The Lassie Chronicles: In new book on Bill Clinton, Joe Conason finds his inner lapdog

Roll over doggie! Bill Clinton with his faithful pet and hagiographer, Joe Conason. Credit: Andrew Stewart

Neither irony nor subtlety figure heavily in Joe Conason’s newly released Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton. In its opening pages Conason describes his hero, on his very first day out of office, defending his pardon of the felonious sanctions-buster Marc Rich before a pack of admiring journalists.

“The word ‘pardon’ is somehow almost a misnomer,” Clinton intones. “You’re saying they paid, they paid in full.” The former president was suggesting, Conason writes, that “we ought to be more open-minded” about individuals who have “discharged their debt to society.”

How, one might wonder, does Clinton square his lofty statements with his performance in the Oval Office? It was he, after all, who in 1996 championed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — more commonly known as “Welfare Reform” —  which subjected anyone convicted of a felony drug offense to a lifetime ban on receiving public assistance.

But with Rich, who evaded taxes to the tune of $48 million and illegally traded with South Africa under apartheid rule, among other minor offenses, all should be forgiven. This might seem to be a conflict but the ever faithful Conason — whose slavish devotion to his master puts Lassie to shame — has a tidy answer. The pardon was a favor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to whom Rich was an unofficial aide. And to make this friendly transaction between the political elite go down smoother, the author revives the myth that Barak was prepared to sacrifice “his own political career on the altar of peace” by offering the Palestinians historic concessions at the Camp David Summit in 2000.

Man of the World is cratered with such factual lapses — but then to note such matters would require an actual glance at history and that’s well beyond Conason’s ambition. That this is biography as stagecraft is clear from the outset.

Conason so breathlessly chronicles Clinton as the leader of a global philanthropic powerhouse dedicated to providing AIDS treatment, eradicating poverty, forging gender equality, and a host of other noble pursuits, that he never pauses to ask if the man’s policies as president and pivotal role in remaking the Democratic Party in the Republican image might have significantly contributed to the very problems that Clinton now is allegedly working tirelessly to solve.

Clinton’s draconian “welfare reform” is scarcely mentioned, and when it is — once — it’s to note obliquely that a “woman who left welfare for work” was one of the “ordinary Americans” to attend the 2004 opening of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock. The ceremony, groovy Conason writes, featured Clinton “pals” Bono and The Edge “rocking out under a falling sky”—as if the poor woman hadn’t been through enough.

Conason doesn’t wonder how the same man who sprinkles philanthropic pixie dust from India to Haiti could have wielded the knife that mercilessly hacked away as the American safety net. Such contradictions go entirely unnoticed in this lifeless, leaden hagiography of Clinton as a beleaguered but benevolent titan who rains largesse and good will on the downtrodden.

When Conason is forced to confront Clinton’s awful presidential legacy he swallows and regurgitates the former president’s risible excuses for why he is not to blame for anything. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act occurred on his watch only because he listened to the wrong advisers. When he ushered in his Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a key driver of the shameful mass incarceration of people of color, he did so only after being moved by the plight of African-Americans who pleaded with him to address rampant crime in their communities. Hey, if their kids went to jail for smoking weed it’s their fault for asking Bill for help. The man suffers from an excess of empathy. 

At its most hagiographic, Man of the World offers us a portrait of Clinton as a species of Dostoyevskian idiot, a man of such impeccable moral fiber that he is baffled by the dearth of generosity and trust in others. He is shocked when his former allies distance themselves from him because of the Marc Rich scandal.

Conason dismisses suspicions that Clinton Foundation donors received favors from Hillary’s State Department. “Like her husband, [Hillary] felt such confidence in her own probity that she was unable to imagine how others might view her acceptance of enormous sums of money from special interests.” Yeah, who could have imagined that taking $250,000 — five times more than median U.S. household income — from Goldman Sachs for a short speech might not look good?

Conason heaps praise on the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), the program through which the global plutocracy pledge millions to support causes promoted by the Foundation. It revolves around a yearly event, which, as Conason admiringly describes it, sounds like an elite  big-tent revival where billionaires simultaneously salve their conscience and pump their egos.

Corporate giants like Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch and celebrities like Barbara Streisand and Brad Pitt promise to fork over huge chunks of money after hearing speeches delivered from both Republicans and Democrats that make “Clinton beam with bipartisan pride.” What awestruck Conason reveals, completely unintentionally, is the superficial differences among our elites. The CEOs of Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola mingle with Angelina Jolie and Bono; Condoleeza Rice hobnobs with Gerry Adams; Mick Jagger bumps into Shimon Peres. It may look like vacation but in fact all of these wonderful people attend the CGI for only one reason: to collectively strive to tamp down the tragic effects of the global hegemony that has hoisted them into the economic stratosphere.

It’s awkward that the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein provided seed funding for the CGI, but Conason bravely confronts this trifling embarrassment by relegating to a parenthesis that  Bill’s one time close friend was convicted of sex crimes against minors. He doesn’t mention that Epstein’s Boeing 747, which Bill frequently traveled on, including for a weeklong trip around Africa, was dubbed the “Lolita Express.”

Conason is equally quick to dismiss the issue of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. He derides fellow MSNBC hack Joe Scarborough for falsely alleging that Algeria’s 2010 donation was the price for being taken off the terror watch list. Great, but the contribution came at a time that Algeria was heavily lobbying the State Department to ease up criticism of the country’s abysmal human rights record.

“A 2010 State Department report on human rights in Algeria noted that ‘principal human rights problems included restrictions on freedom of assembly and association’ and cited reports of arbitrary killings, widespread corruption and a lack of transparency,” the Washington Post wrote. “Additionally, the report, issued in early 2011, discussed restrictions on labor and women’s rights.” So what happened after Algeria made the contribution? State approved a 70 percent increase in military exports to the country and in 2012 Hillary met with its leader.

Conason is entirely silent about Hillary’s 2011’s approval of the sale of billions of dollars worth of Boeing fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. Sure, the Saudis and Boeing are major donors to the Clinton Foundation, but if you think Joe might be curious about that, you don’t know Joe.

It would be easy to consign this nearly 500-page love letter to the realm of hagiography and propaganda if there wasn’t something more insidious at work here. Conason’s evangelistic chronicle of Clinton’s philanthropy implicitly makes the case for noblesse oblige neoliberalism and the idea that the market, properly tinkered with by the charismatic, can deliver us from misery.

The animating lie of the Clinton model of philanthropy is that we can cure the world’s ills without making systemic change, that an economic structure that relies on exploitation can drive global health and happiness if those at its peak can be charmed into diverting a small share of their riches to the less fortunate. In other words, the world suffers from a lack of goodwill, inertia, and poor management—not a fundamentally unjust system that creates vast inequality.

Clinton has always been a master of image and a shrewd political operator who can calculate down to the millisecond when to dab at his eye to grab hold of the public heartstrings. For decades he has parlayed political acumen into boundless self-advancement and if there’s one thing that Man of the World shows us, he hasn’t done it alone.

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