Prosecutors cast 'dark' Blumenthal into spotlight; Lesser known 3rd witness is fiery Clinton advocate who doesn't mince word; TRIAL IN THE SENATE


WASHINGTON -- Monica Lewinsky, of course, has the title role in the scandal.

Vernon Jordan, ultimate Washington powerhouse, knows everything that goes on in this town, especially along Pennsylvania Avenue.

But Sid? Sid Vicious? Supercilious Sid?

Even his lawyer expected that, once the House prosecutors whittled their witness list to a final three, White House communications aide Sidney Blumenthal would get cut. After all, the journalist-turned-presidential adviser is a relatively minor player in the Lewinsky saga, one of a handful of White House aides whom Clinton misled about his relationship with the former intern.

But here he is, the preppy partisan with the glasses and the smirk and one of the darkest reputations in town, among the three witnesses the House Republicans have chosen to put before the Senate.

"He is vicious," says a former journalistic colleague, Fred Barnes, referring to one of Blumenthal's chief nicknames. "To everyone except Bill Clinton."

Indeed, Blumenthal joined the White House in the summer of 1997 after a journalistic career in which he made enemies among his colleagues for his unabashedly nonobjective reports. Working at the Washington Post, the New Republic and the New Yorker, he earned a reputation as a ferocious critic of all things conservative and a fierce advocate for new-style Democrats -- 1984 presidential candidate Gary Hart, for whom he provided advice while covering the Hart campaign for the Post, and later Clinton.

"Sid thinks of conservatives as part of a conspiracy," says Barnes, now executive editor of the Weekly Standard, a right-leaning magazine. "He acts as if all conservatives have one thing in mind -- to destroy Bill Clinton."

In a speech at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government last April, Blumenthal tore into Kenneth W. Starr, borrowing words from Thomas Jefferson when he called the independent counsel's investigation a "reign of witches."

"Is there a right wing? Absolutely," he said. "Is it out to get the president? Absolutely."

Such unapologetic partisanship -- he is the leading proponent of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" theory that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has espoused -- has made Blumenthal one of the least popular figures in Republican circles in Washington.

"He's not subtle in what he does," says one senior Republican aide on Capitol Hill.

Even some White House colleagues have described Blumenthal as smug and resent him because he is close to the Clintons, especially the first lady. But others defend Blumenthal, the author of four books on politics, as hard-working, smart and truly committed to the ideals he so fervently advocates.

'Guy they hate the most'

Still, Democrats believe his less than sterling reputation could not have been lost on the House prosecutors, who chose to make Blumenthal the face of the White House in the Senate impeachment trial.

"He's the most visible, the guy they hate the most," says Clinton defender James Carville. "They're frustrated by him."

But Republicans, including Carville's wife, talk show host Mary Matalin, strongly disagree.

Since the House prosecutors were only allowed three witnesses, "the idea that they would waste one-third of their case because they hate somebody is ridiculous," says Matalin.

"They are not being political about this. They are trying to make a case for obstruction of justice, and he is pivotal on the point that the president purposely lied [to his aides] and wanted to get out to the press that Lewinsky was a stalker," she says.

"Blumenthal is the in-house spin man. That's all he does."

House prosecutors, too, defended their unexpected selection of Blumenthal. They said his conversations with Clinton -- in which the president denied having done "anything wrong" with Lewinsky and told him Lewinsky was known among her peers as "the stalker" -- provide the clearest evidence of their charge that Clinton obstructed justice by giving false information to his aides, knowing they might be witnesses before the grand jury.

"Here you had a case where the president has acknowledged that Blumenthal was likely to be called before the grand jury -- he knew that," Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida said yesterday. "At the time he knew that, he was encouraging him by telling him stories that were outlandishly not true -- not just that he didn't have the relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but that she was a stalker, and characterizing her in ways that he couldn't help but anticipate that Blumenthal would repeat."

Credibility crisis

Through Blumenthal, a frequent source for reporters, House prosecutors are likely to focus on what they believe was a White House campaign, in the early days of the crisis, to cast doubt on Lewinsky's credibility.

Rep. James E. Rogan of California, the House prosecutor expected to depose Blumenthal, alluded to such a theory on the Senate floor Tuesday: "The question is, was this a mere coincidence that the president's false statements to Mr. Blumenthal about Monica Lewinsky being a stalker quickly found their way into press accounts?"

The Republicans, said Blumenthal's lawyer, Jo Bennett Marsh, "are mostly interested in the smear campaign they have an idea occurred. They see this as a chance to make the president look like he instigated it. There's no truth to that."

Marsh also adamantly denies that Blumenthal, who declined reporters' calls yesterday, was the source of the "stalker" stories that appeared in news accounts soon after the Lewinsky scandal broke.

But controversy and suspicion seem to find Blumenthal, a product of the machine politics of his native Chicago, wherever he goes.

He is in the midst of a $30 million libel suit that he brought against Internet columnist Matt Drudge for a report, which Drudge later retracted and apologized for, accusing Blumenthal of spousal abuse.

And even the generally mild-mannered Starr grand jurors chastised Blumenthal last June for comments he made on the courthouse steps -- after one of his previous grand jury appearances -- that the panel felt had mischaracterized their proceedings.

"We would hope that you will understand the seriousness of our work, and not in any way use it for any purpose other than the purpose that is intended," the foreman said, "and that you would really represent us the way that events happened in this room."

"I appreciate your statement," Blumenthal responded.

And then he and his lawyer headed straight to the bank of cameras waiting on the courthouse steps to denounce the Starr investigation once again.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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