Forget Mark Leibovich's new book, This Town. If you want to understand the absurdity of Washington—both in terms of the city's politicians and its media—look no further than Maggie Haberman's Politico story today on Team Clinton, Anthony Weiner, and Huma Abedin.
You remember the Clinton era, right? The age when Bill and Hillary Clinton thumped Republicans time and again, with their take-no-prisoners, combative style of politics? And then there was the Hillary '08 campaign, where her team not-so-subtly described Obama as weak and vacillating. Hillary, on the other hand, was tough-as-nails. Forget bridge-building and "coming together"; she was strong and ruthless, but in a good way.
Well, this is all a distant memory. The Clinton camp has gone soft, and even a little sentimental. What has set off this remarkable shift? The trials of Huma Abedin. The Clintonites really feel for her. Haberman reports:
"Everyone loves her to death," said a Clinton ally who’s worked with her...
"There’s anger with Anthony, but that anger is because we love and admire Huma," said Democratic strategist and longtime Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala. "I respect Huma’s decision and admire it to stick it out and make the marriage work and such. But still you can't deny that people who love and admire her will be … furious with what he has put her through.
"That’s very different than us saying we’re very angry with some potential impact on some potential campaign three years from now," Begala added.
Oh, Paul Begala, you softie.
"Two years ago [it was] caring about Huma, and now it’s concern for Huma," said a second Clinton ally, who, like almost everyone interviewed, requested anonymity.
Of course, the Clintonites are concerned about Hillary's 2016 prospects being damaged by this scandal. But the whole piece is dressed up as a story of anguish over Huma's personal troubles. As Haberman phrases it, "Their worry is as much about what she is going through personally — a rapid turn from years of glowing media coverage of Abedin to front pages questioning her judgment — as it is about her decision to stand by and encourage politically a husband who some Democrats now believe is way past the point of redemption."
Pretty soon the article has descended into bits like the following:
The source insisted that Abedin is not being looked at as a political liability internally, saying, "It’s not that crass."
But another source in extended Clintonland said that the fear is that she is "no longer making the right decision in her own life."
What is one supposed to make of the "but" in the second sentence? The two quotes, from the two different sources, are ostensibly saying the exact same thing! Is Haberman trying to signal to the reader that the second quote was said with, er, a different tone of voice? The piece also has one of the best non-sequiturs I have ever read:
Clinton insiders and allies insist they don’t believe Abedin has become a liability for the former secretary of state, who is widely known to be considering a 2016 presidential bid. And a number of prominent Democrats insist publicly that they don’t see a problem for Clinton. To wit, Abedin was in Washington on Monday, the day Hillary Clinton had lunch with President Barack Obama, and was seen dining herself with longtime friend and Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines.
"To wit" what? She was in Washington on the same day Obama met with Hillary. What on earth does this even mean? In Politico-speak, is there some deep meaning to this decision?
Andrew Sullivan has already called attention to what he called "the extreme chutzpah" of the Clintonites, noting:
So far as we know, Anthony Weiner has never committed adultery or sexually harassed or abused anyone. And Huma Abedin has not blamed a vast right-wing conspiracy for her husband’s libidinous indiscretions. None of that could be said about the Clintons. Bill lied and lied and lied again and again and again — until he was lying under oath, and lying to his own cabinet, telling them to go out and deny the very things he knew he had done.
The Clintons, via Sidney Blumenthal, orchestrated a whisper campaign to portray a young intern, Monica Lewinsky, as a deluded stalker who was lying about her affair with the president. If that dress had never emerged, both Clintons would still be smearing her today.
All this and more is true. But it's not just the hyposcrisy that rankles; it's the thought behind it. Bill Clinton was a once-in-a-generation politician, with incredible gifts and charisma. Anthony Weiner is a goofball. Why are the Clintonites so much more concerned with Weiner's sins than Clinton's? For this very reason! You see, there is no harm in a woman putting up with a sleazy guy—if he has talent. But if he doesn't? That is a mortal sin in Clinton Land.
But back to my original point, about the extreme silliness of the whole episode. In the middle of Haberman's piece is the following quote:
"If Hillary runs, I don’t believe this episode, three years before the election and really not involving her, will make one bit of difference,” said David Axelrod... "That speculation is just a parlor game for political junkies who can’t wait for the 2016 race to begin."
This is, of course, right. The whole thing is a joke that has no bearing on 2016, and the Clintonites who think so are getting all concerned for nothing.
So, to sum up: a credulous news story about a bunch of political hacks pretending to be concerned for the welfare of an embarassed woman, all within the context of "politics" that are completely irrelevant to any campaign or election. A good day's work.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.