My Message to Sidney Blumenthal: You Never Write, You Never Call

Waiting all morning for Sidney Blumenthal to emerge from the Federal courthouse in Washington, the media turned on one another. A C-SPAN cameraman in cornrows played the harmonica and was then asked to play again and again for the cameras. He did, saying, “Feed the media.” A guy from Voice of America went around with a tape recorder requesting interviews.

“You’re all in black,” he said, putting his microphone in my face.

I opened my jacket. “Some white, too.”

“And white socks. Why are you here?”

“To show people in Washington how to dress. I’m from New York.”

He poked at my notebook. “What are you writing in there?”

“I’m wondering how Monica’s feeling,” I said. “Someone told me she’s enjoying this, she’s having the time of her life. She’s had her eyebrows waxed four times or something. So I was interviewing women her age to see if they thought that was true. Because it’s hard for me to relate to her, being older and a man.”

The eclipse started, and the cameramen all turned their cameras away from the courthouse toward the sun. You could watch the eclipse in the viewfinders, then cell phones started going off, and we heard Sidney Blumenthal was leaving the grand jury room.

He came out with his attorneys and the attorneys spoke first. William A. McDaniel Jr., a squarely-built white-haired man, went on a tear about Kenneth Starr and his minions abusing the Constitution. Then a tall attorney in a black dress, Jo Bennett Marsh, gave a (highly selective) account of the questions the prosecutors had asked. Then Sid Blumenthal himself came to the microphones and gazed out above us with an expression both angry and pleased. I felt he was a little supercilious, in his mop-top, pencil-neck sort of way.

“Thank you. I’m delighted to be before members of the press,” he said and unfolded a piece of paper to read his speech about how he had been a reporter for 30 years and never imagined being hauled before a grand jury and forced to answer questions.

“If they think they have intimidated me, they have failed, and if any journalist here or anywhere wants to talk to me, I will talk to you,” he said.

A few of us shouted questions, but Sidney Blumenthal turned and waved, and we had to run after him back into the courthouse. I threw my pad down on the metal detector. We chased him up the north-south hall, then east on the latitudinal hall.

“What’s your phone number?” a reporter said.

“456-1414,” Mr. Blumenthal said-that’s the general number for the White House- then he went out the Third Street entrance of the courthouse with his erect, coat-hanger posture, and moved toward a dark blue, very official-seeming Chrysler Concorde with antennae on it. The two attorneys crammed in the back with a third associate, and Mr. Blumenthal got in the front seat, on a cell phone.

Right then, it didn’t seem like such a bad deal to be Sidney Blumenthal, in spite of how reviled he has been in the press over the last few weeks. He seemed to be rising above it all, in his white-faced way, even taking pleasure from the situation. The next day’s Washington Post quoted James Carville saying that Sidney is having the time of his life.

The reporters herded back through the courthouse, reviewing what Mr. Blumenthal had said.

“Did you see when he made the peace sign?”

“That was victory.” Another held up two fingers.

“No, that was two hours,” said a third. “Remember we asked how long he’d been in there?”

I went out to the producers’ trucks on Constitution Avenue to try and cadge Ken Starr’s address. Someone in the NBC truck helped me out: Madison Court in McLean, Va.

“I bet he likes that-Madison,” NBC correspondent Chip Reid said with irony.

Mr. Reid lent me a transcript of Mr. Starr’s comments from that morning and we sat on stone benches and Mr. Reid opened his lunch. It was clear from Ken Starr’s comments that he realized he had blown it with Mr. Blumenthal. “Our office was being subject to remarkable torrents of misinformation,” he said. “I did want to say this as well-for an individual to come before the grand jury is not any indication whatsoever that the individual has done anything wrong, and the individual may not even have relevant information.”

Three teenage girls came up holding plastic folders that said “Up Close.” They were from a program that brings kids from around the country to Washington to see how things work.

The blonde one sat on the bench next to Mr. Reid. Her name was Katie Tunney, and she was from the Cleveland suburbs. She had on white-framed Oakley shades and was chewing on a red-and-white plastic straw. She thrust the chewed end of the straw in Chip Reid’s face fiercely, like a microphone.

“Isn’t it awful that you’re invading people’s families and asking them all those questions?”

“I bet you can’t wait to do it yourself,” Mr. Reid said.

“What if it was your sister?”

“I’d say, ‘Bonnie, if you’re having an affair with the President, you got to worry that it will come out.'”

The girl got up and sat down almost in Chip Reid’s lap.

“How would you feel if somebody invaded your personal space-“

“I kind of like that,” Mr. Reid said.

The girl jumped away.

“Pervert.”

“See. I knew how to get rid of you.”

“Katie, what do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked.

“Work for the C.I.A.”

The producers had told me to get to Ken Starr’s house early, and I showed up in the dark the next morning, just before 6. There were a half-dozen media people already there. Two cameramen had laid their cameras on the apron of the driveway, establishing position for when Ken Starr came out.

Mr. Starr has a contemporary two-story home of brick and gray siding on a quarter-acre lot in a slightly tacky development. Under the carport there were two late-model cars, a Chevy Blazer and an Oldsmobile Aurora.

Guys stood on the edge of Ken Starr’s lawn, talking too loudly about the advantages of freelancing over staff.

“I worked for Channel 7 for a while, but the majority of my time would be spent sticking microphones in people’s faces and saying, If your underpants are too tight, do you get headaches?” a short, dark-haired producer said. “I mean, all this shit is going on and you’re saying, Have you made any plans for the afterlife?”

A neighbor walked across Madison Court and picked up the three papers lying in the driveway and carried them up to the carport, dropping them by the door.

“That’s weird,” said the AP cameraman, a fair-haired Australian. “Starr usually does that. He gets his papers and then you can talk to him. He must have had a big day of indicting, crushing and killing.”

It got light enough to see a stone turtle perched on the rock in the front yard.

“I keep thinking there’s got to be a key inside that turtle,” a cameraman in a blue jacket said.

“Believe me, if there was a key in there, someone would have already gotten it,” a woman said.

The birds started chirping in the trees, and I talked to the guy in the blue jacket about where we could stand. It felt rude. The grass at the edge of Mr. Starr’s yard was trampled into the mud.

“We really should be on the sidewalk,” he said. “I don’t know about this. There are kids starving in the Appalachians, but this is a big story, right. It’s paying my college fund. I mean, I know it’s important, it’s about morals, but-“

We moved on to sex in the White House.

“Don’t you think that if this was going on in the Oval Office, people would hear?” he said. “There are noises.”

“Where’s he going to do it?” I said.

“Rumor has it that-” he lowered his voice-“they sleep in separate beds. So he isn’t getting any at home.”

“Right. So my question is, if he wants to meet someone at the Hay Adams, discreetly, can he walk over there-“

“No way.”

“Can’t he just say, I’m taking a walk out to the Hay Adams? Two blocks away.”

The guy shook his head. “The Secret Service can’t let him do that. They can’t.”

“Bummer.”

“I know. I would never do that job.”

Probably 20 media people had shown up now, but the Federal marshals still hadn’t arrived to get Ken Starr. There were no lights on in the house. A school bus came for the special-ed kid down the street, and he waved at us.

There was enough light to read the paper so I read the latest on the basketball game where they suspended the rules to give injured Nykesha Sales a gift basket. It fit into my grand theory of Monicagate: The era of codes is over, things are guided far more by personal feeling. Sidney Blumenthal and Ken Starr take their avowedly logical postures outside the courthouse, but the women are the ones driving the train of events here in ways that have a traditional feminine cast. Paula Jones was angry enough to go to the Supreme Court; she sets the President up. Then Monica gossips to too many people out of fear or pride, and Linda Tripp sells her out because she’s furious at the Clintons and doesn’t have much going on in her life besides Nordstrom. Lucianne Goldberg tells Ms. Tripp to make tapes because Lucianne Goldberg would like a little devilish excitement in her life.

And now the debate over Monicagate isn’t about law or rules. Only fuddy-duddies ask, Did Clinton break the law? Everything’s framed in emotionally shaded terms. How do you feel about Bill Clinton? How do you feel about perjury being prosecuted in a civil case? Don’t you hate Ken Starr? Aren’t the rules of the game too rigid? We always wondered how power would change when women got more of it-here we are. Law seems arbitrary and inhuman. Judgments are blurred and situational. If you only understand how selfless a player Nykesha Sales is, you’d see why bending the rules was fine, George Stephanopoulos said on ABC the other day. If you only knew how Bill Clinton feels, imprisoned in a sexless White House …

Being curious about how Monica feels, I’d prowled Bloomingdale’s and Hunter College and nail salons on Lexington Avenue, asking young women how they imagined she was doing.

Most of them were pitiless. “She’s enjoying this. She’s going to clubs she never could have gone to.” “She’s incapable of embarrassment, that’s her tragedy. Anyone else would have woke up after a little bit with the President and said, What am I doing? She didn’t.” “She wanted to tell everyone, now everyone knows. She’s saying to all the girls who laughed at her in high school because of her weight, I went to bed with the President.” “She used to be a freak, she used to be Monica. Now she’s somebody.”

Those who were sensitive to Monica were in a distinct minority.

“When you get scared, you talk. That’s why she blabbed to so many people.” “Yes, outside she’s having a really perverse, bizarre high. ‘Look at me.’ But it’s got to be fleeting. She’s suffering. What’s she going to do?” “No one will hire her. She already lost one job over this, at Revlon.”

A woman in leopard-skin earmuffs walked up the street with a funny smile, Carroll Ann Mears of NBC.

“Guess what I just heard,” she said. “Starr isn’t here. He left last night. He took the Metroliner to New York, and he’s teaching at N.Y.U.”

Everyone called their desks, then they went back to their cars. Ms. Mears drove away in a Volvo station wagon.

I got a ride back to Washington in the car of an Australian guy, Grant Peacock.

“Well, that was $15,000 in media money,” he said. “I knew something was up when that woman came across the street and got the papers.”

I found it disturbing to think the neighbors knew all the while.

“No one told us anything,” I said.

“There’s a lot of anger toward the media,” Mr. Peacock said. “A couple weeks back, we got this report of a woman in Crystal City [Va.] who had listened to the tapes. No race, no description, no hair color, just a woman in her 20’s-get tape. So we were taping everyone at this apartment complex who met that description, and you’d be surprised how many people inside of 10 minutes that is. An older woman came out and yelled at us. ‘Go away, these people aren’t the story, why are you taping them?’ There’s always someone in the group who has to taunt back. This guy said, ‘Hey, it’s paying my mortgage.'”

It was rush hour. George Washington Parkway was crowded. Mr. Peacock reached down for a cordless electric shaver, turned it on and dragged it across his cheeks.

I called Sidney Blumenthal a couple times, then left a message. In spite of his overture to any reporter anywhere to call him, he didn’t get back to me. (Ever since he called Whitewater a “hoax” in a speech at the New York Institute for the Humanities two years ago and we argued on the phone about that, Mr. Blumenthal has known where I stand.) I just wanted to ask him what the grand jury experience was like. Was he frightened? Dry-mouthed? Defiant? How did it feel, Sid?

Call me!

My Message to Sidney Blumenthal: You Never Write, You Never Call