Friday Book: The cult leader of Capitol Hill

No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations Of William Jefferson Clinton By Christopher Hitchens, Verso, pounds 12
WHEN HISTORY comes to deliver its verdict on Bill Clinton, it will surely reserve harsh words for all those people, especially on the left, who rushed so many times to his defence. Like infatuated teenagers, they have tried to explain away his mendacity, his abuse of women, his broken electoral promises, his willingness to do anything - including launching missile strikes - to save his own skin. Unlike teenagers, many of them have never quite fallen out of love with the big, good-looking Democrat who promised so much but made things worse for the poor who saw him as their champion.

One of Clinton's many pieces of luck, paradoxically, is the way in which his relations with women have obscured his shortcomings as a politician. He has even been presented as the victim of the women he abused, with Gennifer Flowers laughed off as a night-club singer with big hair, Paula Jones as trailer trash, and Monica Lewinsky - well, whoever had a good word for Lewinsky? She was "a little nutty, a little slutty", according to one Clinton apologist; a sexual predator who got the hapless President in her sights, according to others.

Charles Wheeler, the BBC's veteran correspondent, magisterially informed the Radio 4 audience that she was a "minx". The novelist Gabriel Garca Mrquez announced that "the President only wanted to do what the common man has done behind his wife's back since the world began". Even more gobsmacking were the contortions of "feminists for Clinton", that group of Sixties radicals that includes Gloria Steinem and Carly Simon. The President, according to an essay by the feminist writer Erica Jong, is the "alpha male" of the tribe and entitled to his pick of the most nubile females.

All the while, Clinton was signing into law cuts in welfare benefits to poor children and bombing a pharmaceuticals factory in faraway Khartoum, turning American foreign policy into an instrument of revenge for his wounded psyche. What is wrong with these people? What is it about Clinton that makes previous political positions fly out of the window?

To his credit, the Washington-based British journalist Christopher Hitchens has never fallen for any of the myths so assiduously peddled by the Clinton administration and its apologists. The welfare cuts, in his vivid formulation, have resulted in "the creation of a large helot underclass disciplined by fear and scarcity, subject to endless surveillance, and used as a weapon against any American worker lucky enough to hold a steady or unionised job".

Hitchens rightly rejects the "lesser of two evils" argument, which holds that the left has to support Clinton because his successor would almost certainly be worse. He argues cogently in this short book that Clinton is so desperate to retain office that he has been doing the Republicans' job for them during his two administrations.

The warning signs were there from the moment Governor Clinton decided, at the height of the Flowers allegations, not to reprieve a brain-damaged prisoner who was incapable of understanding that he was about to be executed by the State of Arkansas. This was, says Hitchens, "the first of many times Clinton would deliberately opt for death as a means of distraction from sex".

It is a searing indictment, not so much a book as a philippic. This is the speech, Ciceronian in its construction and its controlled passion, which the Senate should have been made to hear during the botched impeachment hearings.

It is constructed from a kind of rhetoric rarely heard these days, as enjoyable for its hauteur as the argument it lays out. "The draft-dodger has mutated into a pliant serf of the Pentagon," Hitchens observes, "the pot smoker into the chief inquisitor of the `war on drugs', and the womaniser into a boss who uses subordinates as masturbatory dolls." There is no attempt here at "balance", no pretence that "triangulation" - supposedly finding a position between the existing parties - is anything other than a fancy name for betrayal.

As a Washington insider, Hitchens also manages to shed some light on the conundrum of why Clinton has been forgiven so many times. "I have known a number of people who work for and with, or who worked for and with, this man," he writes. "They act like cult members while under the spell, and talk like ex-cult members as soon as they have broken away."

Clearly this personal magnetism exerts its effect far beyond the President's immediate circle, allowing a womanising, Bible-toting, good ol' Southern boy to pose as a radical. What Hitchens demonstrates comprehensively, however, is that William Jefferson Clinton is not one of us.

Joan Smith

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