A piece in the latest New Statesman has a profile by George Eaton of Christopher Hitchens, in which he is quoted as saying: “[Bill] Clinton could change his mind on any issue, but couldn’t change the fact that he was a scumbag.” This, Eaton suggests, is indicative of the change that the Clinton presidency wrought on Hitch: personality matters more to him now than policy. In a post-ideological age, Hitchens has come to judge leaders on their personal merits.
The compromise and embarrassment of the Clinton years had this effect on many a US-based left-winger, with Steve Earle memorably singing on 1998’s ‘Christmas in Washington’: “It’s Christmastime in Washington / The Democrats rehearsed / Getting into gear for four more years / Of things not getting worse.” Hitchens might argue that the victory of Barack Obama – charismatic, transcendent, engaging – is another anti-ideological example of Clinton’s legacy. But Obama’s centrism also won and lost on issues of hard policy, and continues to be defined by quite detailed debates – on healthcare, on energy, and on Afghanistan. It’s hard not to think Hitchens (or possibly Eaton) lazy for playing the old Clinton card. Ideology != policy.
In a recent LRB, David Runciman also profiled Hitchens by way of a review of Hitch-22: A Memoir. He imagined Hitchens as a political romantic, “driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement.” This seems closer to the mark: Clinton didn’t cause the ideological drift of those around him; he gave them a great excuse to lay down onerous burdens.