Insidious Sid

Sid Blumenthal rearranges facts and besmirches the character of his fellow journalists. And he wonders why people dislike him.

In the fall of 1998, just as the House impeachment hearings on Clinton were gearing up, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal was contacted by Jeffrey Toobin, a former colleague from The New Yorker. Toobin was trolling for sexual dirt on House Judiciary Committee chair Henry Hyde. As it happened, Blumenthal didn’t have much. But he confided that his mother had once worked in a secretarial pool in Chicago in the 1940s, and Hyde, then a Chicago area lawyer, had had a “reputation”—apparently, all the women had “avoided his office.” The details of this “reputation” didn’t become known until a few weeks later when another friend of Blumenthal’s, at Salon, broke the news that 31 years earlier the Illinois congressman had had an extramarital affair with a furniture salesman’s wife.

This unintentionally revealing anecdote is buried deep inside Blumenthal’s 822-page bloated opus, The Clinton Wars. Curiously enough, it seems to have been included because the author somehow thought it would exonerate him: Soon after the Salon story was published, Republicans in Congress accused Blumenthal of leaking it from the White House. No such thing was true, Blumenthal protests; the charge is just one more example of the recklessness of Bill Clinton’s enemies and their determination to “demonize” him.

But Blumenthal never stops to explain why he told his old New Yorker friend Toobin anything (or what exactly Toobin did with the helpful steer). Nor does he consider the fact that, not too long before the day that Blumenthal gossiped with Toobin about Hyde’s sex life, President Clinton had capped his semiconfessional about his affair with Monica Lewinsky with this admonition: “It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives.” Wasn’t Blumenthal’s admittedly vague tip to Toobin a direct contravention of his president’s marching orders?

The point is not that Blumenthal is a hypocrite (although he seems to be exactly that). The point is that throughout this book Blumenthal seems utterly incapable of understanding how his own uncompromising, take-no-prisoners defense of the Clintons contributed to the poisonous political atmosphere that he bemoans. Time and again, in the book as in life, he rearranges facts, spins conspiracy theories, impugns motives, and besmirches the character of his political and journalistic foes—all for the greater cause of defending the Clintons (and himself). Hyde, Kenneth Starr, Hickman Ewing, Lindsey Graham, Tom DeLay—each was malicious, narrow-minded, bigoted, buffoonish, and anti-democratic. Meanwhile, Blumenthal wonders repeatedly why so many people dislike him. At one point, bizarrely, he suggests it is because he is “intellectual” and “Jewish.”

Needless to say, I am not exactly a disinterested party. My reporting on the Monica Lewinsky story is maligned repeatedly in The Clinton Wars. (At least I am in good company: Jeff Gerth, the New York Times reporter who broke the original Whitewater story, is depicted as a credulous tool of Clinton’s enemies. The late Michael Kelly, who succeeded Blumenthal as Washington editor of The New Yorker, is portrayed as a hysteric who screams obscenities over the phone at the slightest provocation—“You fucking asshole! You fucking asshole! Your reputation will be nothing!”) But it is abundantly clear that distortion is standard fare for Blumenthal. Although there are slivers of truth in most of what he writes, the facts are dishonestly rearranged to settle scores or whitewash his and the Clintons’ actions.

Consider one small example: Blumenthal’s effort to extricate himself and Hillary Clinton from a clumsy attempt to build a White House dossier on Susan Schmidt, the Washington Post’s most aggressive reporter on Whitewater. Blumenthal’s role in this vaguely Nixonian exercise was first reported five years ago in a story by the Post’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz. When Michael McCurry, who was then press secretary, learned of the project, he proclaimed it “crazy” and killed it. Instead of admitting his involvement, Blumenthal pretends that he was a passive party. After hearing “constant complaints” about Schmidt’s reporting from White House legal aides, he writes, he suggested they “should present the facts to the Post to correct any errors. Beyond that, I never knew about a study of Schmidt’s reporting. I asked Hillary Clinton, and she had no memory of anything either.”

But others do remember—quite differently, as it turns out. Mark Fabiani, the White House lawyer who ran the counsel offices’ “damage control” team, said he recalls getting a phone call from Blumenthal strongly urging him to do a report on Schmidt. When Fabiani didn’t follow up, he then got a call from Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff instructing him to get moving on the job. This led to the preparation of a lengthy dossier (one that did little to effectively discredit Schmidt, according to Fabiani) and a series of meetings—including one with Hillary Clinton—about what to do with it. The White House lawyers knew exactly what had happened, says Fabiani. “We all laughed about it. We knew [Blumenthal] had called Hillary and told Hillary this should be done. … He was sort of the brooding, omnipresence over the whole thing.”
Another more serious example of Blumenthal’s malleable relationship to the truth involves his testimony before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury. It was during the early days of the Lewinsky scandal, and Starr’s prosecutors were convinced that Blumenthal was at the center of an organized campaign—complete with private detectives—to dig up dirt about their pasts. So, the prosecutors subpoenaed Blumenthal. After a brief session with Starr and his prosecutors, Blumenthal emerged on the courthouse steps and, as if mimicking Joseph Welch before Joe McCarthy, indignantly portrayed himself as a First Amendment martyr. “I never imagined that in America I would be hauled before a federal grand jury … and forced to answer questions about my conversations, as part of my job” with news organizations, he proclaimed. He then named eight of the news organizations he was “forced” to answer questions about, including the New York Times, CNN, and CBS. Months later, the transcript of the Feb. 26, 1998, grand jury session became public as part of Starr’s impeachment report. It showed that Blumenthal wasn’t asked about any news organizations at all. He was asked if he had ever leaked to the press DNC “oppo research” about two members of Starr’s team. It was Blumenthal, not the prosecutors, who brought up the names of the news organizations—apparently so he could later claim that the questioning was more sinister than it really was.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. After his second grand jury session, on June 4, 1998, Blumenthal called up his friends Anthony Lewis and James Bennet [Correction, May 22, 2003: Bennet is not a friend of Blumenthal’s] at the New York Times and fed them another set of outlandish questions that he said Starr’s prosecutors had forced him to answer, including “Does the president’s religion include sexual intercourse?” and “Does the president believe that oral sex is sex?”—each of which showed up in Lewis’ column. But the transcripts later showed that none of those questions were asked. No prosecutor ever brought up Clinton’s religion. The closest things came to any of this was when one prosecutor, in the midst of questioning Blumenthal about a Jan. 21, 1998, meeting with Clinton, in which the president denied having done anything “wrong,” asked him: “Did you specifically ask the president whether he had received oral sex from Monica Lewinsky?”
Blumenthal’s post-courthouse antics irritated the grand jurors. By the end of his third and final session on June 25, they decided to give him a lecture. “We are very concerned about the fact that during your last visit that an inaccurate representation of the events that happened were retold on the steps of the courthouse,” the grand jury forewoman told him, according to a transcript of the session.

I wrote about Blumenthal’s courthouse deceptions in my own book Uncovering Clinton. So I when I picked up The Clinton Wars I was mildly curious to see how he would handle the subject. Would he show the slightest contrition for his deceptive public statements? Not at all. In The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal recounts in exhaustive, self-congratulatory detail how he turned the table on Starr. The day after his courthouse press conference, he writes, he attended a White House staff meeting where “I sat down to raucous applause.” He tells how Starr’s poll ratings tanked after his courthouse attack on the prosecutors. But he never concedes there was the slightest discrepancy between what he said took place before the grand jury and what actuallyhappened. True to form, he slams the anonymous grand jury forewoman for what he calls her “highly inappropriate” comments and suggests darkly—without any evidence—that she was put up to it by Ken Starr.

If The Clinton Wars has any central point it is that the scandals that beset the Clinton presidency—from Whitewater to campaign finance to Lewinsky to Marc Rich—were each and every one of them entirely concocted, from start to finish. This is patently absurd.It is, of course, true that many of Clinton’s critics made wild, unsubstantiated charges and that Starr’s prosecutors overreached. But Blumenthal’s blanket whitewash is close to ludicrous—and sustainable only by erasing huge chunks of the historical record.

How, for instance, do you write about the campaign-finance scandal—another Republican “pseudoscandal,” Blumenthal claims, in which “all the charges were revealed to be empty”—without even mentioning the Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers or Clinton’s connivance with Dick Morris to circumvent the campaign laws by crafting soft-money sponsored “issue ads” from his White House office? There is not a single reference to Johnny Chung or any others in the long parade of Democratic donors who later pleaded guilty to federal crimes in connection with Clinton’s re-election campaign. Blumenthal defends the pardon of commodities fugitive Marc Rich. He calls Rich “a financier of the peace process”—and entirely skips over the role of Beth Dozoretz, a Democratic fund raiser who had pledged $1 million to the Clinton library and who peppered Clinton with phone calls about Rich during his final days in office.

About Whitewater, Blumenthal has this to say: “There was never anything to in the beginning, middle or end.” What convinced him? In January 1994, Hillary Clinton called him into her office and told him so. “I believed Hillary Clinton,” he writes. “Her telling of the story … sounded convincing; her demeanor struck no false notes.”

As for the Lewinsky matter—it was all very simple: It was about the efforts of rigid, culturally repressed conservatives like Starr to use sex as a “tracer” and a “code” to thwart progressive politics. Remember Vernon Jordan’s phone call to Revlon to get Lewinsky a job—made just days after Clinton’s lawyers learned that Lewinsky was on a witness list in the Paula Jones case? There’s barely a mention of that. What does Blumenthal have to say about Clinton’s famous session with presidential secretary Betty Currie right after he testified falsely in his deposition? (“I was never alone with Monica, right?” he said. “Monica came on to me and I never touched her, right?”) He never talks about it.

“It is my serious intent to have written this as a history,” Blumenthal recently told the New York Times, insisting that his book was written “dispassionately.” But not to belabor the obvious, to write history, you have to have some basic respect for the historical record. You have to make at least some effort at understanding the motivations and thinking of political antagonists—including those you happen to strongly disagree with. Blumenthal has done none of this. His book isn’t history; it’s one big orgy of political spin.

Correction, May 22, 2003: James Bennet is not a friend of Blumenthal’s.