As Good as He Gets
By Michael Powell
Sidney Blumenthal being Sidney Blumenthal, he harbors a lofty conception of his role in the Clinton White House, perhaps something along the lines of French intellectual Andre Malraux, who skewered ideological foes even as he advised Charles de Gaulle on matters of art and state.
But, alas, the people who know him less affectionately as Sid Vicious have another image in mind: Blumenthal as skeet.
Just last week the Republican leadership of Congress locked, loaded and fired. They demanded that the FBI investigate whether this Clinton counselor has trafficked in stories about the putative sex lives of aging and overweight Republican legislators.
The New York Post, the GOP's Greek chorus on matters of sex and politics, offered its subtle and unsubstantiated take. Blumenthal, its front page declared, is "Bill's Dirt Devil" and a "top White House smear-meister."
Of course, no one has produced evidence to back up this informal indictment, least of all the same overheated Republican leadership.
It's all so confounding for Blumenthal, this Devil Theory of Sidney. He would, he assures a reporter, far prefer to talk of his efforts to thread a Third Way between Unconstrained Capitalism and the Welfare State, to craft a new Anglo-American relationship, to advise Madeleine (Albright, of course), craft major policy speeches and, to be sure, offer candid advice to the president and the first lady.
So this most facile of talkers measures his on-the-record words about those Republican charges, most notably claims that he spread the news about Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde's long-ago affair, oh-so-carefully.
"I am a strong advocate for the president and his ideas." Blumenthal pauses. "And needless to say, that is also controversial." He pauses again. "These accusations, as I have made clear, are completely false, and are patently political in motivation.
"Nor do I intend to be intimidated by false accusations."
Taking the measure of Blumenthal is a curious business. He is bright, yes, and well read, certainly, and articulate always, even if former journalistic colleagues tend to recall that he could wear his condescension like a robe.
He's also a self-styled warrior intellectual, an aspirant inside the White House to the Harold Ickes Chair of Counterinsurgency Warfare. He's a conspiracy buff who found a soul mate in the first lady. And he has loosed a string of impolitic jeremiads, calling independent counsel Kenneth Starr "a prosecutor on a mad mission from God" and a "constitutional illiterate."
He hails, in other words, from the you-poke-my-eye, I-poke-your-eye school of journalism and politics. And that drives Republican political operatives and journalists batty, not to mention a few White House types.
"He has a penchant for vast-right-conspiracy theories, a hobby he shares with the first lady," says Bill Schneider, a CNN political analyst and Blumenthal friend. "He likes to play the role of tough guy."
Or as a longtime Clinton adviser notes, not without admiration: "It bothers people that Sidney is an intellectual, but with bandoleer and grenades attached to his belt. And he's willing to pull the plug."
When the White House is backpedaling a familiar move as the president's libido made a hostage of his administration Blumenthal is the first to urge aides to man the ramparts, a fire-breathing role taken by Patrick Buchanan in the Reagan administration.
But such blood lust makes some aides uneasy. In the days after the Republican leadership fired their salvo, there was some talk among White House lawyers of tossing Blumenthal overboard. That has abated.
What's striking about the Republicans, however, is how much their dislike of Blumenthal is visceral and inchoate. Most don't know beans about him. But in a city where rumor metastasizes into fact and hence into received wisdom with surpassing speed, his reputation as a partisan killer precedes him.
"I don't know much about him but he's just a scummy guy," says Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican strategist. "No one on this side of the aisle doubts that Sid Vicious played a role in this."
As the connection between journalists and politicians is umbilical in Washington, Blumenthal's political problem, in part, is journalistic. His is a type found far more often on the right in Washington, a partisan warrior who takes a critically sympathetic stance not just toward his issues but his chosen political party as well. Even as a writer at The Washington Post, where Blumenthal passed some time in the 1980s, he placed a porous membrane between his political views and his writing.
It is the sort of partisan, if also intellectual, engagement that makes mainstream journalists, even those of liberal politics, deeply uncomfortable. And few Republicans knew what to make of this sharp-elbowed liberal.
"As a journalist, Sid always wrote with a little extra body English and hip-checked with his sentences," says John Buckley, a former Republican operative. "Sid is not dissimilar from a lot of writers on the right who have done that, but there's not a similar tradition on the left.
"His partisanship shined through when journalistic convention said it should not."
Now some Blumenthal watchers put a harder punctuation on that point. In their telling, Blumenthal's insider-outsider conceits ballooned as he migrated from The Post to the New Republic to the New Yorker. He is accused, as a journalist, of denigrating those who wanted to investigate Whitewater. And administration officials say that as a journalist, he advised Hillary Rodham Clinton to prepare a report slamming a Post reporter whose work displeased the White House.
"A great many journalists know with a moral certainty that Sid didn't pass on any tips about the sex lives of Republicans," says Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of the New Yorker, which employed Blumenthal before he moved to the White House. "But an awful lot of reporters are willing to stick it to Sid."
So one antagonism feeds the other. Blumenthal becomes a more inviting target for Republicans precisely because he is disliked by so many of his former compatriots. And, to some extent, because his partisan fervor matches that of the Republicans.
"It's clear he isn't regarded in the highest possible regard by his former colleagues," says Rich Galen, executive director of GOPAC, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's fund-raising organization. "There's a general sense in Washington that if you get sideways of Sid there will be a high price to pay. And people like that tend to become easy targets."
So be it. Fact is, few friends fear for Blumenthal in the present storm.
The more the lightning crackles about him, they say, the more he hears and sees confirmation that he is finally! where he should be: dead center on the historical stage. Asked recently to list his duties at the White House in an affidavit for l'affaire Lewinsky, Blumenthal circumnavigated the planet in seven paragraphs. He consults, variously, on global warming, tobacco issues, health care, Social Security, the race initiative, the District of Columbia, national security, Bosnia, Turkey and the Law of the Sea. In his spare time, he pens presidential speeches and is presidential liaison to the British prime minister.
Oh, yes. And he reminds a reporter that on three different occasions, his books made the New York Times list of notable titles of the year.
Nor is he a naif at this business of spin control. He may not convince everyone that he's the second coming of Walter Lippmann or Joe Alsop. But he sure as hell won't settle for the Republicans limning him as some cut-rate Roy Cohn.
When he gets on the phone with a reporter he immediately passes along a list of people, a melange of eminent journalists and political analysts, who can vouch that he is a very serious man who might gossip a bit but doesn't dish sexual dirt. And when he hangs up, these friends begin to call.
There is, finally, the comfort derived from a well-turned conspiracy theory. Friends inside and outside Battleship Clinton say Blumenthal is ever game for spinning out literate and elaborate conspiracy theories.
One of his favored suppositions of late features a ravenous group of neoconservatives who mass at the Democrats' gate, their anti-Clinton baying guided by the hidden hand of media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch owns the Weekly Standard which has accused him of leaking the information on Hyde's affair and Fox Television and the New York Post, which scooped up the charge and spun it into partisan gold.
It's all quite dark and depressing. And, like writers of an earlier age, he notes that he's found solace by writing bravely, penning a play that sends up this topsy-turvy time. Blumenthal adds, rather proudly, that he sold a screenplay based on that play to Hollywood.
The precise studio, of course, was Fox 2000. Which is owned by Murdoch.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company