Sidney Blumenthal titles his account of his White House days The Clinton Wars, but it could just as easily be called The Blumenthal Wars. Reviewers have called him a Clinton "courtier," "Sid Vicious," a "lady-in-waiting," and, by the strongest of implications, a liar. Yet to actually read the book brings another term to mind: "mad." This is what Washington was during the Clinton years.
I do not mean all of Washington. After all, many Democrats fought valiantly for Bill Clinton -- or, if not for him, then against Ken Starr, the moralistic prig of a special prosecutor. Ditto some members of the press, who realized that no matter what Clinton did, what was being done to him -- and the presidency -- was far, far worse.
But you would get little of that from most of the reviews. Barely mentioned are the censorious comments of Samuel Dash, Starr's ethics counselor, who, in the book, characterizes the special prosecutor as a morally obsessed inquisitor. "He lacked a lot of judgment," Dash told Blumenthal. "Starr didn't see the difference between a sin and a crime. His judgments were distorted." Dash says that Starr could have ended his investigation much earlier than he did. He had, really, nothing.
It certainly wasn't for lack of trying. Starr was preceded by Robert Fiske, who was removed from office by Republican judges on account of a disabling conflict of interest -- experience as a prosecutor, fair-mindedness, and estimable professionalism. Starr was succeeded by a third prosecutor, Robert Ray, another pro. The FBI was in the hands of Louis Freeh, who loathed Clinton. Various congressional committees were run by the likes of Al D'Amato, who -- in the manner of naming a nunnery after Hugh Hefner -- just got his name put on a Long Island courthouse. As for the news media, they went after both Bill and Hillary Clinton full-time. The result? Zip.
I know Blumenthal. He was my Washington Post colleague. But I also know most of the people who have criticized his book. They are honorable people, but many of them use the book to pick up where they left off. They have no second thoughts, no backward glance to see the mess they made or to wonder how investigative reporting and commentary went right off a cliff and into a sewer. The real scandal for the news media is that no scandal ever materialized.
So we get accusations that Blumenthal spun this or that event. What's missing is not just an overview but a sense of astonishment. Isn't it just plain mysterious that Newt Gingrich continues to get respectful media attention when, really, on a given day he is half-mad and almost always blowing smoke? The same could be asked of Tom DeLay, who revived impeachment when the effort flagged for lack of compelling evidence and was determined to smash Clinton -- never mind what else he would destroy in the process. Yet he and other Clinton-haters wander the streets of Washington, unscarred, uncensored, but nonetheless unhinged.
The virtue of Blumenthal's book is that it assembles in one place what happened in Washington during the Clinton years. If you are not already convinced that Clinton was guilty of multiple crimes, then Blumenthal will make you wonder all over again about how partisan politics, even cultural disagreements, got so out of hand that the government wound up in the pornography business. The Starr Report: Wrap it in plain paper, please.
There's much to criticize in Blumenthal's book -- a detail, an omission, a partisan spin on events. But the book's reception reminds me of the events it chronicles -- a warped obsession with this or that tree when Ken Starr and his Republican allies were clear-cutting much of the forest. Blumenthal's book, describing what a madhouse Washington became back then, has for some reason been given to the inmates to review.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group; he is a frequent contributor to this page.