Interview: Sidney Blumenthal with William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Interview
Monday 8 December 2004
Sidney Blumenthal was a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton. He is the author of several books, including ‘The Permanent Campaign,’ ‘The Rise of the Counter-Establishment,’ ‘Our Long National Daydream,’ ‘Pledging Allegiance – The Last Campaign of the Cold War,’ and most recently ‘The Clinton Wars.’ This interview took place two days before Thanksgiving. – wrp
WRP: My editor and I had a series of discussions about this interview. He believes, as I do, that this administration will succeed in the upcoming election if they are allowed to use the divide-and-conquer tactics that were so successful in the 2002 midterms. He was concerned that discussing the Clinton administration would play into this tactic, since many Americans have been well-trained to hate Bill Clinton. In your opinion, how might an argument be framed that explains the reality of the Clinton legacy without playing into those divisions?
SB: The legacy of the Clinton administration serves as a marker to measure what Bush has done, his efforts to roll back the social gains made by the American people. In every single area, the accomplishments of the Clinton administration stand as a rebuke to Bush on the environment, in the law and appointments to the courts, on women’s rights, on labor rights – just yesterday, Congress voted to repeal overtime for workers, mainly the working poor.
The record of the Clinton administration should be made clear to people: Not only are we talking about 22 million new jobs, the longest expansion of economic prosperity in the country’s history, but we are also talking about the greatest rise in family income in real wages in a generation and a half, and a reduction of poverty by 25%, the greatest reduction since the Great Society brought the elderly out of poverty. This came largely through Medicare, a program Bush has begun to systematically unravel.
WRP: The Senate today just completed the process of privatizing Medicare, turning Medicare into an HMO.
SB: That was just a first step. Bush has an incremental strategy across the board on how to undo the progress that has been made, not only by the Clinton administration, but all the way back to the Roosevelt administration. For example, the undoing of Medicare by privatizing it and making it a large HMO – but one that cannot negotiate lower prices and excludes senior citizens who today receive benefits – is very similar to the strategy that is employed on abortion. The late-term abortion bill that Bush signed, which has no exemption for the health of the mother, is part of an incremental strategy that he hopes will lead to the overturning of abortion, period. He wants the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and that will require court appointments, including appointments to the Supreme Court. Karl Rove, earlier this week, spoke about applying this strategy to Social Security.
For the record, the American people did not dislike Bill Clinton. They liked Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was the most popular President since John F. Kennedy. There’s just no question about it, and he sustained this popularity longer than any President since Kennedy. The idea that people didn’t like Clinton is completely belied by all of the polls that show they approved of him as President. There was an intense minority that hated Clinton, and they still hate him, and they engaged in demonization. But the idea that Clinton is hated by a majority of the American people is a myth.
WRP: Your book 'The Clinton Wars' was highly critical of the mainstream news media across a broad spectrum, specifically dealing with the mayhem surrounding the Clinton 'scandals' and subsequent impeachment. It's been a few years since all that ended. What do you think of the quality of the mainstream news media today?
SB: Recently, there has been some recovery on the part of elements of some major news organizations, but for the most part, the passivity of much of the press is consistent with the rote hostility it showed towards Clinton, and the gullibility it demonstrated in propagating the psuedoscandals and scurrilous stories that were generated on the fringes of the extreme right and then massaged by the Republican Party. The press showed itself all too frequently to be manipulated, to become an instrument, even an arm, of repressive parts of the government. One has to remember that the Independent Counsel, Ken Starr, was the government. The idea that reporters doing his bidding somehow were acting as brave, independent characters in the tradition of intrepid reporters who have uncovered serious crimes against public office in the past is ludicrous.
Right now, the Republicans and the Bush administration are putting out the line that there is progress being made in Iraq, and that things are much better there than what is being depicted in the media. The media has gone out of its way to show what it considers progress. But what if the opposite is true? What if, in fact, the reality on the ground in Iraq is far worse than anyone thinks, in terms of being able to put together a long-term, stable situation that can lead to anything resembling a state, much less a democracy? What if it is not working out at all? Why should the press decide to follow the administration’s lead on this sort of thing? Why doesn’t it follow its own instincts and simply report facts, and let the facts stand on their own merit?
The press bears a great deal of responsibility in the common depiction of George W. Bush, in building up his image, which, as it has been projected, bears very little resemblance to how he performs as President. He was depicted as decisive, in command, somebody who completely grasped and was in synch with the needs of the difficult moment the country faced on September 11. In fact, he is manipulated by his staff, buffeted by the neoconservatives inside his administration, kept from important information, unknowledgeable about so much information, makes decisions on the most simplistic basis, never carries through on his own policies such as the Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East, operates in a closed, small circle, doesn’t seek out information independently, has fostered internecine warfare within the National Security apparatus between the intelligence agencies – including the CIA – and the Defense Department and the National Security Council.
What kind of President is that? The picture that appears in Bob Woodward’s fantastical book ‘Bush at War,’ which includes reporting that is totally at odds with the image of Bush that Woodward swallows, has done enormous mischief, and really is the basis and the foundation stone of what remains of the public esteem for Bush. If it were not for this image of Bush, which grows out of the exploitation of 9/11 and the lies surrounding the buildup to the Iraq war, and the compliance of much of the press corps, Bush would have nothing to stand on. The public actually disapproves of all the consequences of his actions, and yet it has a picture of him that is dissonant with the kind of President who would bring about those actions. Why does the public have that picture, and what is the press doing about it? The press has a lot to answer for.
WRP: A great deal of what the right puts out into the mainstream news media comes from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. They have a fearsome machine for crafting and disbursing messages. Why haven't Democrats developed the same political infrastructure the right has?
SB: In the 1980s, I studied the rise of conservative infrastructure. I wrote a book about it that was published in 1986 called ‘The Rise of the Counter-Establishment.’ When I was a reporter with the Washington Post, the Post published many of my reports about this. It was considered to be a revelation by people, but the right had already been devoting decades to this, and it’s been now decades since I first did that basic reporting. The right’s infrastructure is now far larger than, I think, all but a few people understand.
I believe they spend about one quarter of a billion dollars a year on this infrastructure. Their funding is highly centralized and coordinated; call it a ‘Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy’ if you like, but it is done through a small group of people who generally direct funds to dozens of right-wing groups including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and so on. There is nothing like it beyond the right.
The reason for this is that, for may years, people thought the right was on the margins, on the fringe, not to be taken seriously. Part of that is because there is very little genuine scholarship going on over on the right. There are a lot of polemics, a lot of ideological sharpshooting, a lot of tendentious studies done that use and manipulate statistics. The Heritage Foundation doesn’t have a single scholar of any standing. AEI is filled with the likes of Richard Perle and Robert Bork. Liberals, if you will, believe in the broad-based institutions of American society, including universities. The right wing is doing everything it can to polarize every single institution it can, from the media to the academy, and now trying to consume even religion in its ideological wars.
You can see that through the heavily-funded, carefully targeted splitting of religions by the right, such as the Episcopal Church over the gay bishop. All of that is funded and directed, part of a strategy. Do not doubt it. Now, the Methodists are targeted. The Southern Baptists convention was turned in the 1980s. Its very theology, on the question of abortion, was altered. It was altered directly by a political aide sitting in the Reagan White House as it was being re-written. Such is the priesthood of the believer.
Democrats have only lately come to this realization that there is such a conservative infrastructure, that it has an enormous impact on politics, and that it is fully integrated into, and even taken over, parts of the Republican party.
One of the glitches in the Democratic state of mind was that the accusations against the Clintons were somehow just about the Clintons. There had to be something to it, because where there is smoke, there is fire. There were so many accusations. How could it all be untrue? After all, the Clintons came from darkest Arkansas. There had to be something wrong, some dark spot in their background. And so the Democrats believed it was about the Clintons personally. Then Al Gore ran for President, an Eagle Scout. And he was transformed into a liar and an exaggerator, though the charges against him were lies and exaggerations. Then Tom Daschle, a mild person of integrity, was demonized as lacking patriotism. Then Max Cleland, the Senator from Georgia who lost three limbs in Vietnam, was conflated with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and was too stunned and shocked even to reply. He lost his seat, the one seat that was the margin in turning the Senate.
So, the Democrats have slowly and belatedly come to the realization that the whole campaign to grab power against them may not be about individual persons and their foibles. Maybe its about power itself, and the Republican impulse and will to power.
WRP: The Clinton administration stopped a massive and coordinated series of terrorist attacks that had been planned for the Millennium celebrations. The Clinton administration had a huge body of intelligence gathered on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Could you go into some detail about the stopping of those terrorist attacks? A lot of people don’t know this happened.
SB: There were many terrorist attacks that were stopped during the Clinton presidency. There were planned embassy bombings. There was a whole series of attacks on the scale of September 11 that were stopped around the Millennium. There was, in effect, a coordinated and highly effective struggle against terrorism going on. It lacked the kind of support it ought to have had from Congress, and from certain nations that were complicit with the terrorists. Pakistan, for example. Uzbekistan was not helpful.
There was not a single Republican member of Congress who ever raised a single question or put a query to the Clinton National Security Council about its efforts against terrorism. Not one. When we left office, our National Security team conducted three extensive briefings of the incoming Bush team. Their attitude was, essentially, dismissive, that it was a “Clinton thing.” It was considered to be part of the package of soft foreign policy issues. They thought of themselves as the adults, the real men, interested in hard things like Star Wars. So they blew off the Middle East peace process. They blew up the long negotiations involving North Korea, and humiliated the South Korean president, who had won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. This has set us down the road to where we are today with North Korea, as they try to rediscover, essentially, the Clinton position.
On terrorism, they assigned the matter to Vice President Dick Cheney “for study.” Anyone who has been in government knows that when you do that, you are essentially taking it off the table and not taking it seriously. As I reported in my book, Donald Kerrick, who is a three-star general, was a deputy National Security Advisor in the late Clinton administration. He stayed on into the Bush administration. He was absolutely not political. He was a general. He told me that when the Bush people came in, he wrote a memo about terrorism, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The memo said, “We will be struck again.” As a result of writing that memo, he was not invited to any more meetings. No one responded to his memo. He felt that, from what he could see from inside the National Security Council, terrorism was demoted.
Richard Clarke was Director of Counter-Terrorism in the national Security Council. He has since left. Clark urgently tried to draw the attention of the Bush administration to the threat of al Qaeda. Right at the present, the Bush administration is trying to withhold documents from the 9/11 bipartisan commission. I believe one of the things that they do not want to be known is what happened on August 6, 2001. It was on that day that George W. Bush received his last, and one of the few, briefings on terrorism. I believe he told Richard Clarke that he didn’t want to be briefed on this again, even though Clarke was panicked about the alarms he was hearing regarding potential attacks. Bush was blithe, indifferent, ultimately irresponsible. The public has a right to know what happened on August 6, what Bush did, what Condi Rice did, what all the rest of them did, and what Richard Clarke’s memos and statements were. Then the public will be able to judge exactly what this presidency has done.
WRP: Do you think September 11 would have happened under President Gore, who almost certainly would have picked up where Clinton left off on these matters?
SB: I have no idea. Clearly, the terrorists intended it to happen regardless of who was President. Gore would have paid intense interest to whatever he learned from Richard Clarke, and would have done everything in his power to coordinate the effort against this. He took this issue very, very seriously. It is hard to talk about what-ifs regarding 9/11 because the one thing that we know for certain, among other things, is the dysfunctionality of the FBI, and how it wound up suppressing the crucial information that might have prevented 9/11. Whether or not that would have happened under Gore is entirely conjectural. But the FBI operated according to its own dynamic and its own rules. If any governmental entity bears responsibility for failure, the FBI has a lot to answer for.
WRP: In what other ways do the lingering echoes of the Clinton wars affect this country today?
SB: Our politics are more polarized today than ever before. The people who tried to overthrow President Clinton, who brought the country to an unconstitutional impeachment trial, are still in power. They are Tom Delay, who is essentially running the Congress. He is essentially segregating Texas and destroying Democratic representation through redistricting there. Ted Olson, the dirty-trickster, is now the Solicitor General and is involved in packing the courts. Many of the individuals who were involved in ginning up the attacks to prevent progressive government from doing its business are in power, and are more powerful than ever, and have been invested with power by George W. Bush. What happened in Florida was a continuation of all that. What happened in 2002, the exploitation of 9/11, the recent ad we saw this week, in which the patriotism of anyone who opposes Bush policies was questioned, was produced by the Republican National Committee. All that is a straight continuation of the Clinton wars.
We can expect in 2004 that all of the divisions in the country will be widened, that the polarizations will become more intense, and that the Clinton wars should be seen as not only a warning of what was to come, but an important period in which the stakes were made clear: Progressive government, the needs of the American people, the realities of the new world, the right’s will to power, and the fact that they are willing to pursue that power by any means necessary, even if it means bending or breaking any rules, or even the Constitution.
WRP: You went into a great amount of detail about Tony Blair in your book. He was a great partner of Clinton in the Third Way movement. Why do you think Blair has attached himself so profoundly to George W. Bush, given that Bush is about as far from a Third Way politician as one can get?
SB: In the beginning, Blair acted on the idea that the enduring interests of Britain and the United States had to be upheld, regardless of who was President. He was very intent of establishing a relationship with Bush. It is necessary for a British Prime Minister to do that, and the role of Britain has always been to be a transatlantic partner, and to play a role between Europe and the United States. Blair felt he had to do that.
The problem was that Bush had his own strategies. When 9/11 happened, Blair stepped into the void initially left by Bush, and articulated the meaning of what had happened. He was widely appreciated for this by the American people. Then, Bush pushed for war in Iraq. At every turn, Blair, acting in conjunction with Colin Powell, sought to channel where Bush was going. He pushed Bush into the UN, and then sought a second UN resolution. Bush‘s disastrous diplomacy undermined, ultimately, Blair’s efforts. In the end, Blair wrung from Bush a concession whereby Bush rhetorically called for a renewal of the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Bush may believe he is pursuing it, but Eliot Abrams on his National Security Council, who is in charge of the Middle East, has been undermining that action.
Blair, now, I think, has an almost mystical understanding of the so-called “special relationship.” I wrote a column for the Guardian in which I quoted Harold McMillan, who defined early that special relationship in which, after World War II, Britain would play the Greeks to the American Romans. I pointed out that he neglected to mention that the Greeks were often slaves.
Blair recently played the host, along with the Queen, to Bush on his visit to London. Blair raised a number of very important matters with Bush. He raised tariffs, including steel tariffs. He raised British prisoners in Guantanamo. He raised the Middle East. On every single one of these issues, he was denied by Bush. I believe that Blair’s influence is diminished, because Bush does not need him as he needed him in the run-up to the Iraq war, and yet symbolically Blair stands by Bush. All that remains, though, is the husk of a relationship. How special is it? Blair, essentially, has very little influence with Bush, and yet has provided Bush with the photo-ops Bush wanted. Those photo-ops are all that remains of the special relationship.
WRP: What is your take on the current crop of Democratic candidates?
SB: I am not aligned with any candidate. I’m not with any candidate, or working for any candidate at all. I think that what is important for the Democratic candidates is to level their fire, their critiques, at Bush, and not to bite each other on the ankles. It is natural in a primary season, given the competition, to attack each other. But I have not seen, so far, any candidate advance themselves by attacking another candidate. I have seen candidates advance by focusing on Bush’s accountability for what has been going on. There is a lesson in there for all the Democratic candidates.
William Rivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books - "War On Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available from Pluto Press, and "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available in August from Context Books.
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