Michael Isikoff’s Slate review of Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars repeats a canard that Chatterbox thought he put to rest five years ago. (See “Sid Blumenthal Framed!” To read Chatterbox’s own review of the Blumenthal book, click here.) The false accusation—also leveled in a tendentious footnote to Isikoff’s otherwise excellent 1999 book Uncovering Clinton—is that Blumenthal conned the press when, on emerging from his first appearance before Ken Starr’s grand jury, he said the Monicagate prosecutors had pestered him about his conversations with reporters. Isikoff claims this was shown to be untrue when Blumenthal’s testimony was later made public. Not so. Blumenthal told the truth.
“I never imagined that in America,” Blumenthal told the press stakeout assembled that day on the courthouse steps, “I would be hauled before a federal grand jury to answer questions about my conversations with members of the media.” Starr’s prosecutors, he said, had “demanded to know what I had told reporters and what reporters had said to me about Ken Starr’s prosecutors. If they think they have intimidated me, they have failed.”
This peroration can be faulted for being melodramatic, but not for being inaccurate. In The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal provides a more detailed description, one Isikoff can’t dispute because it matches the grand jury transcript:
The prosecutor said, “Did you distribute [talking points denigrating Kenneth Starr’s prosecution team produced by the Democratic National Committee] to anyone outside the White House?” This question was aimed directly at my contacts with the media. I responded by listing the news organizations I had dealt with most recently. By grouping them together I hoped to avoid intrusive questions picking apart my relations with individual reporters: “If reporters called me or I spoke with reporters, I would tell them to call the DNC to get those talking points, and those included news organizations ranging from CNN, CBS, ABC, New York Times, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, New York Observer, LA Times.”“Would you, though, distribute the talking points? Would you cause the talking points to be distributed to any of these news organizations?”In order to break the pattern of these invasive questions, I went out of the room to consult my attorney.
Isikoff says that Blumenthal “wasn’t asked about any news organizations at all” and speculates that he volunteered the names of the news organizations “so he could later claim that the questioning was more sinister than it really was.” But whom does Isikoff suppose the prosecutors had in mind when they asked Blumenthal about distributing DNC talking points “outside the White House”? Blumenthal’s cleaning lady? They meant, of course, the press. Indeed, “sources familiar with the testimony” cited in a Washington Post story that day confirm that Blumenthal was asked “questions about his contacts with the press.” Since Blumenthal and his lawyers were speaking freely on the record, these “sources” familiar with a secret proceeding had to be either grand jurors or, more likely, prosecutors. (It’s well-documented that Starr’s office leaked like a sieve.) If Blumenthal said he was asked about press contacts, and the party questioning him said he was asked about press contacts, why should Isikoff dispute that?
Blumenthal’s explanation for why he named particular news organizations—that he hoped it would pre-empt any attempt by the prosecutors to find out which particular reporters he’d spoken to—is extremely plausible. In any event, the question of whether Blumenthal had leaked DNC material to the press had no bearing on whether Clinton, Blumenthal, or anyone else had committed any crime. Blumenthal’s dishing DNC dirt about Starr was none of Starr’s business, and Blumenthal was right to be angry he was asked about it.