The Clintons' Pen Pal
By Howard Kurtz
Sidney Blumenthal sat in the National Press Club audience, beaming, as a painfully pompous White House reporter bemoaned his fate.
"Last time I asked for an interview with the first lady, some kid from the campaign laughed at me! . . . If I could just get a little access from this White House, just a little," the scribe whined.
Blumenthal could well afford to lampoon shut-out reporters. When he wrote and staged this play depicting the White House press corps as a bunch of scandal-crazed buffoons, one part was played by Labor Secretary Robert Reich. When he threw a party at his Takoma, D.C., home, his friend Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped by. Just the other week, he moderated a discussion on Europe with a half-dozen historians and his friend Madeleine Albright, over red snapper and white wine in the secretary of state's eighth-floor dining room.
For more than five years, the former writer for the New Yorker, the New Republic and The Washington Post has fended off charges that he is too close to the Clintonites. Now those accusations have been given retroactive resonance as Blumenthal assumes his new post: assistant to the president.
The journalistic verdict was swift. The "longtime cheerleader for Bill Clinton," said the New York Observer, "will now get paid by the White House for his boosterism." With any luck, added the New Republic, "he'll get his back pay."
What is it about Sid Blumenthal that brings out the venom in the Washington media establishment? Other practitioners, such as David Gergen, have made the leap between journalism and presidential service with minimal fuss. But Blumenthal, 48, whose wife also works for the White House, has somehow been branded as the capital's chief suck-up, a craven sellout who defended Bill and Hillary Clinton against the world even as he carefully cultivated them in private conversations.
Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic political consultant, says liberals simply do not tolerate the sort of journalistic advocacy that has long been accepted among conservative writers.
Blumenthal "was treated by fellow journalists as a pariah for being an advocate of the president," Grunwald says. "People like George Will and Robert Novak, who are advocates of the Republican agenda, are never treated like pariahs. But Sid was virtually drummed out of the business."
Christopher Hitchens, a longtime friend, sees a baser motive among Blumenthal's journalistic detractors: guilt.
"The profession in general went for Clinton the same time Sidney did, but in a rather surreptitious manner," says Hitchens, who writes for Vanity Fair and the Nation. "Sidney just openly said, `I think this guy has the best politics and would be the best president.' Many people who were just as much in the Clinton tank, but less honestly and affirmatively so, can now reinforce their own claim to being above the fray by jumping on Sid."
Eric Alterman, the Nation's media columnist, casts the contretemps in terms of envy. "A lot of the resentment Sid engenders among his colleagues derives from the fact that he allows himself to go further than they can," he says. "He's taking the one step over the line they wish they could allow themselves to take. . . . There's a certain group of journalists where when you sit down to dinner, you have to have a Sid part of the conversation."
Blumenthal declined to answer most questions on the record. He sees himself as an old-style columnist whose access to the powerful informs his writing without violating his own ideological precepts. He believes that he's never hidden his liberal leanings. For a journalist to capitalize on his closeness to a president and first lady is, in his view, an ancient and honorable pursuit that seems odd only because it's become fashionable for the media to beat up on politicians.
To wade into the Blumenthal debate is to be plunged into a steamy whirlpool of ancient alliances and blood feuds, of incestuous intrigue and whispered rumors, of off-the-record attacks that don't always square with tepid public praise. Even those who are sympathetic to Blumenthal say his regard for his own brilliance can be maddening.
"I count myself as a friend of Sidney's, but he can be terribly, terribly arrogant," says a New Yorker writer. "Sidney has real, undisguised contempt for the ways and folkways of American reporting, and that's irritating to a lot of people."
Others say Blumenthal turns his considerable charm mainly on those he deems sufficiently important. "When I was a little twerp, he was really nasty to me," a Manhattan writer says.
Tales of Blumenthal's zealous defense of the administration have become legend. During the 1992 campaign, says Julia Reed, a Vogue magazine reporter, Blumenthal urged her at a party not to write a piece questioning Clinton's character. But what, she shot back, if it were true?
"It doesn't matter," she recalls him saying. "This is too important."
"I couldn't believe he said it out loud in front of people," Reed says. "I really do think he was sort of in love with Clinton." Blumenthal has denied making the remarks.
Peter Boyer, a New Yorker writer, says Blumenthal tried to sabotage his story about the Travelgate affair last year. Boyer says he mentioned the piece to his colleague after learning that Blumenthal had lunched with Clinton's friend Harry Thomason on the day the Hollywood producer pushed for the firing of the White House travel office employees. (Blumenthal credited Thomason in the New Yorker with "exposing the scandal in the White House travel department," although it was the firings themselves that became the scandal.)
Boyer says he was later told by Harry Thomason or his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, that Blumenthal had warned them Boyer was anti-Clinton and planned to smear them, leading to a series of legal threats against the magazine. Boyer, who fired off an angry memo to New Yorker Editor Tina Brown, accuses Blumenthal of journalistic corruption. Blumenthal has said he never delivered such a warning, and Jeffrey Frank, his New Yorker editor, says the Thomasons have denied it to him.
Now, of course, Blumenthal will champion the Clintons from a West Wing office. Beginning next month, administration officials say, he will help write major speeches and have input into foreign policy. Blumenthal hopes to focus on developing themes for the second term, and if he has the ear of the first couple, he could become a significant player.
"President and Mrs. Clinton have known and liked him for a long time," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "They think he's enormously gifted, not only as a wordsmith but as a thinker." Albright praised his "powerful, unfazed, unashamed patriotism" when he received an award from the American Jewish Congress.
"I regard it as an honor," Blumenthal says of his new post. "I hope I can do something to help. I might be able to work on the new consensus the president has forced. This is a chance to help change the country. I was always in journalism because I thought I could help make a difference."
A board member of the World Policy Journal, an Oxford-style debater who has tested his skills in London, an author who talks about ideas he "posits," Blumenthal likes to write about the grand sweep of history. He is a New Democrat who fervently believes his party must use the sort of hardball tactics long employed by the Republicans -- hence his admiration for Clinton. "He's the right president for this moment," Blumenthal says.
Blumenthal's main White House relationship, insiders say, is with Hillary Clinton. He talks to her periodically on the phone or in person, sometimes offering political advice. "He absolutely would make passing suggestions," says a former administration official. "I can remember her saying, `Sid had an interesting idea. What about this?' "
Many journalists say that offering such advice crosses the line, but Blumenthal has long played by his own rules. In the spring of 1996, he wrote a New Yorker profile of an old friend, British Labor leader Tony Blair, hailing him as "the party's most fervent modernizer" and a man of "impeccable Oxford diction." Soon afterward, Blumenthal threw a party for the future prime minister, with guests ranging from Hillary Clinton to Tina Brown to a bevy of British and American writers.
"I thought it would be a good occasion for him to meet people," Blumenthal explained, as if it were utterly routine for journalists to play host to politicians they have just profiled.
"He's a very accomplished writer and reporter," says Joe Conason, political editor of the New York Observer and a longtime friend. "He doesn't represent himself as an objective reporter. Sidney has never posed as that. He's a political analyst with a political commitment."
From his earliest days in Chicago, where his father sold toys, Sid Blumenthal was part of a political machine. At age 12 he was a "runner" for a Democratic precinct captain, the underage operative who knocked on people's doors to ask why they hadn't voted. His hero, briefly glimpsed at a torchlight rally, was John F. Kennedy.
After graduating from Brandeis University in 1969, Blumenthal wrote for Boston After Dark and the Real Paper, his subjects ranging from statehouse politics to the Red Sox. He wrote the first of his five books, "The Permanent Campaign." He met and married his wife, Jacqueline, a public policy activist.
In 1983, Blumenthal signed on with the New Republic, then edited by Hendrik Hertzberg, and after the '84 campaign he jumped to The Post, where he was a national political writer before joining the Style staff. One Post reporter who admires Blumenthal says his style of political advocacy "did not mix well with a daily newspaper."
Blumenthal met the Clintons at a Renaissance Weekend, and they stayed in touch. When the Arkansas governor was about to nominate Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Blumenthal described Clinton in The Post as a man who "can give electrifying speeches . . . yet is deeply engaged by the arcane details of experimental public policy."
Blumenthal soon jumped back to the New Republic, which was again being edited by Hertzberg. In January 1992 he wrote "The Anointed," a cover story about candidate Clinton.
It was clear Blumenthal had found his man: "The promise of his nomination . . . might be to solidify an epochal change: Clinton would be a pro-government candidate almost all the party could support and force a new political dynamic that could eventually bring about a Democratic victory."
Blumenthal spent most of the year savaging Clinton's opponents. He depicted Ross Perot as a paranoid megalomaniac. He brushed aside questions about Clinton's draft record, challenging George Bush's World War II record instead. When Clinton won the election, Blumenthal was triumphant as well, anointed by Tina Brown as the New Yorker's Washington correspondent.
That proved to be his undoing. Blumenthal's flattering portrayal of the Clinton presidency was quickly ridiculed by his media brethren.
When Whitewater exploded in early 1994, Blumenthal refused to write about it, dismissing it as a bogus scandal. The New Yorker had to assign the story to Boyer. "That was the beginning of Sid's problems," a magazine staffer says. "It kind of damaged him. He was also being kind of prickly. . . . Sid is not that interested in scooplets. He probably could've gone to Bill or Hillary and said, `I need a couple of scoops to justify my being close to you, so how about it?' It became an impossible role for Sid."
As Clinton's political woes mounted, Blumenthal remained strikingly optimistic. "The recent turmoil," he wrote, "has not thrown him off balance. . . . Now, as he explained to me in a long interview, he feels he has gained a grasp of his office and its powers."
Blumenthal consistently attacked the president's critics. Paula Jones? A tool of "the far right," and further investigation "may tell an unpretty story about Jones, too." The Arkansas troopers who charged Clinton with philandering? Their backgrounds were "checkered by attempted fraud, drunk driving and marital infidelity." Whitewater? "No tangible evidence of legal culpability." A critical press corps? "In relative decline," partly because of its "hubris."
But Blumenthal shied away from writing about his friend Hillary Clinton. "That's where Tina finally said, `This is untenable,' " says a New Yorker writer. By 1995, Blumenthal was no longer writing the "Letter From Washington." He was replaced by Michael Kelly, a fierce Clinton critic.
Kelly ordered Blumenthal to stay away from the magazine's downtown office. "I did not trust him," says Kelly, now the New Republic's editor. "I felt his relationship . . . with the president and first lady was such that I was not sure I wanted him around the office as I was working on stories. He was serving two masters, and I was not comfortable with that. . . . I had reason to believe that he wanted a job with the White House."
Blumenthal, who declined to respond to the broadsides from Kelly and Boyer, believes they are anti-Clinton crusaders who have mounted a campaign of personal vilification against him.
In any event, Blumenthal decided not to write further about Clinton. He felt his scribblings would be misconstrued and that he would be forced to adopt a defensive tone. The "in the tank" charge was taking its toll.
But he continued to champion the president on the talk show circuit. During one interview, Charlie Rose asked: "Sidney, are you the least bit uncomfortable defending the administration the way you do?"
Privately, he was feeling misunderstood. "Sid thinks a lot of the criticism is nonsense," says Ben Gerson, a college classmate and now editor of the National Law Journal. "One of the major jobs of a journalist is to get close to his most important sources. But it bothers him more now because the decibel level has increased."
Blumenthal ran into trouble during the 1996 Republican National Convention, when he joked at a San Diego hotel bar that "maybe Dole will drop dead." The remark was overheard, and several Secret Service agents questioned him before being convinced that he meant Bob Dole no harm. Blumenthal viewed the incident as a comic event.
But Kelly, who calls his conduct "really unprofessional," gave Blumenthal an obscenity-laced scolding and barred him from using New Yorker credentials at the conventions. Blumenthal didn't need them. At the Democratic conclave, colleagues were surprised to see Blumenthal in a VIP box with a high-level pass. He explained that he was a guest of his wife, who runs the White House fellows program.
Earlier discussions about Blumenthal joining the White House never got serious, for Blumenthal wanted to come in at a policy-making, Gergenesque level. Meanwhile, the New Yorker assignments dwindled. Blumenthal was busy writing a Hollywood treatment of his play, "This Town," for 20th Century Fox, but it was not clear what he would do next.
Several weeks ago, Blumenthal was at Tony Blair's victory bash at Royal Victory Hall in London. His friend told the crowd that for too long his party "could only say, it could not do. . . . It is time now to do." The message stayed with Blumenthal, who was already weighing the offer from Clinton. It was time to do.
"I know that offering your opinion is easy," Blumenthal says. "But actually doing it, and accepting responsibility for what you're doing, I expect to be much harder."
Others offer a less lofty rationale for Blumenthal's career change.
"Sid has certainly burned a lot of bridges by being so openly partisan on behalf of the Clintons, and the White House has lost most of its big strategic thinkers," Alterman says. "This way Sid gets to do what he's best at."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company