(note: the title of this article emphasizes the fact that The New York Times refused to review this book for many weeks that it was on the Times' own best seller list. This review was posted to alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater July 24, 1996. The Times finally published a review of the book on July 28, 1996.)
"Partners In Power - The Clintons and Their America"
Author - Roger Morris
Publisher - Henry Holt and Company, 1996
526 pages, $27.50 (PSR)
There is a class of political writing which is elevated above the plane of the culture it examines, by virtue of its resort to history. It represents an aspiration to reach beyond a journalism committed to daily or even yearly record and offered at the common market of partisan pique. The effect, if not the explicit goal, of the better examination is to render vivid dimensional charts of those tides which course the relations of men and man. In times when written words become a (if not the) most important sanctuary of reality, the reality thus taken to letters becomes important for its acute lessons to posterity.
In setting out to record the first moments of the Clinton administration, Roger Morris was reality-bound to dislodge and illuminate a raw cross-section of glacial rot through which every hope of the American past is now filtered. This is the aspect which elevates this book in a market grown thick around a man whose importance as the forty-second president of the United States is deeply shadowed by the time of his life.
Morris comes to us even-handed, and a rare specimen: a man who stepped from darkness to light with his resignation from Richard Nixon's National Security Council in protest of the invasion of Cambodia. While not unique for that measure of integrity in public life, the example must attract one's attention to that sort of vision when cast over the man's own ideals. "Partners In Power" ultimately turns to critical analysis of not a failure of liberalism, but a covert political milieu in which the antagonism of liberalism and conservatism is loudly contrived and falsely set, with the result of silent irrelevance. Morris is unabashed liberal. For him, however, there is no struggle: the game has been called on account of fix.
The subtitle of the book is quite proper for its context of the inclusion of the proper nouns. Early chapters recount the growth of ambition amid ethical tornados swirling through the lives of two people whose course makes straight for the heart of their generation. Prototypical brats of privileged outburst, each powerfully abiding of childhood strain until that moment when graduation licensed their entre' to sheer power, the Clintons raced far ahead of the bounding school of New Age fry. Driven in the fever of action, there is as little evidence of their consideration for the essential nature of the action, as there is of the consideration of a pine forest to a salmon headed down-river to open sea.
Long before things actually horrible take ideological and physical aspect at the end of the American Century, the shadows come creeping: through the musty steam of the Ouachita Mountains and the bosom of a singular locus of leer where "everybody knew" what the action was, and big league powers knew when they came to refresh, as well as the locals who always knew through the various nights of hushed screams and dull thuds; through the sick-grinning aversion to the out-loud, the strident advance of secret. The shadows creep through adventure lost to the safety of John Birch suburbia; through stern enforcement of dogma at the expense of fact and value connected by thought.
Here, in these shadows, is where two young people were gripped in the mold of powerful ambition and ambition to power. They were groomed to various camouflages of "safe" rebellion posed in order to protect their futures as "politically viable" while engaging the legitimate outrages of their youth with empty rhetoric. Avatars of "change" came of age with the old devices of the nod and the wink.
As they came creeping, however, another darkness came to meet their arrival with a "slow motion coup d'etat", and this is the most significant aspect of Morris' book. We find a comprehensive account of the transmutation of American government into a monolithic structure impervious to every principle of a civil republic which stamped its birth. "Representation" is reduced to sad shibboleth in labyrinthine venues of legislation by congressional staff and pandering to lobbyists, lawyers, consultants, and every species of courtier. "The Executive" is long since compromised to "theater of the abject" in its singular importance as repository of powers imperial to party, and not those characteristic of a man of authentic leadership.
Note that Morris' account is not remarkable for its acute insight to fundamentals. This book is largely a panoramic view of symptoms. For all its grasp of the machine of public politics, it is no more adept at reaching any radical understanding of the evolution of the machine's design. Throughout chapters which describe the deviations of parties and persons across lines of principle and expedience, we find many of the political and economic premises un-challenged throughout this century. Laissez-faire is "fetish". "Greed" is arbitrarily interpolated for self-interest without contextual reference to actions which would distinguish "greed" from rightful reward. Large is categorically evil in examination of the role of "giant corporations" at the levers of power...quite without the slightest analysis of a specific relationship between the two, apart from the general assertion. The always nebulous "interests" lurk near the hand of power, without the slightest understanding of the nature of interests, the fact that everyone has them, or the implications to "pressure group warfare" which Ayn Rand analyzed with genuine incision to principle. Such precise grasp of fundamentals would tell us how we got here. Morris merely points out the fact that we have arrived.
The signal is important, however, for its detailed account of the match of man and culture, perfectly timed for each others' emergence. Only a culture of disconnection from essentials could advance the fortunes of a man such as Bill Clinton, and only Bill Clinton (thus far) could make the most of it. Their stories are convergent.
In a style which invites the future to recall these times, Morris writes of things so recent and temporal that his past-tense treatments seem calculated beyond today's best-seller list. Amid rampant outrages disposable with the very next sound bite, Morris apparently rejects appeals to today in favor of warnings to tomorrow. The sensation is present throughout the book. However, it finds salient distinction in scathing passages which expose the role of news media in the larger decadence. Chapter seventeen - "Washington III, A Culture of Complicity" leaves no responsibility un-assigned, to include that of a "free, conscientious, insightful journalism".
Some might quibble with a "de facto censorship" for the term's loose fit to an important concept. There can be no doubt of the practical effect during the years which saw "informed adult consent to the corrupted system" in political reporting. A nation grown soft to judgement and faint of discrimination saw its reporting relegated to second-hand dependence on lists of "experts" regularly rotated through televised "discussions" of rote banality. Adversary journalism was relegated to thin public pretense, among cozy relations of private collegiality "on the reservation", and worse. "Professionalism" came to designate actual ignorance of the subjects of reporting. "Serious journalism" actively turned its eyes from the most pressing questions ("What had happened to democracy and what must be done?"). And, in the manner of treachery natural to all complicity in corruption, the worst fed on the best: dissenting and authoritative reporting was cynically dismissed as "sensation" or "conspiracy theory". Careers were ruined for departing the common mendacity.
In the time of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the mendacity was starkly common to Little Rock and Washington.
What had been the province of the governor became the precedent to the presidency. In a meticulously researched and documented narrative, Morris sets ruthless ambition, a numbing array of lies, calculated fixes, artful betrayals, coarse operations, and disasters contrived upon a credulous public, all in a broad matrix of cynical manuevering for imperial prerogative.
An entire chapter (of a total of twenty) is devoted to the abscess at Mena, Arkansas. Roiling with dark implication for virtually every platitude of modern American politics, the tiny mountain town entertained action far outstripping its scale on a map. "A World Nearly Devoid Of Rules" reached across international borders and behind facades of official policy statements for perhaps billions of dollars squeezed from guns and cocaine, all within unquestionably full view of the man who would be president. Morris relates this episode relatively cautiously: the catalog of what many know as "The Arkansas Horrors" is not fully listed here. However, the essentials of the case receive scrupulous attention in their connection to the governor's mansion through Arkansas State Trooper Larry Douglass "L.D." Brown, who applied for employment with CIA at the suggestion of Governor Clinton.
This core of the Mena episode is crisply set in the larger and more menacing context of a Republican administration at Washington as evidence of endemic corruption on a scale so vast that it must ultimately challenge, and dismiss, every pretext of "national security". At the same time, there can only be one judgement of the "character" of a man who would actively indulge and sanction such crimes in a career never focused on anything less than the White House.
As the courses of man and political culture converge, Morris recounts every step: from a marriage resembling royal convenience, to flagrant fraud and deceit arranged in the public's name, to flocking sycophants and villains who sucked at the font of dominion, and every iniquity conceivable along the way. Taking it all in a single literary stroke, the author gathers the who, what, when, where, and why, long smeared across years of dense complexion, and snaps it into focus.
The protrait is appropriately revolting. This is what makes it so important. This is a book which demands the attention of all who ever contemplated the modern American straits. It may be ignored, but only at peril of the judgement of history. Those who maintain that the Clinton presidency is a watershed event in the American experience will someday hold "Partners In Power" as an eminent impression of why it was so.
All readers interested in "shelf life" will inscribe their copies for their grandchildren.
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