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'Far-right conspiracy' a gift from Blumenthal Clinton adviser valued for his journalism past

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may be in the fight of his life, but for White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, a "Friend of Bill" (and an even better "Friend of Hillary"), all the suns, moons and planets in his universe are in harmony.

A journalist for 28 years, Blumenthal has, in just eight months in the White House, reached dizzying heights in his new profession. He is one of the handful of aides who can give advice directly to the president and Vice President Al Gore -- and to his most powerful patron, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. His portfolio extends from foreign policy to helping formulate a strategy for combating independent prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr.

If anything, the furor centering on Monica Lewinsky has enhanced Blumenthal's position. According to several sources -- and Blumenthal doesn't dispute it -- he has long embraced the notion of the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" to explain some of the Clintons' troubles.

Blumenthal sees Starr as a partisan Republican seeking to bring down a Democratic president, and he portrays much User.Event 7 was not expected here! of the news media as the unwitting -- or in some cases deliberate -- partner in this effort.

Hillary Clinton, in particular, has always gravitated toward the notion that sinister forces were behind the Clintons' legal troubles. And because Blumenthal comes from the media, the first lady gives his views on this subject all the more credence, according to several White House staffers.

Some White House aides find this line of argument slightly paranoid and politically perilous, and Blumenthal's penchant for seeing hidden plots behind every Whitewater subpoena or leaked news story has earned him the tongue-in-cheek nickname "G. K." -- for "Grassy Knoll," the favored location of conspiracy buffs for the supposed second gunman in the Kennedy assassination.

But Blumenthal has won his share of converts, too.

"I'm the first to roll my eyes at some of this, but Sid has been proven more right than wrong on the 'right-wing conspiracy,' " said Rahm Emanuel, a top White House aide who coined the G. K. moniker. "There is a partisan effort against us -- more than meets the eye."

Blumenthal himself won't expound on where he believes this conspiracy starts and stops -- and won't talk about much of anything else publicly, either. In a friendly -- but off-the-record -- interview, he indicates that seeing himself quoted isn't the best way to help the Clintons' cause.

All he'll say on the record is that he "loves" where he is now. "It's great to be seeing things from the inside that, as a journalist, I only saw from the outside," he says. "Working in the White House has given me a much deeper understanding of what goes

Liberal circles

Until last summer, the 49-year-old Blumenthal was a prominent Washington journalist known for his deftness as a writer, his high-level contacts in liberal circles on both sides of the Atlantic -- and as a relentless defender of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

He's the author of four well-received political books and a play about Washington, "Our Town." He also has written for well-known publications -- the New Yorker, the Washington Post and the New Republic -- and established himself as a left-of-center observer who openly rooted for Democratic candidates and causes.

Moreover, he was associated with a specific Democratic faction, one that believed that in order to elect a president, the party needed "new ideas" that would expand its appeal beyond the traditional base of labor, liberals and blacks.

Political thinker

In time, Blumenthal's strength as a political thinker became, in the minds of some of his editors and colleagues, his weakness as a journalist.

He was such an early convert to the "New Democrat" movement that he seemed to become part of it. He also became cozy with British Labor Party leader Tony Blair. Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline, director of the White House fellows office, threw a dinner party for Blair at their home -- right after Sidney wrote a glowing magazine profile of the future prime minister.

A reputation for getting too close to those he covers has dogged Blumenthal throughout much of his career in journalism.

In the 1984 campaign, according to three knowledgeable sources, Blumenthal helped craft at least one Gary Hart speech -- at a time when he was covering the campaign. In the 1992 campaign, he openly chose sides again, casting his lot with Clinton. He attacked Clinton's opponents in the Democratic primary, and in the general election was relentlessly critical of George Bush and Ross Perot while writing favorably of Clinton.

Journalist at work

After the election, he landed the prestigious job of Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. But he was dismissive of the idea that the Clintons could have done anything wrong, refusing to write about issues such as Whitewater or the firings of the White House travel office, and characterizing Paula Corbin Jones in his coverage as a tool of the "far right."

By the time the magazine brought in former Sun and New York Times reporter Michael Kelly over him, Blumenthal was held in such suspicion that Kelly, as a condition of coming aboard, demanded that Blumenthal not be allowed in the office.

"Too many people at the magazine believed he was sabotaging them," said Kelly, who said that Blumenthal had applied for a job in the White House while covering the place. "He also seemed to be in regular communication with the first lady as a sort of confidant. It was just not something I wanted around me."

To some former colleagues, Blumenthal's worst transgression was helping White House aides formulate a plan to undermine journalists whose tough reporting offended the administration -- while he was still with the New Yorker. According to two high-ranking White House officials, Blumenthal came up with the idea of having White House staffers prepare a comparison between Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt's Whitewater coverage and the less aggressive coverage of other news organizations.

The plan, embraced by Mrs. Clinton, was to take this compilation Schmidt's editors, in hopes of getting her removed from the beat -- and then to leak the reasons for her transfer to the rest of the news media.

According to author Howard Kurtz, who recounts the episode in his coming book, "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine," a compilation was completed under the direction of former White House special counsel Mark Fabiani and his deputy, Chris Lehane. Both feared the gambit would backfire, however, and informed White House press secretary Mike McCurry. He pronounced it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life" -- and killed it.

Blumenthal's view is that he never attempted to hide his sympathies. Moreover, he maintains that his journalistic model wasn't the ink-stained wretch whose mantra is objectivity and balance. Instead, Blumenthal saw himself as one part writer/reporter and another part political player.

He cites examples of others who've played such roles, beginning with 18th-century British essayists Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. Washington has had such figures earlier in this century, men such as Joseph Alsop, who found his old friend John F. Kennedy on his doorstep one evening -- the night of JFK's inauguration. And it has a few left, including David Gergen, who worked in the Reagan and Clinton administrations -- in between stints at U.S. News & World Report.

Nonetheless, Blumenthal realizes that many Washington journalists believe he crossed the line when he was a reporter. He shrugs as if there's not much he can do about it. But if Blumenthal won't undertake his own defense, plenty of his new colleagues will.

A valued adviser

"Sidney has been so helpful," said Paul Begala, who has been the most visible aide defending Clinton during the Lewinsky furor. "Everybody predicted he wouldn't work out. Everybody was wrong."

Asked whether Blumenthal was better liked inside the White House than he was by journalistic peers, McCurry replied: "He's not unpopular here. He must have had a severe identity crisis when he was a reporter. He didn't want to be in that profession."

And so he has escaped it. An irony is that one reason he is so valued, according to White House aides, is because they believe he thinks like a journalist.

White House counselor Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty says that Blumenthal was indispensable on a presidential trip to Argentina late last year in getting the president to focus on -- and raise -- FTC the sensitive issue of freedom of the press in Latin America.

"We wouldn't have had the right tone, without Sidney," said McLarty. "And we wouldn't have put the emphasis on it."

Lanny J. Davis, whose job was answering scandal-related questions from the media, found Blumenthal helpful at the nuts-and-bolts issues of how to respond to journalists, how to approach their editors if need be and how to shop for outlets that might be receptive to a particular line of argumentation.

"Who do you call in the different organizations? Who is the decision-maker up the line from the reporter? Who's up and who's down? Who has an agenda? He knew it all," Davis said. "What Sid knows is the internal dynamics and personalities of the different new organizations."

Most daily journalists would not think of themselves as having an "agenda." As Blumenthal sees it, they all do -- he's just more honest than most.

In any event, these days Blumenthal is ensconced in a job that his harshest critics and his best friends agree suits him well.

During the controversy last year about the fund-raising phone calls made by the vice president from the White House, the first reaction of Clinton aides was to find members of Congress who'd done the same thing from their offices -- and attack them.

According to Ron Klain, Gore's chief of staff, Blumenthal argued for educating the public on why the calls might not be unlawful.

"Sid said, 'Look, you guys believe this was legal, right? Well, let's make the case,' " Klain recalled. "We have plenty of political people -- I'm one of 'em -- whose instinct was to come up with a bumper-sticker slogan. Sid's was: 'What are the facts we have to support us?' He has confidence we can make a complex argument in the media. Sid is actually a perfect fit here. He has a journalist's eye and an advocate's heart."

Pub Date: 2/15/98

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