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How the Pathology of Lying Has Made the President Increasingly Impotent

NO ONE LEFT TO LIE TO: The Triangulation of William Jefferson Clinton;\o7 By Christopher Hitchens; (Verso: 160 pp., $20)\f7

UNCOVERING CLINTON: A Reporter's Story;\o7 By Michael Isikoff; (Crown: 402 pp., $25)\f7

May 09, 1999|ELIZABETH DREW | Elizabeth Drew is the author of "On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency." Her next book, "The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why," will be published in July


On a cold, wet day in mid-March of this year, President William Jefferson Clinton tried to rekindle the myth of "the man from Hope." Only a couple of hundred people turned out for the dedication of Clinton's childhood home in the small town in southwest Arkansas. His family wasn't with him. (The home was called his birthplace but, actually, Clinton was born in a hospital.) The propaganda film shown at the 1992 Democratic Convention notwithstanding, it wasn't long into Clinton's presidency before we came to understand that Clinton was more Hot Springs than Hope (where he had lived only until he was four).

Hot Springs was racy, a gambling town, a place where people (including Clinton's mother) lived fast and took chances. Georgetown University, Oxford and Yale gave him polish but didn't change his essential nature. When I was reporting for a book on the first year of the Clinton administration, a longtime friend and supporter of Clinton said to me, after the story about Arkansas troopers supplying him with women broke in December 1993, "Bill has always been someone who has lived on the edge." This person added, "I don't think he thinks he's vulnerable."

Having pushed his luck one too many times, having had too much confidence in his ability to talk his way out of corners, Clinton had brought his presidency to the brink of ruin. That he had survived the congressional Republicans' ham-handed effort to remove him from office was no great achievement. He simply outwitted them--which wasn't hard. (He also had nearly all the congressional Democrats willing to go on the line for him.) One month later, even his hometown folk weren't in a celebratory mood. And neither was the country. Clinton had worn us out.

Since the impeachment battle, Clinton has shown that he can't break at least certain habits. (Others we don't know about, at least yet.) He simply couldn't not be cute in his press conference answers on alleged Chinese theft of our nuclear secrets.

Asked at a March 20 press conference whether his "legacy will be about lying," Clinton offered a revealing reply. "There will be a box score, and there will be that one negative," he said in reference to his year of lies about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. "And then there will be the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times when the record will show that I did not abuse my authority as President, that I was truthful with the American people, and scores and scores of allegations were made against me and widely publicized without any regard to whether they were true or not." There was a pathology in that answer that wasn't reassuring. Clinton seems to have a disturbingly tenuous grip on reality. A cabinet-level official once told me that he and a colleague agreed that while Clinton was so busy spinning other people, the main person he spun was himself.

The upshot is that even when Clinton does the things he's particularly good at--talking to students at a school in Alexandria, Va., after the horror of Littleton, Colo.; taking on "the gun culture" in urging tighter gun control laws--he doesn't reach us in the way he might have before. There's been too much lip-biting fakery.


Christopher Hitchens, the writer and deliberate controversialist, has long sensed that there's something rotten at Clinton's core, and in his new book, "No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulation of William Jefferson Clinton," a stinging polemic, he lets fly. "Triangulation" refers of course to the approach, urged on him by the cynical strategist Dick Morris, whom Clinton brought in after the Republicans swept Congress in 1994, of aligning himself with neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, of having an ideology-free (if not content-free) presidency.

Hitchens makes a strong case that Clinton actually had been following that strategy for a long time and, if anything, leaned toward the conservatives. He points to Clinton's breaking off from his struggle in the 1992 New Hampshire primary (he was dropping in the polls because of the Gennifer Flowers matter) to fly back to Little Rock to oversee the execution of the mentally retarded Rickey Ray Rector. I can recall some supporters of Clinton at that time stating matter-of-factly that if Clinton weren't running for the presidency, Rector wouldn't have been killed--and then getting on with the pragmatic business of getting him elected. But Hitchens, rightly, can't let it go. "This moment deserves to be remembered," Hitchens writes, "because it introduces a Clintonian mannerism of faux 'concern' that has since become tediously familiar" and "because it marks the first of many times that Clinton would deliberately opt for death as a means of distraction from sex."

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