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Lib Liberation

Both the left and the right love to pile on Sidney Blumenthal for the crime of being an unrepentant, big-mouthed liberal.

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As you might have heard, a certain Clinton was in town promoting a certain book last week.

In most cities, that would be enough—and no doubt it was, for some people. But the city so nice they named it twice had, it turns out, room for two Clinton book tours.

Meet Sidney Blumenthal, author of The Clinton Wars.

It is something less than a secret that Blumenthal gets his share of negative press. The criticism usually rests on two notions: that he is a prickly conspiratorialist, and that he is “in the tank”—the standard dismissal of journalists who defend the Clintons, but aimed especially at Sidney because of his passages from journalism to government service and back again. Interestingly, the phrase never seems to be directed at William Kristol or David Frum or any of the other conservatives who’ve trod the same path.

Sidney is dapper, maybe a little too dapper for a Democrat—good suits, French cuffs. He’s reserved. He’s “cool” in an age that loves “hot.” Some have called him humorless (although it could well be argued that being accused of beating your wife—by people who just completely fabricated the tale and then publicized it the day you entered the White House—takes a lot of the humor out of things).

But what Washington really has against Blumenthal is this: He is utterly unapologetic about admiring Bill Clinton and equally unapologetic about being a liberal. That’s not how a liberal is supposed to act. How is a liberal supposed to act? There’s an old joke that goes, “A liberal is a person who takes the other guy’s side in an argument.” Liberals, by intellectual training and by emotional inclination, aren’t street-fighters. They see both sides. They think of issues from the points of view of interests other than their own and don’t mind conceding that the other fellow has a point. They want to believe that reasonable people can disagree in good faith.

All that was true B.M. (Before Murdoch). Now, as Eric Alterman shows in his book What Liberal Media?, two or three decades of conservative baying about liberal bias, abetted by the rise to power of an avowedly conservative media, has intensified matters. Now, liberals aren’t merely fair-minded. They’re timid. They’re cowed. They bend over backward to “prove” their “independence.”

Here’s an example. Maureen Dowd: Liberal columnist, right? She’s not a right-winger, so at least she’s a liberal by default. So you’d expect that during the last election, she tossed most of her darts at George W. Bush, right?

“This liberal desire to accommodate the other side has happened without people’s even being aware of it. It’s a behavior that’s learned unconsciously.”

She didn’t. I counted. Between Labor Day and Election Day 2000—when it mattered—she wrote about twice as many columns having sport with Al Gore (and Clinton) as with Bush.

This is the sort of thing that constitutes the liberal side these days. And it happens because liberals aren’t as ideologically cohesive—or as vein-poppingly angry—as conservatives. I’ve heard lots of liberals wonder lately, as one man asked Blumenthal at the 92nd Street Y last Monday, why there isn’t “a liberal Bill O’Reilly.” The reason is that liberals wouldn’t watch a liberal Bill O’Reilly. Liberals can’t bear all that screaming. The liberal’s screaming comfort zone ends at Car Talk.

Bill Clinton was at Sid’s book party. In a short speech that skimmed across a hundred subjects, he said: “People don’t expect progressives to be loyal.” He meant not only to him but to their beliefs; and he meant that liberals need to be willing to be as pugilistic as the right is.

Blumenthal believes that liberals in the media embraced their compromised state knowingly, with enthusiasm. “Elements of the press corps became tools of the right wing, of Republican congressional staffers and Ken Starr and his office,” he told me last week. “They deluded themselves into believing they were somehow being brave and independent when they were actually acting as arms of the Republican right. And they can’t come to terms with it now.”

I take a slightly different view. I think in some respects this liberal desire to accommodate the other side is a behavior that’s been learned unconsciously. In cognitive psychology, there’s a concept called learned helplessness. Some psychologists put a series of dogs in a box and gave them a series of mild electrical shocks. The dogs could escape the shocks easily by jumping a low fence. But after a while, some of the dogs didn’t even try to escape. They sat there and took the shocks. They had learned to be helpless.

That’s what has happened to a lot of liberal journalists and politicians. They take the right wing’s shocks, spirits crushed by the repetition. Some even act as if they enjoy it (it gets them on TV a lot).

Not Blumenthal. And it places him under siege on two fronts: by the conservatives, natch, and the accommodationist liberals, whom he makes uncomfortable. The latter is the more interesting battle.

Now we come to Exhibit A, Blumenthal versus Joe Lelyveld.

In the May 29 New York Review of Books, Lelyveld wrote a withering, and quite inaccurate, review of The Clinton Wars. Next, Joe Conason enumerated Lelyveld’s errors in Salon. In the current Review, Blumenthal and Lelyveld go at it.

Most of the lengthy exchange is taken up with Whitewater details that are of limited interest. Of far broader import is this. One expects Lelyveld, who ran the Times during the Whitewater years, to defend his reporters whom Blumenthal has criticized. And it’s nice that he pronounces himself “dismayed” by the fact that it dragged on for years. But of course, it dragged on with the Times’s help, and it’s fascinating that even now, Lelyveld—a man of deeply liberal sentiment who wrote a moving book about South Africa and has written fine pieces for the Review on such subjects as the detainees at Guantanamo Bay—won’t acknowledge that maybe the whole thing was overblown, and that maybe the Times played a small part as accomplice to an ideologically motivated jihad on a matter on which no wrongdoing was ever proved.

Last week at Housing Works, Blumenthal quoted Rush Limbaugh as having said: “Whitewater is about health care.” He meant that the right kept the “scandals” percolating for the exact purpose of crippling the administration and stopping progressive legislation. And the Times, both in its news pages and on its influential editorial page, went with Ken Starr and the right every step of the way. If the paper had recognized what was going on around it and chosen to take a side—that is, the side it purports to be on—recent political history might be very different.

The Clinton Wars has detractors—although an interesting fact, which Sean Wilentz noted in Salon, is that the glowing reviews have come from historians, while the snippy ones have been the work of journalists. But what it doesn’t have is critics who’ve been able to pinpoint grave errors, which leads one to believe that there aren’t any. Blumenthal got the story right. He has no one to apologize to.


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