A FLURRY OF PUBLICITY about the supposed revelations in Roger Morris's Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America has obscured what the book really is. To be sure, Morris gives us some anonymous ex-spooks who claim young Bill Clinton was passing information to the CIA during his notorious trip to Moscow, and still more people who anonymously confirm that Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster were long-time lovers, and others who are certain Gov. Clinton was up to his nostrils in cocaine, as well as in the drug-smuggling and gun-running out of Mena airport in rural Arkansas. But Partners in Power (Holt, 526 pages, $ 27.50) is chiefly and simply a viciously doctrinaire attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton -- and the American political system Morris portrays them as exemplifying -- from the farther-out provinces of the ideological Left.

The book is cast as a dual biography of Bill and Hillary. Five tedious chapters on him and two on her take us to their meeting at Yale Law School. Morris's biographical skills are best captured in his use of a quotation from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to illuminate the world of Bill Clinton's father, Bill Blythe. Yes, Blythe was a salesman, but surely the father of a future president of the United States deserves better than to have his brief life refracted clichds: "He's a man out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. . . . It goes with the territory."

The book picks up a bit when it takes us to the ambitious young Bill's first campaign for office, a failed 1974 bid for a U.S. House seat that nonetheless established him as an up-and-comer in the world of Arkansas Democratic politics. As Hillary Rodham gradually abandoned her own youthful brush with idealism and even her maiden name, Bill frenetically scaled the political heights, first as attorney general and then in 1978 as the second- youngest governor in the state's history. Turned out after a single term, he quickly regrouped, presenting himself as having learned from his past failure to listen to the people -- even though neither he nor his wife, in Morris's telling, had much more than contempt for ordinary Arkansans. Through a combination of sheer political skill and the ability to posture as a reformer while quietly accommodating the interests of his powerful allies, he set in motion a remarkable political journey that would take him to the White House ten years later.

And all along the way, both he and she had rich and powerful patrons who would finance his political career and line their pocketbooks -- in exchange, perhaps explicitly, perhaps in the manner of a nod and a wink, for an Arkansas state government that would look after their interests. Morris retells the stories of the Whitewater partnership and the other, even more lucrative benefits of association with James and Susan McDougal and their free-wheeling savings and loan. He plows as well through Hillary's special relationship with James Blair, who helped her make $ 100,000 in commodities trades. And he reviews the myriad other Arkansas interests and financial institutions that greased the skids of Bill's career.

Most of these tales are well known. Morris also ventures into less well- charted territory, such as the much-mythologized airport at Mena, but with considerably less success. The interviews he himself conducted have yielded mostly speculation and inference -- as well as a wealth of anonymous offense- taking at the actions of the Clintons -- rather than new information. Even the much-ballyhooed CIA connection ends up rather vaporous, with some of those unnamed covert-ops sources only speaking of the CIA's use of American students abroad in the vaguest terms, not specifically in relation to Clinton. Morris himself doesn't seem fully persuaded.

Still, the real action in Partners in Power lies not so much in the biography as in the juxtaposition of the Clintons' lives in Arkansas with the broad changes Morris detects in the political culture of Washington. Oh, what a wretched place this Washington has become, a city in which moneyed interests work the hidden levers of a vast political system to their own financial advantage and to the detriment of the voiceless, the poor and the powerless, whose fundamental decency and dignity are forever being crushed under the boot of their oppressors. The rhetoric here comes straight out of Snoopy's peerlessly awful novel, the one that begins, "It was a dark and stormy night. . . . While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury." Or, as Morris actually does say, "There were waiting lists at the most fashionable restaurants and long lines of the hungry at shelters and soup kitchens."

In the world according to Morris (here he parts company with Snoopy), the economy is in decline, the middle class is disintegrating, the ranks of the poor are swelling, and it is no accident. It is due to the "growing convergence" of the two political parties, the merger of the increasingly right-wing Democrats with the always "reactionary" Republicans "in the service of privilege," the interests of their rich if little-known masters. Perhaps there was a better, nobler time for the Democrats. But the world of the 1990s is one JFK would never recognize, characterized as it is by the Democratic party's "surrender to the orthodoxy of vested interests."

The point is that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their indifference to the little people -- ranging from dirt-poor blacks in Arkansas to the vulnerable objects of Bill's amorous intentions -- are of a piece with the corrupt American political system as a whole. There stand we all in dire straits, unless we are somehow able to purify our politics of the corruption of moneyed interests.

Morris, whose biggest claim to fame has been his resignation from the Kissinger-led National Security Council staff in protest over the course of the Vietnam war, remains thoroughly steeped in New Left politics. He even takes occasion to protest the "two great myths" that took hold following the crushing defeat of George McGovern in 1972. The first was the idea that " McGovern's campaign represented an aberrant radicalism in American politics," when in fact his followers were actually rather conservative. The second was that the Nixon victory meant that "voters had turned in some vast, consciously reactionary tide toward historical reversal of the New Deal."

Morris's essential problem is that the people in whose name he purports to speak don't agree with him. Therefore, they must have been oppressed or silenced, and they must be afraid and powerless. After all, that's really the only way a reactionary minority could capture the GOP from its moderate elements and exploit low voter turnout to wrest control of a system that Democrats had cravenly given in to anyway.

This is loony. It almost makes one feel sorry for the Clintons, cast here as the embodiment of a thoroughly corrupt political system. If Roger Morris is attacking you, how bad can you be?

The answer is: pretty bad. And that is precisely what the thesis of this book ultimately obscures. Notwithstanding Roger Morris's rich conspiratorial imagination -- he seems pretty sure the CIA set up Gary Hart's exposure as a philanderer in 1987, for example -- not all political institutions and not all politicians are equally corrupt. The Clintons aren't just the same as everybody else. Even Partners in Power manages, if inadvertently, to show the ways in which they are worse.

EDITOR-NOTE:

Tod Lindberg is editorial page editor of the Washington Times. described as "a sexual harassment epidemic" in schools.

The organization touts these reports as authoritative and unbiased, pointing to a dearth of public criticism as evidence of their validity. Ann L. Bryant, the AAUW's executive director, said in 1994 that she could count the reports' critics on twohands, and those tended dto be a few academics and news commentators -- mostly men."

But critics there are. One ofthem is Diane S. Ravitch, head of the Education Department's research branch under George Bush, who accused the AAUW of selective interpretation of data. Another is Chester E. Finn, Jr., who held the same post under Ronald Reagan and called the group's research "a deflection from what is really wrong in education and a focus on a bogus problem." Still another is Joseph Adelson, editor of the widely used Handbook on Adolescent Psychology, who described the AAUW effor as "a propaganda machine that does not seem to respond to any contrary evidence."

If other educators and social scientists have accpeted the AAUW's reports at face value, it is perhaps because they have been lulled by the group's reputation as venerable, staid, and mainstream. Established in 1881, the AAUW was old-line and hardly in the vanguard of feminism at the time of its centennial. The average age of its members was 55, and many had rebelled against the group's decision to support abortion rights. The AAUW was founded specifically to advocate on behalf of women who were being denied access to higher education. Having all but won that war, it was suffering a rapid decline in membership and was under pressure to prove its relevance.

So the timing seemed right when, in the mid-1980s, the group discovered Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan and other feminist scholars who had tapped into a hot new field: bias against girls. By June of 1989, AAUW leaders had begun to view the lives of schoolgirls through a feminist lens. In a pamphlet issued that month, they lamented the fact that girls and boys tend to take different courses and get slightly different grades, pointing to gender bias as a prime culprit. Citing the work of Gilligan and others, the pamphlet posited that girls favor cooperation over competition and thus fail to thrive in the competitive, male-centered environment found in most schools. "The structure of lessons and the dynamics of classroom interation all too often create an environment alien, if not hostile, to girls," it said. The pamphlet urged members to pressure teachers, local school officials, and university education departments to embrace instructional methods certified bias-free.

Fourteen months later, a second pamphlet proclaimed that the schools' white- European-male-dominated curricula must be replaced by books and lessons that " show women and minorities as doers, leaders, and decision-makers." The pamphlet assured AAUW members that their group was "exerting every effort to bring the needs of women and girls to a central position" in the national debate over school reform.

The first big report came in January 1991. Based on a survey of about 3,000 children conducted by the polling firm Greenberg-Lake, it said that girls undergo a dramatic and disproportionate loss of self-esteem during adolescence -- due largely to the way they are treated in schools. "Girls aged eight and nine are confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves," the report said. "Yet most emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, constrained views of their future and their place in society, and much less conficence about themselves and their abilities."

The report linked much of this deterioration to girls' difficulties in math and science. "Of all the study's indicators, girls' perceptions of their ability in math and science had the strongest relationship to their self- esteem; as girls 'learn' they are not good at these subjects, their sense of self-worth and aspirations for themselves deteriorate."

Ordinarily, the results of such studies first appear in social-science journals, where others in the field can examine methodologies and conclusions. The AAUW eschewed this approach and chose instead to distribute a spiffy summary directly to the popular media. From a public-relations perspective, the strategy paid off. The nation's journalists eagerly repeated the report's most alarming conclusions without bothering to check them out. The AAUW's subsequent literature boasted that the survey "shook America's consciousness and has had a far-reaching impact."

One journal that showed some skepticism was Science News. In its March 23, 1991, issue, it noted that the AAUW's researchers had depended on students to assess their own thoughts and feelings and thus had based their conclusions on a form of data notoriously unreliable and difficult to interpret. It also faulted researchers for not bothering to locate and survey high-school dropouts, who are disproportionately male and whose answers would likely have painted a less rosy picture for boys.

In Science News and elsewhere, social scientists also questioned the way in which the AAUW solicited and interpreted children's answers. The survey presented children with such statements as "I am happy the way I am" and asked them to choose the best response in a continuum generally ranging from "always false" to "always true." The researchers then threw out those responses in the middle -- which they held erely to signal the respondent's uncertainty -- and drew conclusions based on the number of children who expressed strong feelings. Such methodology may work will in anticipating election returns, but it can lead to tenuous and subjective findings when used in studies of human behavior.

Moreover, readers of the AAUW report might have gotten the impression that self-esteem has been clearly defined and shown to have an impact on student achievement. In fact, it has not. Experts in the behavioral sciences say self- esteem has no established definition, is almost impossible to measure, and has not been shown to lead to or stem from academic success. If high self- esteem leads to high academic achievement, why is it that black males in the AAUW survey were the most self-assured while, at the same time, the most at- risk academically? If low self-esteem breeds academic failure, why do Asia's relatively humbel children routinely clobber our own on international comparisons of academic achievement? And if girls are giving up on themselves academically, why are more women than men enrolling in colleges and graduate schools?

But the AAUW publicized its report as if its starkest conclusions were beyond doubt. That June, it launched its "Initiative for Educational Equity," an elaborate effort to prod federal, state, and local authorities to purge schools of gender bias. The heads of the AAUW's approximately 1,700 local branches received packets from the national office telling them how to mobilize members to demand such change. The packets included a guide for hosting round-table discussions to ensure the AAUW's "visibility as the leader on educational equity issues."

by Tod Lindberg

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