Books: Left, right: they all hate him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
No One Left to Lie To

by Christopher Hitchens

Verso pounds 12

The extreme pleasure of reading No One Left To Lie To begins with the title. Christopher Hitchens didn't come up with it. The phrase was uttered by David Schippers, chief counsel for the prosecution in the impeachment hearings of President William Jefferson Clinton. The pleasure comes not simply from the way in which the phrase evokes immediate consent among any sentient American, but from there being a lovely irony in Schippers and Hitchens being on the same side. Schippers is an archetype of the Old, Old Left: Catholic, Chicagoan, socially conservative, politically liberal. Hitchens is, in many ways, a posterboy for the New Left, a man for whom the phrase "military-industrial complex" comes as easily to the tongue as "vodka-tonic". But it is to both men's credit that they could spot a total phoney when they saw one, and that they felt few compunctions in alienating their fellow liberals to say so.

Hitchens is alternately a beguiling and irritating stylist, but that he is a stylist at all in the world of American political journalism is a feat not to be despised. And he has his moments in this slim polemic. Here's a fine pirouette, on the technique by which Bill Clinton continues to run rings around what's left of the principled Democratic Party: "Many of the 'core' Democratic constituencies would still settle for the traditional two-dimensional 'lesser evil' cajolery: a quick flute of warm and flat champagne before the trousers were torn open ... and the anxious, turgid member taken out and waved." For my taste, there are a few too many mots justes and derrieres and du jours littering the text - but some fine one- liners make up for them. Here's one: "[Clinton's] prolixity remains stubborn and incurable, yet it remains a fact that in all his decades of logorrhea Clinton has failed to make a single remark (absent some lame catch phrases like 'New Covenant' and of course the imperishable 'It all depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is') that could possibly adhere to the cortex of a thinking human being." Les mots justes.

This brisk book's analytic novelty comes in its reminders of the way in which Bill Clinton has played the race card both ways (sucking up to Southern whites in campaigning and then appealing to beleaguered blacks in office); of the casual mobsterism brought to bear on impeachment witnesses like Kathleen Willey; and of the clearly questionable bombing of Sudan last year, when the Lewinsky scandal seemed coincidentally poised to overwhelm the presidency. In each of these, Hitchens has the wherewithal to keep track of facts and events the racing press corps too easily leaves behind, and to marshall them into a lucid, and often hilarious, tirade.

The book's weakness is obvious. Hitchens replays the Left's usual litany of complaints about Clinton - impoverishing the poor, executing the retarded, abusing women, hoodwinking homosexuals - but he fails almost willfully to see the roots of Clinton's political success. Hitchens bewails Clinton's neo- Eisenhower economics, but is oblivious to the productivity, employment, and stock-market gains of the Clinton years, together with the disappearance of inflation and the emergence of budget surpluses. Despite tenacious inequality in American society, these are not developments which have altogether hurt most American workers.

Hitchens also rightly points out how vastly different the 1995 welfare reforms were compared with Clinton's original proposals - but he fails to see how immiserating the previous regime was, and how unexpectedly successful welfare-to-work has been in several American states. He laments the way in which the Democrats have been recently ratcheted to the Right, without noticing that before Clinton, the party had been effectively banished from the White House for a generation and that, in Congress, the Democrats had become a by-word for corrupt indolence.

Perhaps Hitchens has been writing for too small a circle for too long to realise that he has to address these obvious rejoinders, if he is going to persuade rather than merely impress.

Hitchens homes in on the central issue of these years as bravely as anyone but can't quite see through to the answer. He responds at one point to the question often heard among earnest liberals in New York and Hollywood: "'Why is it that some people on the Left seem to hate Bill Clinton?' I thought then, and I think even more now, that the mystery lies elsewhere. 'Why do so many people on the Right hate Bill Clinton?'"

Hitchens gives no convincing answer, except the somewhat glib remark that the Right is miffed at being shown that its own policies could perfectly well be implemented by a draft-dodging, pot-smoking womaniser. But the real answer surely has something to do with the Right's simple, self-interested fury at being completely co-opted, at having all its ideas stolen by someone else, and having the rewards of its reforms and their policies handed to their institutional enemy and dressed up in some pablum called the "third way".

Hitchens's obtuseness to this probably stems from a visceral inability to see anything in conservatism but naked self-interest, and an almost admirable belief that liberal politics should always transcend this. So a figure like Clinton is bound to enrage and frustrate him by turns. Clinton is a liberal who acts like Hitchens's parody of a conservative. Worse, Clinton uses the rhetoric of liberalism to disguise his ruthless pursuit of self-interest in a way only matched in recent times by the intermittent autocracy of FDR. And most liberals rally to his side! So Hitchens, like the few stragglers on the Left with any remaining principles, is reduced to what amounts to a very elegant sputter. When the architect of a "New Covenant" hires Dick Morris as his adviser, there is more than a little darkness in progressive politics. And when an ostensibly feminist First Lady spends her last years in the White House defending an accused rapist and penning a guide to throwing dinner parties at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, then clearly liberalism has found a new moral equilibrium.

In the days after Clinton was acquitted last January, I remember saying sneeringly to one of the President's advisers, "Well now you can get back to your substantive agenda." "Yes," the adviser replied. "Winning." It was one of the few honest remarks to come out of the Clinton kitchen cabinet. To a Tory pessimist like me, it was not exactly surprising. But I'm glad there are liberals like Hitchens who can still manage to summon a semblance of outrage.