aving tacked to the left in her contest with the self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly tack back toward the center in the general-election campaign. She has executed this zigzag before. By this point, her true beliefs may be undiscoverable, perhaps even by her. But her apparent weakness for the counsel of unrepentant veterans of the 1960s New Left gives cause for wonder about the voices she would listen to and the direction she would steer once she reached the White House.
Clinton’s own ideological roots lie in that movement. When the president of Wellesley College yielded to the demand of protesting students that one of their number be added to the graduation program in 1969 to counterbalance the establishmentarian commencement speaker, Senator Edward Brooke, Hillary Rodham was their choice. She delivered an address in which the core idea was this: “Our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”
She was chosen because she had already made a name as an activist, a trajectory that continued beyond Wellesley. Its highlights were recalled in 2008 by none other than Tom Hayden, who as one of the organizers of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Michigan was perhaps the preeminent founder of the New Left. Hayden, whose purpose was to retaliate against the Clinton campaign for circulating accounts of Barack Obama’s far-left associations, wrote:
She was in Chicago for three nights during the 1968 street confrontations [at the Democratic National Convention]. She chaired the 1970 Yale law school meeting where students voted to join a national student strike against an “unconscionable expansion of a war that should never have been waged.” She was involved in the New Haven defense of [Black Panther] Bobby Seal during his murder trial in 1970….[A]fter Yale law school, Hillary went to work for the left-wing Bay Area law firm of Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, which specialized in Black Panthers and West Coast labor leaders prosecuted for being communists. Two of the firm’s partners, according to Treuhaft, were communists and the two others “tolerated communists.”
It was widely reported that Clinton-family retainer Sidney Blumenthal had furnished the material on Obama’s past, making this a piquant clash. These two men—Hayden and Blumenthal—were New Leftists who had gone on to big careers more by obscuring than revising their youthful radical views. Now each was seeking to damage the other’s favored candidate by dishing on their radical pasts.
Of course, everything in Hayden’s Hillary history happened long ago, and her views, like those of most of us who were 1960s radicals of one stripe or another, have doubtless evolved. Yet in thousands of pages of writings and in countless spoken words since, she has failed to explain in what way they have changed. Instead, she has deliberately blurred the picture.
In Living History, an autobiography issued in anticipation of running for the presidency in 2004, she contrives to make herself seem to have been nothing but a spectator. She claims she went to the 1968 Chicago demonstration merely “to witness history.” She writes that she “moderated the mass meeting” where Yale students voted to join the strike and observed “how seriously my fellow students took” the issues—as if she herself had not been an advocate. She reports that “demonstrations broke out in and around campus” supporting the Black Panthers while she was at Yale, without offering a hint that she took part in any way. As for her summer at the Bay Area’s premier hard-left law firm, she acknowledges only working on a “child custody” case.
The First Lady’s leftish image was really defined by her curious dalliance with Michael Lerner, a fellow 1960s radical who had founded the Seattle Liberation Front. A demonstration the Front organized devolved into rioting, leading to Lerner’s prosecution in 1970 as one of the ‘Seattle Seven.’
In 1992, when the Bill Clinton campaign sought and won my support as it wooed “Reagan Democrats” back to the fold, I asked Al Frum, then the head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, about Hillary’s leftward tug on her husband. He responded that to his surprise she was proving to be a “big help” in keeping the campaign in the middle of the road. So she may have been, but once ensconced in the White House, she emerged at once as being “solidly on the left of [the] administration’s ideological spectrum,” as the Nation noted enthusiastically. Her activities, especially her leading role in the unsuccessful effort to dramatically overall the health-care system, were widely seen as one source of the backlash that brought the Republicans control of both houses of Congress in 1994.
The First Lady’s leftish image was really defined by her curious dalliance with Michael Lerner, a fellow 1960s radical who had founded the Seattle Liberation Front. A demonstration the Front organized devolved into rioting, leading to Lerner’s prosecution in 1970 as one of the “Seattle Seven.” A decade later, he reinvented himself as a “psychotherapist,” creating the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. A decade or so after that, he announced that he had been ordained a rabbi, albeit without having attended any seminary. Rabbinic garb added bite to Lerner’s criticisms of Israel, which were constant and invariably extreme. It also enabled him to formulate a new patter about spirituality that grabbed Hillary’s attention.
Lerner’s spirituality did not signify an interest in man’s relation to the eternal. Instead it consisted of the same leftist causes he had long championed, wrapped in ponderous talk about “mov[ing] from an ethos of selfishness to an ethos of caring and community.” He called this the “politics of meaning.”
Hillary borrowed the phrase when she delivered a major speech in 1993 lamenting a “sleeping sickness of the soul” that she said was “at the root of America’s ills.” This necessitated “redefining who we are as human beings in the post-modern age.” Soon after, in greeting Lerner at a public event, she said, “Am I your mouthpiece or what?” When the speech evinced some ridicule—“what on earth does it mean?” asked the New Republic—Clinton conceded, “As Michael Lerner and I have discussed, we have to first create a language that would better communicate what we are trying to say.” So she had him to the White House for a skull session.
Much as Lerner reveled in press accounts describing him as Hillary’s “guru,” her “politics of meaning” speech echoed themes she had favored before ever encountering Lerner. As the late Michael Kelly pointed out in a stunning New York Times Magazine article, the speech tracked closely her 1969 Wellesley commencement address in which she spoke of “forg[ing] an identity in this particular age” by “coming to terms with our humanness.” Verily, the girl was mother to the woman. The 21-year-old was now 45, but the thoughts were the same.
After the Republican landslide in 1994, Bill Clinton moved sharply back toward the center, Hillary lowered her profile, and Lerner and his politics of meaning were no longer heard from in Washington. The result was a highly successful presidency, whose success is the core reason there may yet be a second Clinton presidency. The only real blemish on the first was the scandal of Bill’s various extramarital moments, which became the focus of an impeachment process. One consequence of this was to cement the role of Sidney Blumenthal as a key adviser to the Clintons, now especially to Hillary.
Blumenthal had been a member of the SDS. He began a career in journalism writing for “alternative” newspapers like the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix and radical magazines like the Nation and In These Times. He published an anthology that carried an introduction by Philip Agee, the CIA turncoat who declared himself a “communist” and turned his knowledge of America’s secrets over to Cuban intelligence. In the 1980s, Blumenthal began to contribute to mainstream publications and landed a position with the Washington Post, which then leaned more sharply leftward than it does today. Blumenthal’s beat was exposing the wrongdoing—real or invented—of conservatives. His contributions often appeared in its Style section, which suited his method—to besmirch his subject’s reputations rather than critiquing their ideas.
His schoolyard style was vividly displayed in a book he published at the time, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. I captured his Trump-like approach in a review in these pages:
He reports that Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, read two conservative classics in his freshman year in college, after which “his mind was set in a pattern that would never waver.”…The neoconservatives as a group embraced President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as “a way to compensate” for their failure to “broker the Jewish vote for Reagan” in 1984. Further, “a desire for vengeance” against the culture of the 1960’s “led some neoconservatives to feel a measure of vindication when John Lennon was killed” (though Blumenthal offers neither names nor specifics). William F. Buckley Jr. was inspired to launch National Review by an obsessional anti-Semite. Arthur Laffer is fat.
The other side of the coin of Blumenthal’s abusiveness toward ideological adversaries was his sycophancy toward liberals in power or with the potential to get there. NPR’s senior Washington editor Ron Elving has reported this history:
Blumenthal had generated controversy at the New Republic in 1984 with his enthusiastic coverage of…Democratic presidential hopeful…Gary Hart.
The Hart flirtation was soon surpassed by Blumenthal’s infatuation with Bill Clinton, whose 1992 campaign he praised for its potential to bring “epochal change.” . . . Even as the Clintons’ health care bill collapsed and the Republicans took over both the House and Senate in the elections of 1994, Blumenthal remained ardently supportive, touting his access and long interviews with the president.
By 1997, the year Bill Clinton’s second term began, Blumenthal dropped the second shoe, going to work as a White House aide. There he toiled, said the New York Times, as “speech-writer, in-house intellectual and press corps whisperer.” The “impeachment trial…solidified Blumenthal’s relationship with the Clintons,” CNN reported. “Blumenthal routinely provided [them] with information about their Republican opponents…and how to message against them.” It was not only politicians whom Sidney went after. His longtime friend and former fellow-leftist Christopher Hitchens wrote of their reunion in 1998 after an interregnum:
Where was my witty if sometimes cynical, clever if sometimes dogmatic, friend? In his place seemed to be someone who had gone to work for John Gotti. He talked coldly and intently of a lethal right-wing conspiracy that was slowly engulfing the capital. And he spoke, as if out of the side of a tough-guy mouth, about the women who were tools of the plot. Kathleen Willey, who had been interviewed on television the preceding weekend, was showing well in the polls, but that would soon be fixed….As for Monica Lewinsky, he painted her as a predatory and unstable stalker.
Blumenthal’s position as Clinton family consiglieri did not end when Bill left office. Instead, he took up his pen again, producing an 800-plus-page book, settling scores with the Clinton’s critics and detractors. Describing himself as the first family’s “good soldier” and “first knight,” he performed “acrobatic feats of protectiveness [that] are endless,” wrote New York Times book critic, Janet Maslin.
When President Obama named Hillary Clinton secretary of state, she wanted Blumenthal on her staff, but presidential aides vetoed the idea because of Blumenthal’s part in spreading derogatory information about Obama during the primaries. Blumenthal continued nonetheless to function as a confidant and adviser. In lieu of a government salary, he became a consultant to the Clinton Foundation and also to Media Matters, a “progressive media watchdog” Hillary Clinton helped found, and to its closely linked PAC, American Bridge.
According to news stories, his earnings from these positions exceeded what he would have drawn at State.
Mrs. Clinton’s recently released emails include hundreds from Blumenthal. As Politico’s Nahal Toosi put it, “Clinton received advice from many…but the quantity and audacity of the missives from Blumenthal…stand out.” Her address on this private server was reserved for top aides, close friends, high government officials, and former secretaries of state, denied even to most diplomatic and administration officials. When Blumenthal’s outsized presence in her inbox prompted questions from reporters, Clinton dismissed it, saying his were “unsolicited” messages, some of which she had “passed on.”
In truth she often replied to them with appreciation, occasionally asked Blumenthal for more on a subject, and at least once wrote that she was waiting for something he had promised. As the New York Times reported: “Mrs. Clinton…took Mr. Blumenthal’s advice seriously, often forwarding his memos to senior diplomatic officials…and at times asking them to respond. Mrs. Clinton continued to pass around his memos even after other senior diplomats concluded that Mr. Blumenthal’s assessments were often unreliable.”
The attention that Blumenthal’s messages attracted has been magnified by the ongoing controversy over the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which revolves in part around questions about whether Secretary Clinton had done everything she might have to prevent or stop it and whether she had subsequently misrepresented the attackers’ motives. As emails were released under judicial order, reporters were quick to notice that prior to the attack, Blumenthal sent her dozens of messages on Libya. By one journalist’s count, one-third of the released material pertaining to Libya came from Blumenthal, who had no known expertise on the subject.
Blumenthal, however, scarcely limited himself to Libya. The messages consisted mostly of articles he was forwarding, often prefaced with a brief comment. They touched on Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Georgia, and the European Union, as well as various non-geographic topics. No other country received even a fraction of the attention he devoted to Libya, with one glaring exception: Israel. There was, however, a striking difference between Blumenthal’s Libya messages and those about Israel.
The former are long, detailed, and written in the style of intelligence reports. When called to testify to Congress, Blumenthal surprised listeners by saying he had not written them—and their substance and style confirmed this. Blumenthal, it turned out, was advising a business partnership aiming to secure contracts to provide humanitarian aid in Libya’s reconstruction. One of the partners, a retired U.S. intelligence officer, had authored the memos.
Although Blumenthal’s involvement in this venture created a conflict of interest regarding Libya, his emails do not seem designed to influence policy. They and most of those on other topics seem intended primarily to sustain his own value to Clinton by demonstrating his breadth of knowledge and range of contacts. In contrast, his communications about Israel clearly press a point of view about the country and its policies. They are unfailingly critical of Israel, blaming it for the absence of peace.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 first publicly endorsed a two-state solution with Palestinians, Blumenthal wrote to Clinton that this was a “transparently false and hypocritical ploy” on which she should try to “catch” him. When the U.S. brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in 2012, he wrote: “Hope it holds….Bibi refuses a partner for peace, but has encouraged one for war.” When she prepared to speak before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he urged using the occasion to diminish AIPAC:
While praising AIPAC, remind it in as subtle but also direct a way as you can that it does not have a monopoly over American Jewish opinion….AIPAC itself has become an organ of the Israeli right, specifically Likud. By acknowledging J Street you give them legitimacy, credibility….Just by mentioning J Street in passing, AIPAC becomes a point on the spectrum, not the controller of the spectrum.
J Street is the counter-AIPAC, calling itself “pro-Israel,” but it devotes the lion’s share of its words and energy to harsh criticism of the Jewish state.
Among the articles Blumenthal transmitted was one by the UK’s Jeremy Greenstock arguing that Hamas sought peace and quoting approvingly a UN official who called Israel’s control of imports into Gaza “illegal, inhuman . . . insane . . . a medieval siege.” He sometimes sent articles by left-wing Israelis on various topics. One, by Gershon Baskin, condemned Israel’s assassination of Hamas leaders. Another, by Yuri Avnery, claimed that “the cult of Masada is becoming dominant” in Israel. A third, by Avner Cohen, argued that Israel should join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and abandon its policy of “nuclear ambiguity.” Blumenthal added the comment that Israel’s policy “is itself the model for Iran.”
Blumenthal offered counsel on U.S. policy by paraphrasing a post by Pat Lang, a blogger whom he called a “friend.” Blumenthal wrote, “The U.S. must be insistent, especially with Israel, playing very firm and tough, or else the talks will collapse, which is likely the Israeli objective.” Another Lang blog that Blumenthal forwarded suggested that U.S. officials had fallen for Israeli “disinformation” in reporting that Syria had transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah. When Clinton responded tersely, “skepticism not in order,” Blumenthal replied, implying that Israel was nonetheless the real villain. “Of course, if Bibi were to have engaged Syria in negotiations taking its previous gestures seriously,” this might not have happened, he said.
In a piece on Europe’s anti-immigrant parties, Max wrote: ‘The extreme right is also attracted to Israel because the country represents its highest ideas…a racist apartheid state.’ Clinton replied, ‘A very smart piece—as usual.’
In recent years, Max’s focus has been Israel, the subject of a half dozen of his articles forwarded by his father. Max is a mainstay of the fervently anti-Israel website, Mondoweiss, and the even more fervent Electronic Intifada, edited by Ali Abunimah, creator of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) campaign. One gets a taste of Electronic Intifada from tweets by Abunimah and Rana Baker, listed on the masthead along with Max as members of the site’s “team.” When three Israeli teenagers disappeared in June 2014 (later to turn up murdered), Baker tweeted: “Wonderful wonderful news three settlers have been kidnapped.”
Max’s specialty is granular detail that gives his work a patina of authority even as the facts he conveys are often wrong. For example, Mondoweiss ran 2,000 words by Max and Philip Weiss debunking the accusation that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah voiced anti-Semitism. They detailed the sources scoured by Max. But Nasrallah’s own website carried an audio recording of him declaiming the most chilling of the words in question: “If [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
In 2013 Nation Books published Max’s, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. The Nation’s own columnist, Eric Alterman, a harsh critic of Israel’s, called it “shameful” and “awful,” saying “like a child’s fairy tale, each story he tells has the same repetitive narrative, with Israel, without exception, cast as the Big Bad Wolf.” In sum, he said, “this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club.”
Of course Sidney cannot be held accountable for Max’s writings, but of the articles Sidney forwarded to Clinton on the subject of Israel, he sent more by Max than by any other author. She never, as far as I can see, commented on Max’s articles that focused exclusively on Israel, but to ones devoted only partly to Israel she sometimes reacted with enthusiasm. In a piece on Europe’s anti-immigrant parties, Max wrote: “The extreme right is also attracted to Israel because the country represents its highest ideas…a racist apartheid state.” Clinton replied, “A very smart piece—as usual.” To another that referred to “the extensive history of Israeli and ultra-Zionist funding and promotion of Islamophobic propaganda in the United States,” she commented, “Your Max is a mitzvah.” To yet another that called the late Zionist blogger Rachel Abrams “an unabashed genocide enthusiast,” she blurted, “Max strikes again!”
The tone of goofy cheer indicates the level of solidarity and intimacy between Hillary Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal. In making a highly successful career near power, Blumenthal has never, to my knowledge, confronted his youthful radicalism to explain which, if any, of the ideas held then seem mistaken today and why. Far more consequentially, the same is true of Hillary Clinton, which is disquieting now that the presidency seems so readily within her grasp. The danger is not that she will reveal herself to be some kind of Manchurian Candidate once in office. Rather it is that, having forsaken radicalism merely out of concern for electability, she will continue to be credulous toward the counsel of the Michael Lerners and Sidney Blumenthals of the world.