Reliving History—and Learning From It

All the Northeast is covered in snow, and the sound and clamor of Washington is muffled. The federal government took a day off; the news is full of weather. Not a bad time to ponder why people do what they do—more specifically, why witnesses to history often take notes on what they see and hear, and in time leave their papers to universities and libraries. Obviously we’re keying off this week’s story of Diane Blair, a close friend of Hillary Clinton, who died in 2000 and whose papers were given by her husband to the University of Arkansas. There they were kept sealed until 2010. An enterprising reporter for the Washington Free Beacon, Alana Goodman, took a look and found a small trove of journal entries and memos that add texture to our understanding of the Clinton era. Which, it occurs to me, may some day be referred to as the first Clinton era, but that’s another column.

Some were surprised Blair’s papers existed and were given to a public institution. She was smart and loyal, an intimate, and some of what she wrote casts her friend in a poor light. But some of it casts her in a good light. Blair’s note-taking doesn’t seem to me disloyal to a friend, but loyal to history. You owe your friends loyalty, but you owe history something too, if you are privileged to travel within it for a time. And history gets little help from discretion.Regarding the note-taking, you might ask, “Isn’t it enough just to live it? Why write it down?” The answers there are human:

To keep it: to capture your time in history as it happened. To remind yourself it’s real.

To understand it: to order it as you write and try to make sense of it.

To reflect on it. To suggest through what you include what mistakes in attitude or action were made, what challenges met.

And again, to tell history what happened. To cast light, provide context, give a deeper feel.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton in 1999.

A separate question is why people leave their papers behind. They don’t have to. They could keep and then burn them; they could leave them to a family member and have that person or his descendants decide how to dispose of them. Or they could give them to an institution that wants them, that will ensure their physical safety and make them available to scholars and journalists down the road.Again, history has its claims, but things get human here, too. When you leave an institution your archive you’re saying, “I was alive—this is proof,” and, “I was successful—here is the evidence.” Stephen Enniss is director of the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, which houses extensive collections of manuscripts, individual archives and historical material. I asked him why people leave their papers. “It’s a plea for posthumous life,” he said. We want to believe our efforts had meaning. “The notion that our papers might be kept suggests the institution has granted a kind of status to the work—it will be studied in future years. By implication your life has been of significance.”

When Mr. Enniss worked at Emory University, there was an Irish poet whose papers were going to the school. The poet kept a box by his desk and threw in whatever he’d just written or read. “Every time a box got full, he’d seal it and send it in,” Mr. Enniss recalls. “I’d open it. I’d find a jacket mixed in in one, a pair of eyeglasses in another. After a few years I realized it was as if I was creating a surrogate figure of the poet himself.”What do we learn of Mrs. Clinton from the Blair papers? Not much that close observers don’t already know. A small mystery is what was left in the papers by accident or happenstance, and what by design. Was what appears to be a romantic note from Bill Clinton something of value with which Blair could not part, or a clue left for history’s Sherlocks ?

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Blair was not an operative or a tough guy, but a trusted friend. She wasn’t Dave Powers or Bebe Rebozo, uncritically and unquestioningly serving a superior. Blair was an equal. She comes across as a person Hillary Clinton talked to in order to more clearly hear and define who Hillary Clinton was—that is, in order to see and understand herself.

From Mrs. Clinton there’s an always-startling pugnacity and aggression. Sen. Sam Nunn, she says within Blair’s hearing, “should be unmasked as a fraud.” “HC urging hard ball.” “HC still in despair that nobody in WH tough enough and mean enough.” People “trying to destroy them.”

The Clintons are always “getting killed.” “HC on treadmill, how furious she is.” “HC furious at speechwriters.” “Is trying to work through her anger.”

Mrs. Clinton often boasts about her toughness. After her husband’s impeachment, Blair has Hillary observing it “drives their adversaries totally nuts, that [the Clintons] don’t bend, do not appear to be suffering.” On Beltway pundits: “We’ve rendered them irrelevant.” People often “need to get the message bigtime.” “They should have their noses rubbed into it.”

They were a rough bunch, or at least a colorful and sometimes histrionic one. When Bill Clinton is considering a Supreme Court choice, a supporter warns him that if one prospect even thinks “about messing with Roe, what Lorena Bobbitt did to John would look like nothing.”

Four observations.

First, the Blair papers remind us the Clintons in their early days in the White House were much like the Obamas. They didn’t know Washington and were taken aback by its meanness and mayhem. They thought it was something personally directed against them. Their reaction in turn was outsize. They thought, essentially, that any means necessary were justified in fighting the opposition’s wickedness. They didn’t understand wickedness was par for the course. In both cases their simple lack of sophistication in this area warped the politics of their era.

Second, the Clintons were of the Democratic generation that disdained Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daley, whose administration they literally fought in the streets. He was rough, tough, the machine. The Clintons rose and went on to become . . . rough, tough, a machine. In politics as in life you can become what you hate.

Third, the Blair papers remind us that in the past quarter-century the office of the presidency has become everyone’s psychotherapy. There is an emphasis on the personality, nature, character and charisma of the president. He gets into dramas. He survives them. He is working out his issues. He is avenging childhood feelings of powerlessness. He is working through his ambivalence at certain power dynamics. He will show dad.

History becomes the therapist The taxpayer winds up paying the therapist’s bill.

This wouldn’t be so bad—it would actually be entertaining!—if the presidency were not such a consequential role. People can lose lives when presidents work through their issues. This Endless Drama of the Charismatic President is getting old. And dangerous.

Finally, the Blair papers are interesting, but don’t expect much more. Word in Clintonland will have gone out: Ditch the papers. Have a bonfire. Or see that they’re sealed until 2066.