After more than a year of unrelenting smears, gibes and attacks upon Sidney Blumenthal, some people must have been surprised to hear that the Presidential adviser has any friends at all, although in fact he has many. Some might have been even more surprised to learn that among Mr. Blumenthal’s close friends was Christopher Hitchens–a writer known, among other things, for his intemperate hostility to President Clinton. But what surprised those of us who knew about their warm relationship was that when faced with a clear choice, Mr. Hitchens so eagerly exalted his hatred for the President over his affection for Mr. Blumenthal.
Since Mr. Blumenthal went to work in the White House in the summer of 1997, I have hesitated to write about him because of our own friendship, which spans three decades. A tough partisan who appeared perfectly capable of surviving the rough-and-tumble of American politics, he didn’t seem to need much defending, anyway.
I will, however, say this: As someone who spoke frequently with Mr. Blumenthal early last year and whom he has released from confidentiality, I can attest that he never mentioned his conversation with the President about Monica Lewinsky. Nor did he ever insinuate that Ms. Lewinsky was “a stalker.” Several other journalists who talked with him back then had precisely the same experience.
Long before this incident, the stone-throwing at Mr. Blumenthal had taken on a ritualistic quality, as if his enemies had turned into the savage children in Lord of the Flies . The author of five well-reviewed books of political journalism and a funny play about Washington has been caricatured as an unprincipled hack, frequently by critics who conveniently forget their own abject fealty to Republican or Democratic officialdom.
For all I know, Mr. Blumenthal may have earned some of these implacable foes, but the punishment meted out to him on television and in print seems out of proportion to his alleged sins. The growing frustration about Mr. Clinton’s invulnerability to the consequences of his own misdeeds has curdled into displaced anger at one of his most loyal aides. And so Mr. Blumenthal became, as he now is again thanks to Mr. Hitchens, a talisman of the Beltway establishment’s rage against his boss.
Was Mr. Hitchens’ own fury at the President’s imminent escape from conviction in the Senate what tempted him to sacrifice an old friend? He has suggested in recent days that he had no alternative when a Republican lawyer at the House Judiciary Committee called to inquire about his conversations with Mr. Blumenthal, but that isn’t quite true. While he notes with a touch of arrogance that he has no lawyer representing him in this matter, Mr. Hitchens could have learned by consulting counsel that as a journalist in the District of Columbia, his conversations with a government official (or any other source) are shielded by law.
Now, because he was too foolish to seek legal advice, he has waived that journalistic privilege and done damage not only to himself and Mr. Blumenthal, but to all the news organizations that the shield law protects. Even worse, according to expert attorneys, his behavior may prejudice that same right for the two magazines that regularly publish him, whenever they try in the future to claim that privilege for reporters hauled before a court or Congressional committee.
Mr. Hitchens’ obliviousness of the law that might have protected him parallels his ignorance of the facts that undermine his charges against Mr. Blumenthal. Boiled down to its essence, his accusation is that Mr. Blumenthal acted as a conduit for the President’s lie that Ms. Lewinsky was a “stalker.” While Mr. Hitchens doesn’t claim that Mr. Blumenthal told him of a specific conversation about her with the President, he says vaguely that he knew his friend was conveying Mr. Clinton’s words. His wife’s recollection is different. She swears that “Mr. Blumenthal stated that the President told him that he [the President] was the ‘victim’ of Monica Lewinsky’s sexual advances.”
That distinction, elided by Mr. Hitchens, is crucial to any notion that Mr. Blumenthal committed perjury when he testified before the Senate, since he didn’t deny discussing Ms. Lewinsky with family and friends, but only denied talking about his Jan. 21, 1998, conversation with the President.
If Mr. Blumenthal was not the source of the “stalker” canard, then who was? To Mr. Hitchens and anyone else outraged by this nonstory, I’d suggest a few remedial readings that should set their minds at ease.
Those might begin with the Starr report’s supplemental materials, including the testimony of White House deputy chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman (Part 2, pages 2330 to 2344) and Linda Tripp (Part 3, page 4223), among others, and the so-called “talking points” (Part 3, page 3338).
As noted here previously, the talking points authored by Ms. Lewinsky herself–in which she suggests that Ms. Tripp describe her as “stalking the [President]”–were quoted on Newsweek ‘s Web site the night of Jan. 21, 1998. Ms. Lieberman testified that she dismissed Ms. Lewinsky from the White House for dressing inappropriately and lurking around the Oval Office. And Ms. Tripp said Ms. Lewinsky’s desire to return was rebuffed by White House aide Marsha Scott, who “peppered [Monica] with questions about … ‘What is this I hear about a stalker? … And ‘Were you hanging around the President?'”
In short, the “stalker” rumors were rampant long before Mr. Clinton lied to Mr. Blumenthal, and had reached print hundreds of times before that March luncheon. Among the earliest references was a Jan. 29, 1998, front-page Washington Post account, headlined “Aide’s Interest in President Was Known to Friends.” According to that story, “the White House has been careful not to attack the 24-year-old woman’s character or truthfulness.” The “negative portrayal of Lewinsky’s mindset and behavior,” noted The Post , “has emerged in recent days almost entirely from her acquaintances” rather than Administration sources.
This evidence and much more exculpates Mr. Blumenthal, not the President, who shouldn’t have lied to his aides and the country. The fact that Mr. Clinton tried to use executive privilege to prevent Mr. Blumenthal from repeating their conversation to the grand jury did little to ameliorate an ugly falsehood. But the President’s sins and lies cannot excuse what Mr. Hitchens has now done in a vain attempt to punish him.