- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Poor Bill and Hillary. They're so elegant, so intelligent; so well-intending, so unoffending; so innately good, so misunderstood.

After 10 years these two talented public servants, who left their beloved Arkansas at great personal sacrifice in the naive hope that they might help to make America a better place, have been the innocent victims of a furtive, well-financed, and widespread campaign seeking nothing less than their personal destruction.

Now, your impression of the Clintons may possibly differ from that. If so, here are Joe Conason and Gene Lyons to explain to you in "The Hunting of the President" how the wool's been pulled over your eyes by a collection of clever bad people.

The writers, one a New York journalist and the other Bill Clinton's favorite Arkansas columnist, are much too sophisticated to call the Clinton opponents "a vast conspiracy," as the first lady famously did. Instead, they call the opposition "a loose cabal," further described as "an angry gallery of defeated politicians, disappointed office seekers, right-wing pamphleteers, wealthy eccentrics, zany private detectives, religious fanatics, and die-hard segregationists." Crackpots all, in other words.

(The authors found cabals within the cabal, too. Linda Tripp, they report, belonged to "a tiny, informal cabal of anti-Clinton White House staffers held over from the Bush administration.)

But while most of the opposition to Mr. Clinton was fomented directly by the sinister Right, the authors say, some blame attaches to the sinister Right's dupes. Many naive but quite normal Americans liberals, in other words were taken in (or "seduced," as the publisher's blurb felicitously puts it) by the scheming extremists. That seduction in turn led to "mainstream publications like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek" printing stories they never should have touched, and the first thing you know, the Clintons were unjustly tarnished by scandal.

It wasn't that most of the Clinton-scandal stories were made up, the writers make clear. They were just inappropriate, naive and contrary to the national interest.

Sure, there was some illicit sex. And yes, lots of people, including the president of the United States told lies by the carload to cover it up. But that's not really important, especially when the economy is good and the country's not at war. After all, many other "men who had ascended to the Oval Office had often displayed vigorous libidos and imperfect fidelity to the truth." Warren Harding, take a bow.

It's easy to make fun of this long, openly partisan, and astonishingly ponderous apologia for the Clintons, but the authors obviously worked hard at it, and certainly should have some credit for that. In producing their brief, they appear to have read every transcript and news story concerned with the Clinton scandals, a daunting task if there ever was one, and have talked with a number of the principals, especially in Arkansas.

This admirable investigative diligence hasn't produced much new information, however, or even many new villains. As the familiar tale unwinds, Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr, Richard Scaife, Lee Atwater, Matt Drudge, Jerry Falwell, and the rest of the usual suspects are simply rounded up and pelted with unfriendly adjectives.

There is a little fresh dirt here and there, though, notably about the 1996 upheaval at the American Spectator precipitated by the magazine's Scaife-financed "Arkansas Project." In that nasty spat, a row with editor Bob Tyrrell cost Spectator publisher Ronald Burr his job and prompted humorist P.J. O'Rourke to quit the editorial board in protest. In their account of that incident, which appears to be based on original reporting, Mr. Conason and Mr. Lyons cite various internal Spectator memos and financial records. These were obtained, according to their notes, from "confidential sources."

The volume is copiously annotated, which should make their book helpful to future researchers. But the notes, organized by chapter and placed at the end of the text, are unfortunately difficult to follow. At least in the review copy provided by the publishers, all the page citations are incorrect. This defect will no doubt be corrected in future editions, if there are any. So, surely, will the other annoying small errors in editing or typesetting, such as the one in which publisher Ronald Burr appears to have been confused with another villain, Rep. Bob Barr.

The book is being promoted as an "All the President's Men" for the Clinton generation. Maybe the publisher has something there. Though the writers' perspectives differ, each book deals in great detail with the process of building a case against a president accused of appalling as well as illegal behavior.

And although one accused president survived and one did not, each stirred powerful and lasting antagonisms, and each left his country lastingly scarred and diminished.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

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