In Sunday's Washington Post, Newsweek editor-at-large Evan Thomas reviewed Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes. After some throat-clearing, Thomas begins the meat of his review with a refreshing confession rarely seen from mainstream media figures:
It is possible to sympathize with Clinton. Today, when the mainstream media seems so weakened, we forget how powerful -- and arrogant -- the New York Times and The Washington Post, along with the networks and news magazines, seemed to be in the early and mid-1990s. They were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington in the first few years after the Cold War. The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect. [Note: it seemed excessive to rational people even at the time; Gene Lyons wrote a whole book about it 15 years ago.]
Clinton was not wrong to be frustrated or to believe that the single greatest mistake of his administration (against the advice of the first lady) was to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Whitewater. He also had the canny insight that Whitewater served as a proxy for what really interested reporters: those rumors of "bimbo eruptions" floated by political enemies and less-than-reliable state troopers.
But just when you think that finally (and belatedly) a major journalist may grasp the simple concept that the 'Clinton scandals' were media scandals, not political scandals, Thomas shows that he still just wants to hear about the "bimbo eruptions":
Given all that, how could Clinton have been so foolish as to take up with a White House intern just as he was turning back the tide of Gingrichism in the fall of 1995? The reader longs for some insight, some Shakespearean narrative to help explain Clinton's self-destructive recklessness. But Branch does not deliver; he merely reports that Clinton said he "just cracked." Branch seems almost too embarrassed to try to find out more.
And Thomas seems not to realize that not everything is a Shakespearean drama. Sometimes a dumb affair is just a dumb affair. Millions of people have them; they don't all yield the kind of fascinating morality play Thomas yearns for even 11 years later.
And that yearning makes up pretty much Thomas' entire review. He doesn't waste a word on health care, or on national security, or on welfare reform or the 1994 crime bill or ... Well, much of anything. Thomas may finally realize the media's obsession with Whitewater was obsessive, but he remains fully obsessed with the "bimbo eruptions" that Whitewater was merely a "proxy for."
Salon's Joan Walsh nails it:
Jesus, take me now. We know way too much about the Lewinsky mess; we know not nearly enough about the collapse of health care reform, the compromises over Clinton's crime bill, the strategies of GOP leaders in those years, and yes, certainly, Haiti. Who really thinks we don't have enough insight into what Clinton thought and felt about the Lewinsky affair? What grownup journalist who lived through Whitewater, the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, in the prosperous days before 9/11 and the Bush economic collapse, doesn't hate themselves in the cold light of (post-Bush) day?
Sadly, most of them don't. Many are reliving minor Clinton issues through the lens of Branch's book, at the neglect of the major ones, including my friend Chris Matthews on "Hardball."