A FLURRY OF PUBLICITY about the supposed revelations in Roger Morris’s Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America has obscured what the book really is. To be sure, Morris gives us some anonymous ex-spooks who claim young Bill Clinton was passing information to the CIA during his notorious trip to Moscow, and still more people who anonymously confirm that Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster were long-time lovers, and others who are certain Gov. Clinton was up to his nostrils in cocaine, as well as in the drug-smuggling and gun-running out of Mena airport in rural Arkansas. But Partners in Power (Holt, 526 pages, $ 27.50) is chiefly and simply a viciously doctrinaire attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton — and the American political system Morris portrays them as exemplifying — from the farther-out provinces of the ideological Left.
The book is cast as a dual biography of Bill and Hillary. Five tedious chapters on him and two on her take us to their meeting at Yale Law School. Morris’s biographical skills are best captured in his use of a quotation from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to illuminate the world of Bill Clinton’s father, Bill Blythe. Yes, Blythe was a salesman, but surely the father of a future president of the United States deserves better than to have his brief life refracted clichds: “He’s a man out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. . . . It goes with the territory.”
The book picks up a bit when it takes us to the ambitious young Bill’s first campaign for office, a failed 1974 bid for a U.S. House seat that nonetheless established him as an up-and-comer in the world of Arkansas Democratic politics. As Hillary Rodham gradually abandoned her own youthful brush with idealism and even her maiden name, Bill frenetically scaled the political heights, first as attorney general and then in 1978 as the second- youngest governor in the state’s history. Turned out after a single term, he quickly regrouped, presenting himself as having learned from his past failure to listen to the people — even though neither he nor his wife, in Morris’s telling, had much more than contempt for ordinary Arkansans. Through a combination of sheer political skill and the ability to posture as a reformer while quietly accommodating the interests of his powerful allies, he set in motion a remarkable political journey that would take him to the White House ten years later.
And all along the way, both he and she had rich and powerful patrons who would finance his political career and line their pocketbooks — in exchange, perhaps explicitly, perhaps in the manner of a nod and a wink, for an Arkansas state government that would look after their interests. Morris retells the stories of the Whitewater partnership and the other, even more lucrative benefits of association with James and Susan McDougal and their free-wheeling savings and loan. He plows as well through Hillary’s special relationship with James Blair, who helped her make $ 100,000 in commodities trades. And he reviews the myriad other Arkansas interests and financial institutions that greased the skids of Bill’s career.
Most of these tales are well known. Morris also ventures into less well- charted territory, such as the much-mythologized airport at Mena, but with considerably less success. The interviews he himself conducted have yielded mostly speculation and inference — as well as a wealth of anonymous offense- taking at the actions of the Clintons — rather than new information. Even the much-ballyhooed CIA connection ends up rather vaporous, with some of those unnamed covert-ops sources only speaking of the CIA’s use of American students abroad in the vaguest terms, not specifically in relation to Clinton. Morris himself doesn’t seem fully persuaded.
Still, the real action in Partners in Power lies not so much in the biography as in the juxtaposition of the Clintons’ lives in Arkansas with the broad changes Morris detects in the political culture of Washington. Oh, what a wretched place this Washington has become, a city in which moneyed interests work the hidden levers of a vast political system to their own financial advantage and to the detriment of the voiceless, the poor and the powerless, whose fundamental decency and dignity are forever being crushed under the boot of their oppressors. The rhetoric here comes straight out of Snoopy’s peerlessly awful novel, the one that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . . While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury.” Or, as Morris actually does say, “There were waiting lists at the most fashionable restaurants and long lines of the hungry at shelters and soup kitchens.”
In the world according to Morris (here he parts company with Snoopy), the economy is in decline, the middle class is disintegrating, the ranks of the poor are swelling, and it is no accident. It is due to the “growing convergence” of the two political parties, the merger of the increasingly right-wing Democrats with the always “reactionary” Republicans “in the service of privilege,” the interests of their rich if little-known masters. Perhaps there was a better, nobler time for the Democrats. But the world of the 1990s is one JFK would never recognize, characterized as it is by the Democratic party’s “surrender to the orthodoxy of vested interests.”
The point is that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their indifference to the little people — ranging from dirt-poor blacks in Arkansas to the vulnerable objects of Bill’s amorous intentions — are of a piece with the corrupt American political system as a whole. There stand we all in dire straits, unless we are somehow able to purify our politics of the corruption of moneyed interests.
Morris, whose biggest claim to fame has been his resignation from the Kissinger-led National Security Council staff in protest over the course of the Vietnam war, remains thoroughly steeped in New Left politics. He even takes occasion to protest the “two great myths” that took hold following the crushing defeat of George McGovern in 1972. The first was the idea that ” McGovern’s campaign represented an aberrant radicalism in American politics,” when in fact his followers were actually rather conservative. The second was that the Nixon victory meant that “voters had turned in some vast, consciously reactionary tide toward historical reversal of the New Deal.”
Morris’s essential problem is that the people in whose name he purports to speak don’t agree with him. Therefore, they must have been oppressed or silenced, and they must be afraid and powerless. After all, that’s really the only way a reactionary minority could capture the GOP from its moderate elements and exploit low voter turnout to wrest control of a system that Democrats had cravenly given in to anyway.
This is loony. It almost makes one feel sorry for the Clintons, cast here as the embodiment of a thoroughly corrupt political system. If Roger Morris is attacking you, how bad can you be?
The answer is: pretty bad. And that is precisely what the thesis of this book ultimately obscures. Notwithstanding Roger Morris’s rich conspiratorial imagination — he seems pretty sure the CIA set up Gary Hart’s exposure as a philanderer in 1987, for example — not all political institutions and not all politicians are equally corrupt. The Clintons aren’t just the same as everybody else. Even Partners in Power manages, if inadvertently, to show the ways in which they are worse.