When he penned a lampoon of the Washington press corps several years ago, thoughts of scandal loomed large in the mind of author Sidney Blumenthal. To be precise, the thoughts were about how a corrupt and lazy news media conjure up a towering to-do that centers on a presidential pet.
“In my play, the scandal’s about the White House dog,” Blumenthal told The Times in a 1995 interview. “I believe this scandal is more real than Whitewater.”
For Blumenthal, Washington scandal has taken on a new--and very personal--reality: The cerebral political reporter-turned-White-House-advisor has been summoned to appear before a grand jury that is looking into President Clinton’s conduct in matters related to Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr wants to question Blumenthal about his dealings with the press--specifically, whether he has been spreading malicious “misinformation” about Starr’s prosecutors in an attempt to discredit the investigation. Blumenthal has denounced the allegation.
The subpoena has triggered an uproar over 1st Amendment rights and Starr’s zeal to prosecute Clinton.
The furor is only the latest turn in an unusual career that has blended journalism and political advocacy, sometimes--according to Blumenthal’s critics--at the same time.
Since last summer, Blumenthal has toiled in a windowless office inside the White House, where he has worked on matters as varied as the State of the Union speech, press freedom in Argentina and Turkey, the recent U.S. visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a presidential bid to highlight the coming millennium.
Yet there are some unusual factors apart from his intellect--Blumenthal, 49, has written four books on politics--or his insights into the media--he has worked for the Washington Post, New Republic and the New Yorker--that distinguish him from some of his White House colleagues.
For one, he has long ties not only to the president but to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, with whom he speaks a couple times a day on the telephone. As a political writer, Blumenthal got a reputation for unabashedly supporting Clinton while being quick to dismiss issues, such as accusations related to the Whitewater land transaction, that threaten Clinton’s image.
“With any luck, he’ll get his back pay,” declared New Republic magazine, upon word that Blumenthal was accepting a job in the administration.
For another, the bespectacled advisor has manifested an unusual willingness to take on those he deems to be enemies, ranging from Starr (part of a “right-wing conspiracy”) to aggressive investigative reporters. (“Hillary’s own Sid Vicious,” declared London’s Daily Telegraph, in a piece that described Blumenthal as “the most formidable political gladiator defending President Clinton’s White House.”)
Last August, when Matt Drudge, who runs a gossip Web site, put erroneous allegations about Blumenthal on the Internet, Blumenthal sued him for $30 million, prompting a quick apology.
But not every gambit has paid off. While still a magazine journalist, Blumenthal, along with the first lady, advocated an unusual plan for the White House to compile evidence that a Washington Post reporter’s coverage of Whitewater was more hostile to the administration than coverage in other media. Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, killed the plan.
“He thinks there are some reporters who are out to get the Clintons,” said another administration source, who believes that Blumenthal provides helpful guidance to White House officials about the intentions of reporters and their outlets.
Indeed, Blumenthal has been willing to cite a right-wing conspiracy as the source of many of the Clintons’ problems. Others look at an assortment of conservative talk show hosts, Clinton-haters on the Internet, partisan foes in Congress and other critics as mutually reinforcing on a certain level, but see no conspiracy.
Rahm Emanuel, a senior White House aide, quickly dubbed Blumenthal “G.K.,” after the grassy knoll that figures prominently in theories of a conspiracy behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Emanuel on Wednesday said he came up with the moniker because of Blumenthal’s “penchant for theories that don’t normally come to mind. And seeing connections that you normally don’t see.”
But as Starr’s investigation has plowed forward in recent weeks, Emanuel maintained: “He’s been proven more right than wrong.”