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the interviews

Jun 2, 2006

Sidney Blumenthal

In May 2003, the book "The Clinton Wars," by Clinton presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal, was released.

The book is an ambitious 800-page "part history, part memoir," and it thoroughly succeeds in sizing up the lasting impacts of the Clinton presidency, elucidating the forces behind the conservative attack machine, as well as telling the rich story of his own career.

While some the players in the book have been given the platform of a formal book review (or exploited their own platform) to try to discredit the messenger, those with a more distanced perspective have given the book positive, even-handed reviews.

UPI's Martin Walker arguably sums it up best:

...a complex and fascinating blend or reportage, political philosophy, American constitutional history and personal anecdote.

Its range and intellectual curiosity, combined with some score settling and sharp expose, makes it hard to categorize, but even harder to put down.

It is a terrific and engaging read, whatever the reader thinks of Clinton, because it reflects the extraordinary contradictions and gargantuan follies and achievements of the Clinton years.

The book will be LiberalOasis' Book of the Month for June 2003. On May 24, 2003, LiberalOasis had the opportunity to interview Blumenthal one-on-one.

LiberalOasis: What is the Clinton legacy?

Sidney Blumenthal: I think that there are several Clinton legacies. There are legacies in policy, domestic and foreign. And legacies in politics.

In policy, the legacy is to be creative, in the face of political difficulty, and to make progress for the great majority.

It wasn't simply that Clinton created the greatest prosperity in the country's history. Or that we created 22 million new jobs, more than ever before. Under Clinton, poverty was reduced 25%.

It wasn't perfect. It wasn't finished. But it was a tremendous accomplishment.

It was not an accident. The conservative argument is that the economy is like the weather, that it just operates automatically.

But presidents matter. That's one of the biggest lessons I learned being in the White House.

Every decision that they take has enormous consequences, and ripple out from the White House.

Clinton took very tough decisions on the economy. They were criticized on all sides.

In 1993, when he pushed that budget, that wound up reducing the deficit by three-quarters.

It even lost the Democrats seats, in 1994 and contributed to the loss of the Congress.

But it was absolutely essential for creating the basis for all other progress, including the prosperity that we had, and the reduction in poverty.

LO: Where do you think Clinton got it wrong?

SB: The book shows Clinton in the presidency as a profile in growth.

He had a big learning curve. But there were enormous mistakes made in the beginning.

There were stumbles that caused him tremendous internal damage within the Dem party, including troubles with the early appointments, such as the Lani Guinier appointment.

Whatever you think about it, it caused him enormous troubles.

The biggest mistakes, early on, involved foreign policy and involved the strategy for health care.

On foreign policy, he should have acted decisively on Bosnia.

The United States appeared feckless. We were bound and gagged by the British and French leaders, who were really allied with the Serbs and Milosevic.

It took Clinton until the end of '94, '95, to regain his footing on foreign policy, through Bosnia, figuring out that we [needed a policy] backed by the use of force.

On health care, virtually every political error that could be made was made.

From the task force that appeared to be secret, which created the idea that this was removed from the public, and that the Clintons had something to hide.

To, not embedding it in the budget to begin with. Not allowing the Congress, from the start, to have ownership by having it come from the Congress.

It was just disastrous.

Of course, the conservative opposition was enormous. The Clintons didn't anticipate what would happen, and how much opposition they would stir up.

It wasn't a complacency. It was a naivete about the willingness of special interests to spend tens of millions of dollars.

This became the galvanizing issue for talk radio. It gave the impetus for the Right to attack the Clintons on Whitewater. It's a major reason that they revived that hollow, empty scandal.

Rush Limbaugh even said publicly, "Whitewater is about health care."

So I think there was a combination of strategic ineptitude and political naivete in the beginning.

At the same time, Clinton was doing a lot things right, like the economy.

LO: You say it took Clinton some time to get a handle on foreign policy. Does that also apply to Clinton's record fighting terrorism?

SB: No, not at all. The attack on Clinton on terrorism is entirely politically inspired by the right-wing of the Republicans, and has no basis in fact whatsoever.

On the contrary, it might even be a projection of what the truth is of the Bush Administration's complacency and ineptitude on the terrorism in its first 9 months in office.

Clinton was very early on aware of the problem of international terrorism.

He understood that it could exist in a new way, [related to] the new global economy that was developing, using the very tools of progress and technology ö germ warfare, computers, and airplanes ö against the modern world.

Al Gore, after the TWA crash -- which was not a terrorist incident -- in 1996 headed up a commission on airline safety.

A number of its recommendations were blocked by the airlines, working through their lobbyists, and by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] which was too responsive to that.

Had those been in effect, I doubt 9/11 would have happened.

We barely missed killing Bin Laden. There were numerous findings issued by the President to kill him. We rolled up terrorist cells. We stopped the millennium bombings.

Clinton pushed the Pentagon to put down special forces in Afghanistan, but they wouldn't do it. They didn't want to do it.

LO: You say in the book that there were internal forces that were thwarting Clinton, certain generals, the FBI.

SB: There were a lot of internal forces that were thwarting him. The Pentagon was very hesitant to get involved in any military way.

We didn't have the sort of international support of certain countries that we gained after 9/11, [those] that were strategically placed around Afghanistan, like Uzbekistan.

And Louis Freeh was a completely dysfunctional FBI Director, who was actually waging his own private war against the Clinton Administration.

[It's] one of the most bizarre and damaging episodes that really needs to see the full light of day, and be investigated.

If there were any clear investigation of 9/11, they wouldn't let Louie Freeh off the hook.

Given the FBI's responsibility, and for its incompetence in what happened, in the events leading up to that terrorist attack.

LO: What in particular did Freeh do?

SB: Louie Freeh came into office, appointed by President Clinton, bar-none Clinton's worst appointment.

The FBI was scandal-ridden. The Republicans won the Congress. They wanted to investigate the FBI, and use it as a weapon against President Clinton.

Freeh turned and became an ally of the Republicans, helping them with their investigations.

LO: What prompted that?

SB: Sense of self-preservation, possibly fear, and I think a misguided sense of what his responsibility was in his office.

He became their ally. He waged his own wars against the Clinton Administration.

He paid far more attention to his political wars against Clinton, to save his own ass, than he did against terrorism.

Louie Freeh should be investigated with a fine-tooth comb for his responsibility for 9/11.

LO: Do you have any sense that the 9/11 commission is doing that?

SB: I have no idea. I only hope that their findings are published, and not suppressed by the Bush Administration.

LO: You said earlier that Bush's record on terrorism in his first nine months was one of complacency and ineptitude. What do you base that charge on?

SB: I have a revelation in my book, from Don Kerrick, who was our deputy national security adviser -- a three-star general, not all a political figure -- who stayed on for four months under Bush.

He wrote a memo, first thing, [when] the Bush people came in, saying, quote, we'll be struck again. Urging them to take immediate action on terrorism.

They never even responded to his memo.

What happened to the Bush Administration regarding terrorism is that they regarded it as a secondary issue, and associated with Clinton. One of those Clinton issues.

Dick Clarke, who was head of counter-terrorism in the National Security Council, pushed constantly for the Principals Committee, which is the key national security group of top officials to take up the issue of terrorism.

They didn't do it until September, and they only took up the issue of the Predator drone flying over Afghanistan, and they voted against it.

Rumsfeld was against it, because he wanted to take the money for Star Wars. That's what they did on terrorism.

LO: Now, are they putting the same level of resources into it as Clinton did?

SB: It's a different story after 9/11.

I think that they're underfunding certain parts of homeland security. Especially first responders ö firemen and police.

Why? They don't want to fund the public sector.

They want to starve the public sector. That's part of their overall strategy.

That's what they're doing through their budget, through their creation of these deficits.

They're very clear in calculating, in my view, of how they're using the deficits to crush the social gains and social progress and programs that were built up, not only during the Clinton Administration, but all the way back to Roosevelt.

That's why in homeland security, they screw the firemen and police.

LO: On deficits, is the Bush Administration willing to starve the government to such a degree that, on some level, they are willing to lose in 2004 because they will have succeeded in hobbling the federal government?

SB: I think that there are two things in the calculations of the Bush Administration on the deficits.

One, when Ronald Reagan came into office, he propounded the theory of supply-side economics.

It was an absurd theory that by cutting taxes you would increase government revenues, because the growth of the economy would create an overflow of taxes that would fall into the government coffers.

It proved to be opposite. Reagan's program created the greatest deficits in the country's history ö until Bush, which are going to far exceed Reagan's.

Reagan, in the beginning, did not initially calculate that this would happen. But the reality overran the fantasy.

And then, some conservatives understood that deficits, which historically the Republican Party had been opposed to, had become the essential instrument of Republican social policy.

It became the way to crush social programs.

To crush thinking about what was possible for our country, in terms of new social programs.

To paralyze the opposition, and also achieve their program to dismantle the essential functions of the federal government.

Now, the Reagan Administration fell into it by happenstance. The Bush Administration has learned the lesson of Reagan and is doing it deliberately.

They don't really have an economic program.

There is hardly a reputable economist who can be found who will say that their program will produce economic growth and a long-term expansion.

LO: That would seem to be part of the suicidal nature of it. The plan almost ensures that there will not be good economic growth by Election Day.

SB: But they will achieve their social goals.

They have been radical in seizing upon the power that they get, as though they have a tremendous mandate.

And they've pushed this tax cut, which has now gone through, far more damaging than the initial very damaging tax cut, which has already failed to produce growth.

It's a proven failure.

The intent of that tax cut, is two-fold. One: to crush the ability of the government to act, crush social programs, and redistribute wealth upward.

Two, to use the idea of tax cuts as a demagogic political weapon -- the idea being that the public will always support tax cuts.

Even though polls show two-thirds are against it.

LO: That's also where the suicidal nature seems to lie.

SB: Not clear yet. Unfortunately, the Democrats have not been clear and strong on these issues.

They've been somewhat divided. That's the nature of a congressional party, which has different regional bases, and there's a diverse coalition.

The Democrats have taken the wrong strategy on the economic program.

They have not criticized Bush clearly enough on his economic mismanagement, pointed out that the first tax cut failed.

And [they have not] shown, as President Clinton did, that this is an either-or proposition.

You either get Bush's regressive tax cut -- that is redistributing money to those people who contribute to his campaign at the highest levels.

Or you get the programs that have built the great middle-class in America, and that benefit the great majority.

Including programs that Bush is now trying to use policy wedges to destroy: Medicare, Social Security.

Even on education, his one accomplishment, the Leave No Child Behind Act, and he has left it unfunded.

So it's a crushing burden on the schools, and the schools must be forced into failure.

That's his compassionate conservatism.

Democrats have not been clear in pointing out precisely where people's interests are.

And instead, [they've] bought Bush's argument that this is an argument about tax cuts for economic growth.

LO: That lack of Democratic clarity right now, is that going to resolve itself, once a nominee is picked?

SB: I hope so. Until then the Democrats are going to have a naturally self-diminishing situation of a squabbling field.

It's very difficult for someone to emerge as a tribune of the Democratic Party and its values, until that person emerges as the nominee.

And that's going to be a process of a nearly a year.

LO: Is there an early favorite in your mind right now?

SB: I'm for the Democrat.

I hope they learn the lessons from President Clinton...and the politics of the Clinton presidency.

We have a history, an immediate history. I've written it in this book.

[But] the Democrats act as though they were born yesterday. That conveys a certain cluelessness.

What they're doing is continuous with a long struggle for progress.

Bill Clinton was in the line of great progressive presidents who faced the realities in his own time and applied innovative solutions to problems.

And they worked.

And those are the markers. That history. To apply against Bush. They work. Bush's programs are not working.

22 million new jobs under President Clinton. 3 million lost under Bush.

The greatest surplus in our history versus the greatest deficit.

Money to spend on education and health care and new and innovative proposals.

Under Bush, cuts. The worst fiscal crises of the states. And destruction of education programs and health care institutions throughout the country, as a result of his programs.

Which are not simply misguided but deliberate. They intend to do this. The Democrats need to say that.

And they need to put it into historical perspective. And that's why I hope my book is valuable.

The Democrats need to remind people of where were, in terms of our progress, as markers against where we are, and where we've fallen, and how we've declined under Bush.

And use that as a platform for the future.

[However,] the Democrats lack an internal confidence. If you don't stand up for yourself, people won't think that you will stand up for them.

LO: How does "The Clinton Wars" put the current political situation in historical perspective?

SB: [It] puts all of the events that took place in the Clinton presidency, from Clinton's rise through the Supreme Court decision in Florida, into historical context.

There is a deep struggle that runs through the Clinton presidency. It's connected to struggles in the past.

Clinton was a president who used his office, in creative ways, to try to reinvigorate the federal government to benefit the majority.

There is an opposing tradition. That tradition, in its most reactionary form, in many ways, now holds power through the Bush Administration.

And this conflict hardly has ended.

What I describe in my book, is completely relevant to how the Republicans act, [about] their relentless will to power.

They attempted coup d'etats, all through the Clinton Presidency. That's what Ken Starr was doing. He was trying to drive the President from office.

And they finally succeeded, in my view, stealing the presidency through the Supreme Court after Gore won.

They will be ruthless in their exercise of power. And when I say they will use any means necessary, you think that couldn't be possible.

But then you have to think about the use of mob violence in shutting down the vote count in Miami-Dade County.

And the fact that the majority of that mob were paid Republican congressional staffers, from the staffs of Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, flown down with Bush campaign money, to Florida to shut down the vote count.

And whose votes weren't counted? This is another major element in my book.

The votes that weren't counted for the most part were African-American votes.

It was the biggest suppression of voting rights in our country's history since Jim Crow. And the thread of race runs from the beginning to the end of my book.

The initial opposition to Bill Clinton took place in great part because of race.

Because he was a white, progressive New South figure, who was a liberal on race.

It's absolutely crucial for the Democrats to have a sense of their history, of who they are, in order to be able to project their values and stand up for them.

LO: Do you have to get as dirty? Do you have to be as ruthless?

SB: I think that you need to be able to expose what the Republicans' tactics are. I just think you need to be tough standing up against them.

As I said, if you don't stand up for yourself, people aren't going to think that you can stand up for them.

My heroes right now are the Texas Democrats.

They stood up for democracy. And people respect them. The Democrats need to win the public's respect and that's central to the message.

LO: Finally, are you Atrios?

SB. No. But I do read Atrios. I read a lot of blogs.

But I'm not Atrios. Nor am I Josh Marshall.

Click here to order "The Clinton Wars."

(NOTE: A minor typographical error was corrected on this transcript on May 28 4:15 PM ET)

Interviews Near Jun 2, 2006


Jun 3, 2006Eric Alterman