Why I like Bad Sidney Blumenthal.

Reading between the lines.
May 20 2003 6:31 PM

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sid Blumenthal's personality problem.

Of the many delusions plaguing the right throughout the Clinton impeachment crisis, none was more peculiar than its belief that Sidney Blumenthal, a political journalist turned White House aide, stood at the white-hot center of the Clinton cabal. In truth, Blumenthal was a somewhat peripheral figure in the Clinton White House. One of roughly two dozen "assistants to the president," Blumenthal was Clinton's big-ideas man, the guy who got whisked into the Oval Office whenever the president wanted to consider his place in the cosmos. Blumenthal's principal task was to organize a series of conferences on the "Third Way," wherein marquee intellectuals and leaders from various countries gathered at swell places like Harold Acton's Tuscan Villa La Pietra to steer the course of history, as the cliché goes, past the Scylla of collectivism and the Charybdis of market fundamentalism. Perhaps the only sincere compliment I can pay Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, is that he doesn't go in for this sort of gum-beating.

There are moments in Blumenthal's new book, The Clinton Wars, when Blumenthal himself recognizes the oddity of his demonization. "I was wildly overestimated as a ubiquitous, omnipotent, and spectral presence at the White House," he writes, "a delusional Nostradamus, a dark sorcerer, a Rasputin." Most of the time, though, Blumenthal buys wholesale into a notion of himself as Clinton's indispensable man, the steadfast friend and aide who could see around corners that others couldn't.

This grandiose posture never did Blumenthal much good in the Clinton White House, but it helped him earn a reported $650,000 advance for this book, which is best understood as the work of two people whom I'll call "Good Sidney" and "Bad Sid."

Who's the subject here, Bill or Sid?
Who's the subject here, Bill or Sid?

At the punishing length of 802 pages, The Clinton Wars fully chronicles (as subjects of equal importance) both the Clinton presidency and Blumenthal's interactions with it. Blumenthal, we learn, introduced Clinton to Tony Blair before the latter was prime minister; set in motion Hillary Clinton's New York Senate race (by advising the scandal-addled first lady to spend more time in New York, where people would "understand her and her concerns"); persuaded Clinton to pressure Argentina's Carlos Menem and other autocrats to grant more freedom to the press; gave Clinton the idea of organizing his 1996 State of the Union address around the idea of "one America"; and helped conceive something called the White House Millennium Council. (Blumenthal actually appears in more of the photographs used to illustrate the book and its cover than Clinton, its ostensible subject. One of these, an inadvertent echo of a famous Nixon resignation photo, shows an anguished Blumenthal embracing Hillary on the day of Clinton's impeachment as someone tears out a newspaper clipping in the background. Who's that man with Sid Blumenthal? Oh, the president.)

Blumenthal would have done better to heed the dictates of his ego and write a shorter book focused tightly on his experience as an adviser to the Clinton presidency, which began well before he abandoned his perch at The New Yorker for a nook in the West Wing. Blumenthal's analysis of the Clinton presidency is sound on most of the policy particulars. He lauds Clinton's elimination of the deficit, expansion of the earned income tax credit, co-option of welfare reform, and conduct of the war in Kosovo; he criticizes Clinton's fumbles on gays in the military, health care, Rwanda, and Bosnia. He also provides a tiny handful of colorful insider details—let the record show that Stephen Spielberg taught Clinton the card game "Oh, Hell." But the prose frequently lapses into fawning cliché ("The Oklahoma City tragedy was a shock, but Clinton emerged from its whirlwind as a commanding figure") and historical digression ("The earliest records of slavery in the New World are to be found in St. Augustine, Florida," he writes, by way of introducing the topic of 2000's disputed Florida "long count"). This is Good Sidney, chronicler of civilization's march and organizer of Third Way conferences, straining to pronounce the meaning of the 21st century as Henry Adams did the early 20th.

I much prefer Bad Sid, author of the bracingly disrespectful The Rise of the Counter-Establishment and a 1985 Washington Post dissection of Star Wars advocate Greg Fossedal that remains the definitive portrait of that Reagan-spawned phenomenon, the Young Conservative Ideologue on the Make. Bad Sid isn't vicious or evil or a teller of lies, as the right believes. (Anyone who bothers to read this book will discover that his reputation as a hard leftist is way off the mark. Hard leftists don't preach a Third Way.) He is somewhat conspiracy-minded but states in the book that he took no offense at the nickname his White House colleagues pinned on him, "Grassy Knoll," and seems able to joke about it. During the 1990s I spent some pleasant times listening to Bad Sid dish from his front porch. (I should disclose here that Bad Sid and I are longtime acquaintances, and that the porch is now mine, my wife and I having bought the house in the waning months of the Clinton presidency. The principal conflict this transaction creates for me as reviewer—caveat emptor!—is heightened interest in a photograph of Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton standing in what is now my dining room.)

Most of the memoir portions of Blumenthal's book are written by Bad Sid, who has an interesting story to tell. The day he arrived at the White House, the Drudge Report accused him falsely of beating his wife, prompting Bad Sid to file a libel suit aimed at securing not only a retraction (which Drudge posted swiftly), but the names of those who had spread the vile rumor. One of these was almost certainly John Fund, a Wall Street Journal editorialist who volunteered, "I'm sorry for the mistake I made about you," which Blumenthal, quite reasonably, construes as a confession.

Bad Sid stumbled into the impeachment drama a few days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, when Clinton called him into the White House and denied that he'd had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton said she'd made a sexual advance that he'd rebuffed and that she'd become, in essence, a stalker. Like Clinton's earlier testimony in Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit, this was untrue, and the House impeachment managers would subsequently try to argue that Blumenthal and Clinton had plotted together to obstruct justice by spreading false stories about Lewinsky. It was a ridiculous allegation, much less plausible than the Starr Report's claim that Clinton had coached his secretary, Betty Currie, to give false testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But when three witnesses were finally chosen to appear in Clinton's Senate trial, it was Blumenthal, not Currie, who was made to testify along with Lewinsky. Currie was bypassed out of fear that she would be too sympathetic a victim of congressional bullying and because the Republicans were nervous about how it would look if they cross-examined two blacks. (The second being Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights leader and Clinton friend who'd tried to get Lewinsky a job.) Bad Sid, the House managers figured, would come across unsympathetically and might even be so rude about Lewinsky that he'd provoke her into becoming a friendly witness.

Bad Sid's description of his Senate trial deposition is the best thing in the book. He portrays Rep. Lindsey Graham, the House manager who questioned him, as a befuddled bumpkin, raking his hand through his hair, jiggling his leg, and groping clumsily through his pockets for notes:

Senator Specter's irritation at Graham's ineptitude was obvious, and he began to refer to him as "Congressman Lindsey." … "Perhaps," he said to Graham, "you can avoid [objection from Blumenthal's attorney] by just pinpointing [your question] a little more."

"Yes," Graham replied. "We'll try to be laser-like in these questions." He rambled on about strategy meetings in the White House, whether we had been alarmed, whether we thought the scandal was a "bad story," and then he eventually circled back to his conspiracy theory.

The partisan hysteria surrounding Clinton's impeachment created so much mayhem on Capitol Hill that the articles of impeachment never included Clinton's perjury in the Jones case, the one crime we know that Clinton committed. Bad Sid isn't quite bad enough to underscore that irony. Ever the loyal friend and aide, he edges close to endorsing Clinton's ridiculous claim that he hadn't lied in the Jones deposition because blow jobs didn't constitute sexual relations. It was, looking back, a singularly unedifying episode in American history, one that Good Sidney portrays as a culmination of the Republican Party's flight during the last four decades from any semblance of honorable purpose. The GOP may not need conferences in Italian villas, but it could certainly use a Third Way. Who wants to be the next Sidney Blumenthal?

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.