We gave it a B
As if being lampooned so hilariously in the anonymous roman a clef Primary Colors didn’t offer enough humiliation, Bill and Hillary Clinton must now face the further indignity of being slapped between hard covers again, this time by a journalist who isn’t afraid to use their real names, or his own. Announcing for itself a goal that couldn’t be more noble in a sound-bite-driven age, Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries, the new expose by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart, tries to tell the full story of Whitewater and to prove that it ”isn’t as arcane and confusing as those involved would have us believe.” It’s an uphill battle.
To watch Stewart march carefully and methodically along the soggy, boggy paper trail of memos, letters, tax returns, and napkin scribblings that constitutes Whitewater is to admire the volume and diligence of the work he’s done. It is also to understand, more fully than ever, why the story has failed to grab the guts of most of the American public, Democratic or Republican. Though Stewart does everything he can to turn Whitewater into a narrative (beware of the book’s many reconstructed scenes, in which ”quotations come from the speaker, someone who heard the remark, or from transcripts and notes of conversations”), it isn’t easy. As scandals go, Whitewater — a bad land deal made 17 years ago with equal parts stupidity and sleaziness — has too much math and too little drama. Even the White House travel-office flap, which briefly appears in Blood Sport as Best Supporting Scandal, is more fun — it’s adyspeptic little moral tale about powerful people screwing over powerless people and suffering for it. Whitewater, clogged with write-offs and earnings reports, negative-cash-flow statements and loan-documentation waivers, is, with all due respect to its complexities, juiceless and boring, a story that is smothered under the weight of its details. Even Clinton crony Susan Thomases, nervous on the day The New York Times broke the Whitewater story, breathed a huge sigh of relief when she was read the piece. ”Thomases was thrilled,” reports Stewart. ”She thought it was incomprehensible.”
Thomases should be less thrilled with Blood Sport. It may be true that Whitewater is the kind of scandal only an IRS auditor could love, and that Stewart hasn’t uncovered a smoking gun; anyone looking for a substantive link between Whitewater and the suicide of presidential counsel Vincent Foster, which opens the book, will have to wait for the Oliver Stone movie. But the author nonetheless manages to paint devastating pictures of the President and the First Lady. Bill Clinton, described by a Whitewater partner as ”an amiable f—up,” comes off as both shifty and so utterly clueless abouthis family’s finances that Al Franken may want to consider him the next time he needs a book title.
But it’s Stewart’s depiction of Hillary Rodham Clinton as a born politician trapped in the body of a politician’s spouse that makes Blood Sport an invaluable addition to the growing body of work on the administration. While Bill plays, she works; while he glad-hands, she plans their future. It’s a portrayal that should enthrall her detractors, who will see a cranky, paranoid, ruthlessly ambitious harridan who hasn’t given a straight (i.e., nonlawyerly) answer about Whitewater yet. On the other hand, the First Lady’s admirers will take Stewart’s book as hard evidence that she’s the brains of the duo, a smart, passionate, gratifyingly ambitious woman who gritted her teeth and started saving college money for Chelsea while her husband was busy jogging and doing other things that go better with the word alleged. (”He goes running every day,” Hillary complains at one tragicomic moment, ”but he never seems to lose any weight.”)
Readers may find Whitewater impossible to follow; it’s also possible to follow it and decide that it’s not a big deal. But nobody is likely to forget Stewart’s account of why Hillary Clinton decided to get out of the commodities market. The last straw came just before Chelsea was born, she told a friend. As she went into labor, the stress was too great. She just couldn’t stop worrying about one thing: How were her sugar futures doing?