through the Whitewater materials, no matter how long it took — a session that might have prevented the explosion of that non-scandal. Her strict, defensive quality, reinforced by a staunch sense of moral superiority, did her great damage at times, crippling her efforts to produce universal health care and rendering her presidential campaign a joyless death march. Successful presidents require a greatness of spirit, a prevailing sense of optimism, a light touch, a certain lyricism. She had none of those. At least, not for public consumption.
But was she a failure? I don’t think so. She was an excellent senator from New York. I watched her master the intricacies of defense policy after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. When David Petraeus was asked, in 2006, whether there were any Democratic presidential aspirants who understood how his mind worked, he said: “You mean, aside from Hillary?” She represented the United States brilliantly as secretary of state, especially when it came to public diplomacy. She cultivated, over the years, a smart and dedicated staff — no insider ever wrote a tell-all about her. The reality of Hillary Clinton was always more traditional, more Methodist than radical, than the trumped-up fantasies about her.
In the end, a true scapegoat sacrifice tells us more about the sins of the society in question than about the goat. The “Hunting of Hillary” was always more about us than it was about her.