A Parting of Ways: Hitchens and Blumenthal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 1999; Page C1
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship -- or so the two men believed.
Christopher Hitchens recalls meeting Sidney Blumenthal in the mid-1980s, when both were visiting journalists at the Lehrman Institute, a now-defunct conservative think tank in Manhattan. Hitchens, a British expatriate, was a Washington-based columnist for the paleoliberal magazine the Nation. Blumenthal had been living in Boston and writing for the neoliberal New Republic. They took to each other instantly.
Once Blumenthal moved to Washington with his wife, Jackie, and their two young sons, he and Hitchens were in continual contact. They shared meals at each other's houses, attended one another's important family occasions and regularly traded opinions and information.
As the relationship deepened, the Blumenthals gave their children's toys to Hitchens's older son, Alexander. In the early '90s, when the Protestant, Oxford-educated Hitchens discovered Jewish roots in his ancestry, including a blood-tie to an English family of Blumenthals, the American Blumenthals invited him to their Passover seder in Takoma Park, and affectionately called him "cousin."
The two remained chummy even after Blumenthal became a top assistant to President Clinton and Hitchens's columns for the Nation and Vanity Fair magazine turned increasingly anti-Clinton. Last Wednesday, as Blumenthal was being deposed by House managers for Clinton's Senate impeachment trial, Hitchens's wife, Carol Blue, left a warm message on the Blumenthals' answering machine, saying she was worried and thinking about them.
But yesterday the friendship abruptly ended -- apparently another casualty of Clinton's scandal-ridden presidency -- with news accounts that Hitchens had signed an affidavit challenging Blumenthal's sworn denials to the Senate that he spread defamatory stories about Monica Lewinsky.
The document, obtained from Hitchens by House Republican staffers, potentially puts Blumenthal in serious legal jeopardy. But Hitchens's surprising act is also a cause celebre for an elite subset of Washington society -- the crowd of journalists, intellectuals, authors and policymakers, mostly in their thirties and forties, who regularly dine in together and dine out on each other. They are at once riveted and repelled, like rubberneckers passing the scene of an accident.
"This was, for our generation, a Chambers-versus-Hiss moment," said author Christopher Buckley, a friend of both Hitchens and Blumenthal. "I think it is going to be a tectonic event for 'our crowd.' You'll have people leaping from one plate to the other as they separate. It is the kind of event in which one inevitably must take sides."
Hitchens, reached at home yesterday after a nervous appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," predicted: "I daresay I'll be cut and shunned."
And Blumenthal, through his lawyer, issued a written statement taking exception to Hitchens's account of a lunch last March with Hitchens and Blue at Washington's Occidental Restaurant, at which Blumenthal called Lewinsky a "stalker," among other things, according to Hitchens's affidavit.
"I was never a source for any story about Monica Lewinsky's personal life," Blumenthal stated yesterday. "I don't remember the luncheon with my then-15-year friend Christopher and his wife that he describes. . . . My wife and I are saddened that Christopher chose to end our long friendship in this meaningless way."
Hitchens responded: "I feel terrible about this. But the only thing that could have stopped this is for Sidney not to have told me what he told me."
Hitchens, who is publishing an anti-Clinton book in April, said he spent much of last week trying to gather documents on the impeachment proceeding for a Nation column, and repeated to several people his account of the lunch with Blumenthal (which he now believes occurred on March 17, not the 19th as he claimed in his affidavit). Apparently, a Republican to whom he confided the lunch anecdote tipped off Susan Bogart, investigative counsel for the House Judiciary Committee.
According to Hitchens, Bogart phoned him around 4 p.m. Friday and asked pointed, obviously informed, questions about Blumenthal's alleged comments. Convinced that she knew anyway, Hitchens reprised his account of the lunch. Bogart asked him if he would make a sworn statement. Hitchens agreed. But when two House staffers arrived around 8 p.m. to obtain his signature, Hitchens stressed, as he did yesterday on "Meet the Press," that he would never testify against Blumenthal in a prospective perjury trial -- a formulation that struck many as bizarre, given that an affidavit is evidence by itself.
"I can't imagine why Hitch would do this, unless he's trying to promote his book," said Joan Bingham, executive editor and vice president of Grove/Atlantic Press. "Maybe he doesn't realize the extent of the problems he's gotten Sidney into. Because of what Hitch has done, Sidney is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal expenses. When Hitch said this morning on television that of course he won't testify against Sidney if it came to trial, what was he thinking? Does he understand the American legal system? There are people around town who think that Hitch has gone loony."
Bingham added that she had dinner with the Blumenthals Saturday night, a few hours after Hitchens's affidavit became public. "They were in total, total shock."
Buckley said, "I am struck by Hitchens's apparent sincerity in this, as painful as that may be. Hitchens is a gutsy guy. Many of his views are surprising and some of his views are contemptible. . . . But I do not doubt the substance of what he had to say about the March lunch, as stunned as I am by the revelation of it."
Columnist Joe Conason, a Clinton sympathizer at the weekly New York Observer, cast doubt on Hitchens's account. "I can't say it didn't happen," he said, "but I was talking to Sidney a lot during that time and he never told me he talked to the president, and he refused to talk to me in any way about Monica Lewinsky. It was somewhat frustrating."
Conason added that when he searched press accounts of the scandal before March 19 -- the alleged date of the lunch -- he found 430 stories containing the words "stalker" and "Lewinsky," giving credibility to Blumenthal's contention that he sometimes talked to friends and family about matters already in the public domain.
"I think Sidney is a person who puts the highest value on loyalty," said author James Chace. "It's extremely bizarre that someone who has long been a close friend of Sidney's should make such a statement, which may very well cause Sidney a great deal of personal harm."
"I'm just amazed," said another friend, an author and magazine journalist who asked not to be named. "I never would have believed that Christopher would do a thing like this. I guess this says something about the true nature of Christopher's friendships."
"I think it is such a pity that I'll never be able to speak with Christopher again or have him in my house," said the author's wife, an investigative journalist.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company