Don’t Blame Sidney for Attack on Hyde

Norman Sommer has a message for the House managers at President Clinton’s impeachment trial: Stop pointing fingers at Sidney Blumenthal. Blame, if you must, not the White House, but Mr. Sommer himself for the odd course that political reporting has taken in the last few months.

Mr. Sommer is the man who gave us the story of Henry Hyde’s middle-aged youthful indiscretion. Now, you may be thinking: Hold on there, wise guy. Surely, the White House smearmeisters were behind that one. It must have been the work of dirt-devil Sidney Blumenthal, a man with a dossier on every Republican dog-catcher in this great land.

Such conclusions are understandable. Certainly the insufferable blowhards on television and in Op-Ed land have asserted as much, with great self-assurance. Mr. Sommer spends a great deal of his time watching the entertainments that pass as political discussion on television. He has heard it said time and again that the White House somehow was responsible for the story of Mr. Hyde’s long-ago affair. And this kind of talk makes him a little testy, the way, say, old-time football players probably feel when they hear all that chatter about Super Bowl records, as though the National Football League didn’t exist and had no champions before Super Bowl I in 1967. (Yeah, yeah, we hear about the heartbreaks of all those multiple Super Bowl losers–why doesn’t anybody recognize my pain by pointing out that the Giants have lost 11 National Football League championship games since 1933? Eleven! And what is the Super Bowl but a television-age name for the N.F.L. championship? Fans in Buffalo and Minnesota have only just begun to suffer.)

Where were we? Ah, yes, the curious case of Mr. Sommer, who wants the world to know that it was he who tipped off the media about Henry Hyde.

“I see all these people in the media blaming Sidney Blumenthal and the White House for the story, but it was me–I’m a member of the minuscule left-wing conspiracy,” he said from his home in Florida, where, as luck would have it, his tennis partner is the former husband of the woman who was indiscreet with Mr. Hyde 30 years ago. Mr. Sommer is not active politically, but he is a political junkie, a 72-year-old retiree who rattles off the names of political correspondents the way in which others might recite, say, the roster of the 1958 New York Giants, who lost the greatest non-Super Bowl N.F.L. championship game of all time. (Forgive the obsessiveness.) Once Mr. Sommer heard his partner’s story, he started calling various media outlets, offering vague hints about a story about hypocrisy on Capitol Hill. This not being the most newsworthy angle, Mr. Sommer suggested that his tale would be explosive as the impeachment process got under way–bear in mind, he was peddling this story last spring, when only Bob Barr thought we would get to this point.

Some months ago, your devoted correspondent implied that he had taken an unsolicited call from Mr. Sommer when he was making his pitch; however, Mr. Sommer says he never spoke to me, for if he did, my name would surely be included among the dozens of names he had on file. Well, somebody from Florida called pitching a story about Capitol Hill sex; Mr. Sommer says it wasn’t him, so he has my apologies.

For a time, Mr. Sommer was asking for money for his story, which is among the reasons why the mainstream media scoffed. “I don’t blame people for being squeamish,” he said. “I respect their views.” The on-line magazine Salon eventually went with the story, naming Mr. Sommer as its source. Some opinion-makers either ignored this bit of solid attribution, or they decided that a 72-year-old retiree couldn’t possibly dial the telephone without the help and assistance of a White House dirt devil. And so Mr. Sommer has been written out of history, denied a footnote in this sordid business.

And it bothers him, because he is rather proud of the role he played in expanding the portfolios of political reporters. “It doesn’t take a mental giant to realize that Larry Flynt’s story about Robert Livingston would not have happened without the Hyde story,” Mr. Sommer said with telling satisfaction. Needless to say, Mr. Sommer is an inactive but partisan Democrat who believes that the President has been impeached for sins that his enemies also have committed. “The only thing I’ve gotten out of this is the satisfaction that one individual can make a difference.”

Usually, those sentiments are expressed by earnest do-gooders who have achieved some worthy goal–shutting down a corporate polluter, blowing the whistle on municipal corruption, donating a pair of Giants season-tickets to a newspaper columnist.

In this strange and indeed frightening new world of personal politics, Mr. Sommer reckons that by making the landscape safe for Larry Flynt, he has done his civic duty.

A strange world, indeed. But give the man credit: He’s not posing as one of those well-placed anonymous sources.

Don’t Blame Sidney for Attack on Hyde