Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2002 / 10 Shevat, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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The endless campaign -- THE war room is back. Permanently. That's the essence of a story by Richard Berke in The New York Times. It seems Bill Clinton has convened a group of old friends and sycophants to promote his political legacy -- once they've all decided just what it is.

That nebulous legacy has become not so much tarnished, what with the pardons and all, but just irrelevant now that the country has awakened to real, life-and-death challenges.

Bill Clinton must feel left out. He misses the spotlight. It's clearly time to restart the spin machine, this time to win not an election but an honored place in history. And why not? It just takes a little PR, right?

This gathering of clintonoids in Harlem brings to mind an Orwellian syllogism: He who controls the present controls the past. And he who controls the past controls the future. All the court historians need do is compile lists of achievements, white-out the failures, and generally blow-dry history till it assumes the desired shape. It's less a matter of historical research than cosmetology.

It's a fascinating line of work if, like me, you're a fancier of historical revisionism. As a student at the University of Missouri, with its marvelous library, I used to leaf through subsequent editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to note the changes from decade to decade. Historical figures and events in one edition would completely disappear in another, to be replaced by a new past.

That's why Soviet history was a better guide to the future than the past. You could tell who was on the rise and who was being erased, which policies were now in favor (they suddenly had a new, illustrious past) and which were being jettisoned (they had never existed, at least not officially) and in which direction the system was headed.

What is more malleable than history, that most contemporary of arts? It tends to say so much more about the present than about the past. Note the new fashionablity of John Adams and the eclipse of Thomas Jefferson when it comes to best-selling biographies. That trend says a lot more about the political atmosphere of the United States in 2001 than in 1801.

I would have loved to sit in on that meeting in Harlem, just to see how it's done. But seating was limited, and some of the participants were not eager to talk about what was discussed. "I feel very uncomfortable talking about these meetings,'' said Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser in the Clinton administration. Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council was equally mum. Ditto, the former president's spokesperson, Julia Payne.

They all seemed to think that the shaping of a public image should be a private affair. It must be like watching sausage being made. You don't want to know too much about the process in order to enjoy the product.

Some of the participants did talk, giving us a preview of clintonized history in the making: "Under President Clinton's leadership, we accomplished a remarkable amount in the last eight years, and his friends feel we should be doing a better job getting that out proactively.'' - Douglas Sosnik, who was Bill Clinton's political director and still sounds like it. Now he's going to direct history. Proactively. The more things change, the more Doug Sosnik sounds like a bad press release.

A number of once familiar names showed up on the guest list: John Podesta, Bruce Lindsey, Cheryl Mills ... . It must have been a lot like the old days, when the news was all about impeachment. (Where was Dale Bumpers?) Even without having attended the gathering, one can imagine the defensive atmosphere. It was probably much like that of any other group that feels itself insufficiently appreciated.

There probably hasn't been such a profusion of overdone regard for one man since Lear called on his daughters to outdo one another at flattery. But somehow I doubt that anyone at this meeting played Cordelia's part, and disdained "that glib and oily art.''

According to the story in The Times, "Mr. Clinton dominated the session, which lasted nearly two hours ... .'' Pity no one clocked how much of that time Bill Clinton himself consumed. Knowing his propensities, I'd guess about an hour and 50 minutes. The man has the potential for becoming one of the great bores of American history -- a Harold Stassen who was elected.

And now Bill Clinton is going to talk history itself into submission -- with a little help from his friends. Not since Richard Nixon has a former president made it so clear that he was going to devote himself to a lifelong revision of his place in history.

There is something undeniably impressive about such energetic self-absorption, and something pitiable. Because, despite All the King's Men, there'll always be a Jack Burden who will find what others want hidden, something "buried under the sad detritus of time -- For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost.''

Mr. Clinton is said to have told those in attendance that the young seem particularly receptive to his version of history, and I don't doubt it. Almost by definition, to be young is to be inexperienced. And therefore gullible.

It is all so predictable. Modesty should forbid, but I can't resist quoting something I wrote a few weeks back, when the outlines of this grand revisionist project were already visible:

"It's as if, ineligible to run for president again, the perpetual candidate is out to buttonhole Clio, muse of history. And he approaches her as if she were another susceptible voter, waiting for her to applaud as reflexively as the kids at Harvard or Georgetown.''

Maybe he'll charm Clio, too, though you'd think she'd be beyond charming, not being young, and having seen it all by now.

I keep thinking of the perils of Sovhistory. No matter how many editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia were published, and how much material was added or subtracted, depending on the needs of the moment, there were always those readers who couldn't control their memory. No matter what the official line was now.

Just so, despite the best laid plans of revisionists, there will always be a Winston Smith lurking in the stacks somewhere, some little guy whose memory not even a Ministry of Truth can suppress. And despite his best efforts, he won't be able to produce a legacy to order.

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