Quick--West Wing or The West Wing? The First Lady is about to give a major televised address at a national convention. A presidential aide is in the audience, watching with his wife from a box. Seconds before the First Lady speaks, one of the President's key advisers bursts in. His pager is blowing up in his sweaty hand. "Do you know how to stop a story from being printed in the New York Post?" he cries.
All right, that was an easy one. The year was 1996, and the adviser was Dick Morris (and no, they couldn't stop the story). The scene is from The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 822 pages), Sidney Blumenthal's long-awaited, overlong account of his years at the White House, which, in rare moments, has some of the you-are-there, walk-with-me charm and snap of the TV show.
Blumenthal, a political journalist, joined Clinton's staff in 1997, and the book's best chapters cover his wide-eyed first days on the job. He was installed in a quaint little office that used to be the White House barbershop, and soon enough he was kicking back watching Air Force One on Air Force One. He was in wonk heaven. "Being in the West Wing," he writes, "was like being in a turbocharged think tank that was also the ultimate political clubhouse that was also the office of the assignment editor for the nation's press." But it wasn't all fun and games. The night before he started at the White House, the Drudge Report ran a news headline alleging (falsely) that Blumenthal beat his wife. He was through the looking glass.
The Clinton Wars takes us through Whitewater, Morris, Vince Foster, Paula Jones and Monicagate--episodes that few among us are longing to revisit, though they're marginally more interesting when seen from better seats. Blumenthal's abiding theme is that Clinton's presidency was the victim of a right-wing political cabal that manipulated the media and the legal system to make mountains out of dunghills, and he makes a surprisingly convincing case by doggedly following countless news stories and allegations to their origins in tainted, planted, unfounded, retracted, distorted, misleading and plain nonexistent evidence. Throughout, we get too brief flashbulb glimpses of the real star of the show: Blumenthal's Clinton is a smart, extroverted, cardplayer, charismatic, 24/7 conversation junkie--but Blumenthal is much too loyal an ally to make a good portraitist.
Which points to the real problem with The Clinton Wars: Blumenthal is still fighting them. He's missing the peaceful perspective on the past that a good memoir brings. To us, the events he describes already feel like they happened decades ago, but he writes as if they just happened yesterday--with a brittle, unpleasant, debater's edge, still eager to score points and settle scores. The Clinton Wars is neither history nor journalism nor memoir. It's just more politics. --By Lev Grossman