The Clinton-Legacy Brigade: Mr. Blumenthal Goes to Chicago

Robert Alt

April 1, 2002

Spring is in the air, and all things politically old are new again. With Gore freshly shaved, could public appearances by Sidney Blumenthal be far behind? After a refreshing period of public silence, Blumenthal visited the University of Chicago Law School to tout his forthcoming book on the Clinton administration.

To many, the University of Chicago would seem like odd confines for Blumenthal, given that the school is known as a “conservative” institution because of its influence in the law and economics movement. Chicago’s reputation is something of a stereotype, however, for while it does have some conservatives (thus making it more conservative than the average law school), it also houses some of the most prominent liberal professors in the country. Putting this feature on full display, the speech began with an introduction by University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, who expressed his wonder at the fact that Blumenthal is viewed as—hold on to your hats—controversial. Only Sunstein, who has repeatedly expressed his dismay at the fact that there is not a single liberal on the Supreme Court today (Justice Ginsberg, call your publicist)—and who has participated in a private session to instruct Democratic senators on how to prevent the confirmation of President Bush’s judicial nominees—could find such an observation perplexing.

Blumenthal read selections from a chapter of his book and took some Q&A, with the overall topic being the Clinton presidency, and the subtopic du jour being the character of the American presidency. While the path taken was somewhat rambling, the destination was relatively clear: Clinton was just like the other progressives—maybe better. Before you applaud Sid for his astute observation, you should realize that this was meant to be a compliment.

With the goal of progressive equivocation in mind, Blumenthal set out his course through history, or more accurately (with apologies to the feminists) his story. Clinton took the reins of the presidency at a bad time for the Democrats: Liberalism was in decline—mind you not just because of “conservative attacks”—but because Democrats were “seen as soft on racial quotas, welfare, and crime.” Shocking. The passing of the torch to young Clinton by JFK in the Rose Garden was not going to be simple, for, you see, the work of the progressives had been left unfinished: TR had died, Wilson ended his term literally paralyzed, FDR failed to finish his fourth term, Truman didn’t get too far on civil rights, and Johnson left the country racked by Vietnam (Carter, call your publicist). The whole tone to this point was almost pseudo-Hegelian: Clinton seemed to be the end of progressive history.

At this point, Blumenthal brings Clinton into the tradition of the progressives: You see, they were all personally criticized. Thus, Sid notes that from Jefferson to Clinton “the attack on morals goes hand in hand with the attack on politics.” Jefferson was the subject of satire, Jackson was attacked for exceeding the power of office, FDR was “certainly criticized” and Lincoln (I must admit that I never lumped him with the progressives) was called “dishonest Abe.” Aside from the banality of the observation that presidents are the subject of scrutiny and satire—an observation that rightly transcends political parties—I find it difficult to equate a president who is best known for freeing the slaves with a president who is best known for freeing his, shall we say, inhibitions.

But the similarities between Clinton and the progressive tradition do not stop with criticism. The opposition to Clinton was “an elemental political clash,” which like the clashes of progressive presidents before him led to constitutional crises. It is hard to get a sense of how sweeping this is, unless you actually heard Blumenthal say the words “Civil War” in the same sentence as “Clinton.” Of course, there would seem to be a distinction: The Civil War was fought over President Lincoln’s policies regarding the southern states and slavery, and the infamous “switch in time that saved nine” on the Supreme Court was caused by FDR’s New Deal policies, while the Clinton “constitutional crisis”—a term which really is misused here—was brought about by Clinton lying under oath in a private lawsuit. Oh well, Civil War . . . Civil Suit—same difference. Interestingly enough, he fails to make comparisons based on the key feature of the alleged crisis: impeachment. If we look at impeached or nearly impeached presidents, the Blumenthal hypothesis falls apart quickly: It is difficult to find a common “progressivism” in Johnson or Nixon, and I would be curious to hear whether Blumenthal believes that Nixon’s criticisms and conflicts were motivated by his policies.

Blumenthal then turned to Q&A, at which time it became clear why his own colleagues in the White House reportedly referred to him as “Grassy Knoll.” Blumenthal complained that in a national crisis a Republican president enjoys 85-90 percent approval, while Democratic presidents hover around 65-70 percent in the same circumstances. Is this because Republicans generally poll higher in terms of public trust regarding national security issues? No, rather this is a result of “inbred Republican partisanship.” You see, the Democrats have not acted in a partisan fashion in the wake of September 11th—out of no political motive, mind you—while Republicans like Lott would have been partisan had Gore been in office. Similarly, Democrats show more restraint in investigations. Despite how serious Iran-Contra was—after all, high-ranking officials were involved, in contrast to governors or high-ranking justice officials—the investigation was limited because the Democrats did not want to “weaken the presidency.” Thus, the freewheeling investigation by Independent Counsel Walsh, and the drumbeat of investigations by Congress respected the presidency because they stopped when there was not political will left to support their actions.

Perhaps the most-telling moment occurred when Blumenthal was asked to name his greatest disappointment for the Clinton years. Even a solid Clinton supporter could admit that there were flaws in the Clinton’s tenure, but instead of offering any genuine reflection, Sid stated that his greatest disappointment is the lack of a third term—a Gore presidency—to complete the Clinton plan, after which he offered a standard stolen election quip.

With Sid and his colleagues writing and speaking about the Clinton years, the spin brigade that so effectively propped up the president when he was in office is now directed at a new target: The Clinton legacy. On the bright side for Sid and his colleagues: The book world, unlike the courts, rewards people for creative fiction.

Robert Alt is an Adjunct Fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.