With this examination of Sidney Blumenthal, this blogger offers a belated H/T to a young reader in the Valley of The Sun who suggested another piece on Blumenthal, but this blogger passed because the piece in Salon was less about Blumenthal than about his recent Lincoln book. In today's post, James Warren finds a parallel between Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, and the Lincoln biographer and long-time confidant of the presumptive Dem (and Dose?) presidential nominee of 2016. If this is a (fair & balanced) example of political journalism, so be it.
The Hillary Confidant You Can't Escape
By James Warren
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
In his new book, A Self-Made Man (2016), a sharply executed and well received first installment of a four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, the journalist-provocateur Sidney Blumenthal introduces us to William Herndon, Lincoln’s “worshipful, dreamy, and often strangely effective” young law partner in Springfield, Illinois. He was “garrulous and sociable” and “served as Lincoln’s precinct captain, press secretary, editorial co-writer, and all-purpose aide,” as well as acting as Lincoln’s “pulse on public opinion.” Herndon was nothing less than Lincoln’s “tuning fork.” Reading the book in the middle of the current presidential campaign, longtime Blumenthal-watchers will be struck by an analogy that is never stated but leaps off the page: that Blumenthal may be a latter-day Herndon, with Hillary Clinton cast in the role of Lincoln.
In the past year, Blumenthal has been much in the public eye because hundreds of his private e-mails to Clinton—by turns gossipy, fawning, and conspiratorial—turn out to be among the material on the private server Clinton used when she was secretary of state, material now dumped into the open for all to see. He was in the news again in late June, when House Democrats released their own version of a report on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, and included what were supposed to be redacted transcripts of Blumenthal's testimony before the Benghazi committee. As the Los Angeles Times showed, the redactions turned out to be unredactable by means of a relatively simple technological intervention that removed the black overlays.
Judging from his e-mails, Blumenthal has been a sort of 24-7 mini-mart of ideas for Clinton. He has been a two-legged LexisNexis who plies her with articles she must read. He also provided her with background information from private sources on the turmoil in Libya—intelligence of dubious reliability and provenance, and possibly tainted by the commercial ambitions of American businessmen. In his more wide-ranging moments, Blumenthal forwarded a memo from David Brock, a former conservative polemicist who had done an about-face and now runs several pro-Clinton groups, which argued that there might be grounds to impeach Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas; derided former House Speaker John Boehner as “louche, alcoholic, lazy, and without any commitment to any principle,”; and labeled The New Republic a shill for “the highest level Likud/neocon propaganda.” When Clinton stumbled early in the presidential campaign—first in the Iowa caucuses (barely eking out a victory over Senator Bernie Sanders), then in the New Hampshire primary (losing to Sanders badly)—Blumenthal told her privately that she was being ill-served by her campaign advisers. Understandably, the message was not appreciated by some of those advisers (“He’s a terrorist,” one of them told me). None of those advisers were willing to speak about the matter for attribution. Blumenthal himself, whom I had known since his early Washington days, was also unwilling to speak on the record (though we spoke cordially when I caught up with him at a book fair). He answered some factual questions by e-mail and sent some links to articles and reviews, but did not wish to engage in an interview about his recent activities.
Blumenthal has known the Clintons since their Arkansas days. He has long served them as an all-purpose adviser and defender, on and off the books. During the Clinton presidency, when he worked in the White House, he was accused of spreading lies to protect his boss (which he denies). He certainly played the role of “whisperer”—a conduit between the White House and elements of the press disposed to receive and perhaps to amplify the information he provided as the administration counterattacked against its foes. Blumenthal does not look like a man who would have been given the sobriquet “Sid Vicious.” He dresses sharply in starched collars and in suits that display a British flair. At age 67, he maintains his preternaturally dark hair in a boyish flop. An unreconstructed liberal of Third Way bent, he is cerebral and combative – traits at the heart of a distinct image that has only grown more prominent in recent years with profiles in The New York Times, Vox, and elsewhere. At times heedless of seeming conflict of interest, he for years played both sides of the street as a journalist and a committed partisan. He can write with insightful audacity: he was prescient in anticipating the rise of a media-fueled right-wing hydra, with its many factions, donors, and outposts—all of them an unrelenting bête noire for the Clintons and for politicians on the left more generally. The rise of Rush Limbaugh and, more recently, of politicians such as Ted Cruz and even Donald Trump, would have come as no surprise to Blumenthal. He is a true believer in the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton once spoke of. The juggling act that he has tried to pull off is complicated: on the one hand, an ink-stained philosopher, like Seneca, bringing wisdom to the halls of power; on the other, a practitioner of the down-and-dirty politics he observed growing up in Chicago during the autocratic Democratic heyday of Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Hillary Clinton wanted Blumenthal to join her at the State Department as a top aide after she was appointed secretary, in 2009. President Obama would not allow it: key White House staffers had grown to detest the man. Two of them—Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Senior Adviser David Axelrod—threatened to quit if Blumenthal was hired. They believed that he had been involved in spreading unsubstantiated allegations against the Obamas during the 2008 Democratic primary, as detailed in the campaign chronicle Game Change (2010), by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Blumenthal was “obsessed,” they wrote, about the possible existence of a so-called “whitey tape,” supposedly made at a Chicago church, in which Michelle Obama could be heard ranting against “whitey”—a tape that could have changed Clinton’s political fortunes during her primary fight, but that did not in fact exist. (“They’ve got a tape, they’ve got a tape,” Clinton told aides.) According to the Huffington Post, Blumenthal also raised questions about Barack Obama’s relationship with former Weather Underground militant William Ayres, and with controversial Chicago developer Tony Rezko. One Blumenthal e-mail to opinion-makers derided Obama’s “fabled ‘judgement’ ” and wondered how he would “conduct himself in those promised summits without preconditions” with people such as then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. “Let’s look at how he did with Tony Rezko,” Blumenthal wrote.
Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Clinton friend and at the time Obama’s chief of staff (he is now Chicago’s mayor), gave the bad news to Hillary about Blumenthal and the State Department job. Few in Clinton’s current campaign are surprised that Blumenthal went behind their backs to bad-mouth its early operations. “He’s really, really smart, but he also feeds their own conspiratorial and negative impulses,” says a serving aide to Hillary Clinton. “And with her, he always feeds a reflexive distrust of many people, especially the press.”
“Grassy knoll,” Emanuel responded instantly when I ran into him recently and asked him about Blumenthal. That was the Clinton insiders’ old nickname for him—alluding to the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy and the contention, never proved, that a second gunman was involved, shooting at Kennedy not from a building, as Lee Harvey Oswald had done, but from a grassy knoll near the roadway. Blumenthal himself was once sympathetic to alternative explanations of the Kennedy assassination. During his years as a pugilistic White House aide, he sometimes struck even loyal Clintonites as too inclined toward the far-fetched. Be that as it may, few people appear to have had the ear of the woman who may be the next president quite the way Blumenthal has. Think of it perhaps as a “special relationship,” with the proviso that, as with the one between the U.S. and Britain, no one is quite sure what the phrase means.
Sidney Blumenthal lives today in a four-bedroom house on a leafy block in the Glover Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. His wife, Jacqueline, the former director of the White House Fellows program during the Clinton years, is a member of an advisory neighborhood commission and a direct-mail fund-raising consultant. They have two sons: Max, 38, a writer for AlterNet, a progressive online news outlet, and Paul, 34, a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Talk to some of those who know Blumenthal well and you encounter both a certain regard for his knowledge and political acumen as well as skepticism or distrust of his hyperkinetic and at times pandering ways. (“You looked good on TV today from Pakistan,” he once e-mailed Clinton) and his seeming ability to plant a seed of a negative story here, a glancing innuendo there. It is probably symptomatic of the singular niche he occupies that very few of the many people I spoke with for this story—colleagues in journalism and politics—wanted to be cited on the record: not those who regard themselves as enemies (hardly surprising) but also not those who regard themselves as friends.
No amount of distancing from Blumenthal by others seems to have altered his basic relationship with the Clintons. He has been a paid consultant to the Clinton Foundation and remains one for advocacy groups that advance the Clintons’ interests. The closeness is woven throughout the e-mails. He ends one e-mail with Hillary, “Back to writing legacy memo for Bill.” Many are formatted as if they were actual intelligence cables, and labeled by Blumenthal himself as “CONFIDENTIAL.” His e-mails offer a global tour d’horizon of events in Saudi Arabia, Kyrgyzstan, China, Mexico, Italy, China, Greece, Libya, and Great Britain (where he knows both “Tony” and “Gordon,” the former prime ministers). There’s a portentous, melodramatic air to many of the messages: “The political crisis in Northern Ireland is fast moving and fluid . . . ” or, again, “As usual, the real story is not what’s public . . . ” They also seem to contradict Clinton’s public claim that she was simply accepting unsolicited counsel and sometimes passing it along to others. Blumenthal sends her a memo while on a train between Rome and Florence. Clinton replies, “Can you talk? What # should I call?” The communications between the two are engaging, informative, revealing, and in his case, at times a little smarmy.
“Greetings from Kabul! And thanks for keeping this stuff coming!” Clinton writes in 2012. Her notes from 2009 include best wishes to Blumenthal’s wife (“Congrats to Jackie!!”) upon winning the neighborhood commission election and expressions of hope that the couple’s son Max is “still rising on the best-seller list.” (Clinton was referring to Max Blumenthal’s book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party .) Clinton and Blumenthal dine together. He arranges social gatherings for and around her. The beginning of his e-mail address, “sbwhoeop” melds his initials with what appears to be his old White House Executive Office of the President address.
So it is hardly surprising that while finishing his book about Lincoln’s early political years, he would also be immersed in the minutia of the Clinton campaign and hauled before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the Republican-run investigation into the 2012 tragedy at the US-diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, where the ambassador and several other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack. In the course of nine hours of private questioning, Blumenthal was made to testify about advice he had given to Clinton while she was secretary of state. It was a Super Bowl of conspiracists as the committee’s chairman, South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy, sought to find the most nefarious explanation for Libya-related e-mails between a self-styled geopolitical analyst and America’s chief diplomat. Blumenthal had been a cheerleader for Clinton’s hard line against the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi—she successfully urged military intervention by an international coalition to support the rebels arrayed against him. When Qaddafi was overthrown, in 2011, Blumenthal saw a political windfall for Clinton and wrote, “First, brava! You must go on camera. You must establish yourself in the historical record at this moment. . . . You are vindicated.”
By the time the Benghazi panel questioned Blumenthal in June 2015, Libya was a catastrophe. The committee pored over his correspondence. Was there any connection between his recommendations regarding US policy in Libya and commercial activities in the country that he may have known about or was advising on? He was certainly in communication with people involved in two companies, Osprey Global Solutions and Constellations Group, that were looking to do business in Libya. He himself was not conducting that business, nor did he profit in any way. What the committee mainly encountered in the e-mails were exhausting mini-essays from Blumenthal to Clinton about political intrigue among various Libyan factions. There were also murkily sourced predictions about what the future held, such as who was primed to do well in upcoming parliamentary elections. Clinton tended not to respond but forwarded some of the observations to Jake Sullivan, a deputy chief of staff, who sometimes passed along the memos after removing their provenance. In one instance, she told Sullivan that Blumenthal’s description of a purported British-French intelligence plan involving tribal leaders in eastern Libya “strains credulity.” But his take on the actual Benghazi attack—citing “sensitive sources” and contradicting administration claims at the time, Blumenthal said it was precipitated by a Libyan terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda and had been planned for a month—prompted Clinton to tell Sullivan, “We should get this around ASAP.”
The Benghazi committee did not find evidence of any conflict of interest on Blumenthal’s part. It did determine that Blumenthal had no independent knowledge of the events in Benghazi, as he himself admitted. The reports that he was passing along had been produced largely by Tyler Drumheller, a jowly former CIA officer who since his retirement in 2005 had run a private intelligence consulting business. The Benghazi hearings were a partisan circus, and on the Benghazi episode itself, Hillary Clinton by all accounts emerged more or less untouched after nearly 11 grueling hours of public testimony. But the e-mails themselves were troubling at a level that had nothing to do with Benghazi. Asked about any conclusions he drew from the hearings, Trey Gowdy replied, “Secretary Clinton trusted Blumenthal even though the Obama White House did not. She thought enough of the ‘intelligence reports’ he sent her to forward them to others in the administration, but only after removing any reference to him.”
Sidney Stone Blumenthal grew up in a single-family home in a middle- and working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. At the time the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish, Irish, and Italian; it is now predominantly African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. Chicago was a Democratic autocracy overseen by the iron-fisted Richard J. Daley, and Blumenthal got the political bug early. Danny Spunt, a former boxing cornerman and Democratic precinct captain, took him to a Chicago Stadium rally for John F. Kennedy just days before the 1960 presidential election. Blumenthal was electrified. As he recalled in his semi-autobiographical book The Clinton Wars (2003), a defense of his political patrons, it was his “first vision that there was such a thing as national politics . . . a glimmer of the idea of meritocracy.” He had not yet turned 12. Spunt gave him five dollars to knock on doors after school on Election Day to get out the vote. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon by a hair, and Blumenthal “knew I had made my contribution.” (Mayor Daley’s vote fixing in Chicago may also have helped.) He was intellectually precocious and quickly displayed a historical bent that has served him in good stead. He has said that as a teenager he read the entire 11-volume set of Upton Sinclair’s largely forgotten political novels featuring Lanny Budd, a socialite and sophisticate whose adventures include becoming a presidential secret agent for FDR and undertaking dangerous missions in Germany and Russia.
In The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal says that he had never been east of Columbus, Ohio, when he graduated from a predominantly white public school and headed off to Brandeis, the country’s only Jewish-sponsored secular university. He was a liberal political activist who made it back to Chicago for the strife-torn 1968 Democratic convention. At his graduation, in 1969, he joined others in his class and displayed a stenciled red fist on his gown to protest the Vietnam War.
Now 20 years old and uncertain about his path, he worked for a time as a guard at the Boston Public Library, then found a job as a reporter at Boston After Dark, a somewhat austere and threadbare enterprise that was part of an incipient and vibrant alternative press. It was the perfect place for him. “Journalism as we understood it was a continuation of the experiment begun in college by other means, and it was politically engaged,” he recalled. Boston was a prime destination for baby-boomers like Blumenthal, and its alternative press scoffed at what it deemed the musty rules of mainstream journalism—the objectivity, the neutrality. Blumenthal became a hard-working star at Boston After Dark and its successor, the Boston Phoenix, and then joined another alternative weekly, The Real Paper.
In his writing, Blumenthal didn’t just voice opinions. He went out and did actual shoe-leather reporting on politics, unions, and the broader culture. He blended reporting with a contrarian understanding of a conservative movement that was quietly putting itself back together despite the Democratic Party’s post-Watergate dominance. Along the way, one friend, Derek Shearer, mentioned a former Oxford roommate who had political ambitions in Arkansas. This was the first blip of “Bill Clinton” on Blumenthal’s radar screen.
Blumenthal was fascinated by the rise of a new culture of influential political consultants. Some journalists gagged at the role of this emerging class, but Blumenthal saw its way of doing business as part of a new reality—one that held a certain appeal. He also saw no conflict between having a career as a journalist and providing advice to politicians—initially Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, after Dukakis’s 1978 re-election bid was thwarted by a conservative Democratic interloper, Ed King. When The Real Paper shut down, in 1981, Blumenthal served as an adviser to Dukakis as the governor plotted his comeback. At about this time, Blumenthal also became involved with a group of young political activists, including Ralph Whitehead, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, who had worked in and around the new consulting firms and had produced an 85-page white paper called The Permanent Campaign. They argued that conservatives were on the march—creating alternative institutions that were well funded and collaborative. The phrase “permanent campaign” has come to refer to the way campaigning never stops, even when a party has come to power, but the more fundamental point of the white paper—that progressives needed to be mindful of how conservatives were operating, often unnoticed and out of sight—was equally prescient. Blumenthal had long been thinking along exactly the same lines. “The reign of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest was totally implicit in a model of conservative America he developed in the late 70s,” says Whitehead. Two early books by Blumenthal had their genesis in this period and have held up well: The Permanent Campaign: Inside the World of Elite Political Operatives (1980) and The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (1986).
Blumenthal got his big break in 1983 when Martin Peretz, the owner of The New Republic, asked him to cover the 1984 presidential campaign. He became the magazine’s national political correspondent and, at the same time, a "Today" show commentator. Over the next decade, Blumenthal worked at The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker. At every stop he proved to be a ferocious partisan. He did not pretend to be a traditional journalist and had no qualms about assisting 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart with his speeches even as he favorably covered the Hart campaign, a fact that came out only after he had gone to work for The Washington Post (and caused him to be moved from the national desk to the softer Style section).
Blumenthal could be an elegant and acidic writer, with considerable nerve. Typical was a 1990 New Republic review of Means of Ascent, the second volume of Robert Caro’s widely acclaimed Lyndon Johnson biography. Caro’s prodigious reporting blows most readers away. But Blumenthal did his own digging and undermined Caro’s portrait of Texas politician Coke Stevenson, whom Johnson defeated for the US Senate in 1948. Blumenthal disclosed how, far from being a virtuous victim of Johnson’s skullduggery, as Caro largely would have it, Stevenson had a history of racism and was trailed by allegations that he took money in return for phony oil leases. In a subsequent exchange of views with Caro in The New York Times, Blumenthal characterized the book as a “romance” and provided a damning bill of particulars about Stevenson, writing, “In Mr. Caro’s book, however, all of this is completely absent.”
A number of colleagues viewed Blumenthal with unease. He cultivated an air of mystery, always intimating that he had inside information and special connections. His personal manner could be both charming and off-putting, with stage whispers, name-dropping, a raising of eyebrows, and a sudden cackling, as if he and his listener were in on some big joke. He could be funny, knowing, obsequious, and backhanded. But at the heart of the frictions with other reporters was the view that his writing was colored by favoritism. And the prime example was Bill Clinton.
Like others in the mid-to-late 1980s, Blumenthal believed that Clinton was a new sort of Democrat who would redefine the party and what liberalism could and should be. He first met the Clintons at a so-called Renaissance Weekend, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the end of 1987, and wrote of Bill, “He was a charismatic if loquacious speaker who had an easy facility with the arcana of public policy.” In The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal recalled that he and Clinton talked during their first encounter about how the news media were demolishing “the invisible barrier” between public and private life. Joseph Lelyveld, a former New York Times executive editor, in a review of The Clinton Wars in The New York Review of Books, noted that the topic was broached “presciently, even eerily.” Blumenthal backed his old friend, Mike Dukakis, in his race for the White House in 1988. But Dukakis was out of the picture after the loss to George H. W. Bush, and Blumenthal pivoted to Bill Clinton. In 1992 he made his feelings clear in a near-hagiographic article, “The Anointed,” published in The New Republic. “Clinton is about the renaissance of policy, informed by the Reagan years but moving clearly away from them,” he wrote, in the process casting several of Clinton’s Democratic rivals onto the ash heap of history. (Michael Dukakis was described as “a mere technocrat.”) Times had changed. He watched Clinton’s now mythic recovery from the disclosures about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers, writing about the Comeback Kid’s galvanizing mid-controversy appearance in New Hampshire in language that recalls John Updike writing about another Kid, Ted Williams: “But then, in Dover, in a bandbox of an Elks lodge, I watched Clinton lift himself back to political life . . . . His performance, upon which the fate of the entire campaign depended, was the most electrifying political moment I had witnessed since I was a boy in the Chicago Stadium.”
That fervor ultimately cost him his A-list Washington journalism career. He openly and frequently consulted the Clintons, notably Hillary, even while serving as the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. He took a pass on seemingly obvious stories, notably the Whitewater real-estate controversy and one involving the White House travel office, while attacking the Clintons’ critics. History would prove his essential analyses correct—that the scandals, if any, were pretty low-grade, even if symptomatic of a propensity to cut corners—but he was supposed to be covering the Clintons, not rationalizing their conduct. And with the Clintons, where there’s smoke there tends to be at least a bit of fire. Then there were the allegations by Arkansas state troopers that they had arranged trysts for Clinton, including with a woman later identified as Paula Jones. Those came via an American Spectator article by David Brock, in his right-wing attack-dog days. But Blumenthal’s New Yorker reporting rarely mentioned Clinton’s extracurricular behavior.
Blumenthal derided the mainstream media for turning itself “into a yellow press, dealing in sexual innuendo and invading the privacy of politicians to try to get at it.” (Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment suit against Clinton was dismissed in court, then settled in 1998 during the appeals process for $850,000.) “In the tabloid haze,” Blumenthal wrote in The New Yorker, “public life evaporates.” In a 1994 column in The Washington Post, William Powers suggested that The New Yorker’s “Letter from Washington” should be renamed “In the Tank.” Tina Brown, The New Yorker’s editor at the time, eventually moved Blumenthal out of the job of principal Washington correspondent and replaced him with a reflexive Clinton critic, Michael Kelly, who insisted that Blumenthal, who remained on staff, not come into the magazine’s Washington office. In the meantime Blumenthal also wrote a play, "This Town," ridiculing a White House press corps obsessed with a phony scandal about a president’s dog. (Frankly, the play wasn’t bad.) But his days as a working journalist were numbered. In 1997 he joined the White House formally as a special assistant to the president. The New Republic greeted the news by wondering if he would be collecting back pay from the Clintons for all his years as a solicitous journalist.
His role at the White House might be described as that of all-purpose kibitzer and dogsbody. William Daley, the son and brother of former Chicago mayors, served Clinton as a top arm-twister in passing the North American Free Trade Agreement and later as commerce secretary. He worked with or around Blumenthal for years. “He’s smart, interesting, funny, practical,” says Daley (whose own skills were described in a 1993 New Yorker piece by Blumenthal). “He walked between the intellectual and political words. He had impact since he had access, was a believer, and always had ideas. He might throw out 10, with eight mediocre, but a couple would be right on. He was a voracious defender. You need those people. Journalists don’t view him as a journalist but he crossed the line long ago and had the ability and access to effect things. And he had a disdain of media bias.”
Blumenthal discovered very quickly what it was like to become a target. In August of 1997, the Web-site operator Matt Drudge, in an e-mail newsletter sent to Drudge Report subscribers, claimed that Blumenthal had engaged in spousal abuse, giving no details; he posted the same claims on America Online, which was hosting the Drudge Report at the time. Drudge got a sharp letter from a Blumenthal lawyer the next day and very quickly retracted the story. He also publicly apologized to the Blumenthals. They sued for libel, slander, and invasion of privacy—asking for $30 million—with the case dragging on until a settlement in 2001. (The Blumenthals paid $2,500 to Drudge’s attorney to finally end the litigation.)
As the Monica Lewinsky episode unfolded, followed by impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, Blumenthal found himself subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury empaneled by independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whom he would revile as “a prosecutor on a mad mission from God.” He was also compelled to testify during the Senate impeachment trial itself. At issue was whether he had ever served as a conduit for pejorative misinformation about Lewinsky, which the White House had allegedly sought to spread while keeping its own hands clean. Because Blumenthal had rarely displayed the “passion for anonymity” that Franklin D. Roosevelt prized in his staff, it was no surprise that suspicions about his role were rampant.
The episode led to the rancorous breakup of his friendship with the late Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and critic and longtime Vanity Fair columnist, and with Carol Blue, Hitchens’s wife. Both Hitchens and Blue maintained that Blumenthal had described Lewinsky as a “stalker” in their presence, which directly contradicted Blumenthal’s assertion that he had “no idea” how charges about Lewinsky came to be attributed to a White House source. Hitchens and Blue submitted signed affidavits attesting to their account of the conversation with Blumenthal. He denied the charge, but admitted in Senate testimony that the president had mentioned the word “stalker” in a conversation about Lewinsky. In one of his grand-jury appearances, Blumenthal also reported Hillary’s contention that her husband was being attacked for political motives because of his “ministry of a troubled person.” Asked during the impeachment hearing by Representative Lindsey Graham, now a South Carolina senator, whether he had knowledge of anyone in the White House waging a campaign against Lewinsky, Blumenthal said no. He also put out a statement: ”My wife and I are saddened that Christopher chose to end our long friendship in this meaningless way.” Whatever the specific pathways it may have employed, many observers were convinced that the White House disseminated the charge that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker—and it met with some success. Journalist Joe Conason notes that, at the time, you could find hundreds of mentions of the word “stalker” in press accounts of the scandal.
Lewinsky declined to speak about this episode, but she confirmed that in 2002 she sent a handwritten thank-you note to Hitchens after an HBO special about the whole affair.
Dear Mr. Hitchens: I’m not sure you’ve seen the HBO’s documentary I participated in. I wanted to thank you for being the only journalist to stand up against the Clinton spin machine (mainly Blumenthal) and reveal the genesis of the stalker story on television. Though I’m not sure people were ready to change their minds in ’99, I hope they heard you in the documentary. Your credibility superseded his denials.
Shortly before Hitchens’s death, in 2011, Blumenthal wrote to him: ”What a shame it has been that we have not been able to be friends as we were.” Hitchens was touched on a personal level and wrote back, but it did not alter his fundamental disagreements with Blumenthal.
After Bill Clinton left office, Blumenthal published The Clinton Wars, and hopscotched back and forth between consulting and journalism, the latter including a stint as Washington bureau chief for Salon during the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush. Bush’s disputed Texas Air National Guard service was a special focus of Blumenthal’s attention. Blumenthal was also an executive producer of the documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," Alex Gibney’s 2007 Oscar-winning film about America’s use of torture and interrogation. (He is currently involved in two other films—a recently released documentary about pollution in Appalachia and a biopic about the Zionist Theodor Herzl.) When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, Blumenthal was a consultant and a senior adviser to the campaign. According to Politico, in 2009 he became a paid consultant to the Clinton Foundation, for which he received about $10,000 a month. (He is no longer on its payroll.) And he was also a consultant to two pro-Clinton David Brock creations, American Bridge and Media Matters, for which, according to a Congressional source, he received about $200,000 a year. (This would be confirmed when Blumenthal's redacted testimony was unredacted by the Los Angeles Times last June.) The Blumenthal-Clinton e-mails occasionally reference the two Brock groups, which are fully supportive of her 2016 run.
In his e-mails—any of which, from the perspective of mid-2016, seem to have a particularly short analytical shelf-life —Blumenthal takes few prisoners. Obama and Clinton forged a close working relationship long ago, but Blumenthal seems to have an unreconstructed view of the president. “Obama is now seen as a more political, contentious partisan figure. Your rating is much higher among Republicans than his. You’ve achieved supra-political status, not anti-political or apolitical (they know who you are),” he writes to Clinton in March 2009. Later that year, he forwards a Capitol News article via an e-mail with the subject line “In case you haven’t seen, but don’t give yourself a grade if asked.” The article notes a new poll indicating that Clinton “has a much higher approval rating than the man she once campaigned against and now works for, President Barack Obama.” He offers the opinion that Obama suffers from “the vulnerability of charisma”—a magnetism not fully supported by achievement. He is unrelenting. “H: Did you see this self-damaging NYT piece planted by WH in today’s paper? IMHO near insane. WH picking open fight with military over Afghan deployment.” Another: “No comment on the inability of the White House to execute political themes, tactics, and strategy; or sustain a campaign; or develop new ideas.” He sends along a 2010 Time article by Mark Halperin. While criticizing it as mostly “twaddle,” he tells her its essential assessment is completely accurate—namely, that “Barack Obama is being politically crushed in a vise. From above by elite opinion about his competence,” and from below by “mass anger and anxiety over unemployment.” Blumenthal sends a Huffington Post article headlined, “The Power of Clinton, the Invisibility of Obama,” referencing an appearance by Bill Clinton in Kentucky.
He forwards to her an article by Tom Ricks, the longtime military-affairs writer for The Washington Post, who now writes for Foreign Policy and is a senior advisor at the non-partisan New America Foundation. It raised questions about military policy in Afghanistan and referenced David Petraeus, the former CIA director who was then the head of the US Central Command, and National Security Staff Chief Denis McDonough. Blumenthal’s brief preamble: “A riposte from Tom Ricks, reliable mouthpiece of Petraeus et al., assailing Biden, surrogate for Obama, with a leak that Biden sleeps through briefings and an appeal to McDonough et al to shut up Biden (and by implication shut up the president).” Ricks hadn’t known of this shot at him until I sent it. “I don’t believe I have ever met him,” Ricks replied. “But everything I have ever heard about him indicates that he is a second-rate Washington weasel.” He added that Clinton had liked his critically praised book on the Iraq War, Fiasco (2006), which, he said, she had “once cited to me by page number,” and added, “So I think she’d be a bit skeptical of Blumenthal’s conspiracist’s views.”
Conspicuously, Hillary Clinton doesn’t respond to most of the harsh critiques of individuals by Blumenthal. But she does seem to absorb a lot of what he writes. “I didn’t read the McD reference that way,” she replies when Blumenthal passes along an article he initially implies is harsh on Denis McDonough. “I actually thought it was complimentary of his spin skills.” She never takes up the cudgel when it comes to Obama-bashing, not even with a wink or a nod. She was the nation’s top diplomat for a reason.
Blumenthal hit the road on a book tour for A Self-Made Man as Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House—the nomination now secure —pivoted to the general election. In his public appearances, Blumenthal underscores how, as he puts it in his book, “the mythology of Lincoln as too noble for politics long obscured the reality of Lincoln. Lincoln above politics was not Lincoln.” The Lincoln of A Self-Made Man is not the saint taught to generations of schoolchildren. Nor is he somebody who shuns deal-making or the undermining of rivals and friends alike on his way to immortality. He is not afraid of getting his hands dirty. The author might as well be holding a mirror up to himself when he writes of Lincoln’s loyal operative, “No one knew better than Herndon that Lincoln was a politician; few had done more to advance him. That was at the heart of their secret sharing. Herndon was hardly coerced, but avid in his labors. He believed in all of it.” It’s a theme Blumenthal underscored in March as an on-air pundit for CNN’s “Race For the White House” mini-series, co-produced and narrated by Kevin Spacey.
Several Blumenthal friends avow that this Herndon with a smartphone won’t seek a formal position in a Hillary Clinton administration. (Blumenthal told the Guardian, “I haven’t given it much thought.”) Public life takes a toll; by his own account, Blumenthal spent about $300,000 on legal expenses related to Starr’s grand-jury subpoenas, the impeachment trial, the Drudge matter, and nuisance suits filed by the right-wing Judicial Watch. In the years ahead, friends say, Blumenthal is going to be consumed by the remaining Lincoln books. And this may all be true. It’s also true that there is no real need to seek a formal position. Blumenthal is already in the inner sanctum, as confounding as that may be to some Clinton acolytes. And there is no reason to believe that Clinton will start entertaining second thoughts now. “I have many, many old friends,” Hillary Clinton has said, “and I always think it’s important, when you get into politics, to have friends you had before you were in politics. I’m going to keep talking to my old friends, whoever they are.” Ω
[Jame Warren is the chief media writer at Poynter Institute. He is a current or former contributor to The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, Daily Beast, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Warren received a BA, magna cum laude (English) from Amherst College as well as an MA (political theory) from Roosevelt University.]
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