Blumenthal controversy one of his own making


WASHINGTON -- There's a certain irony in the affidavit signed by a magazine writer vowing that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal testified falsely in his Senate deposition that he had "no idea" how the story that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker "came to be attributed to a White House source."

The affidavit, by former Blumenthal friend Christopher Hitchens, a writer for Vanity Fair, says Mr. Blumenthal described her as such during a lunch with him and his wife last March. It has been seized upon by House managers and some Republican senators, demanding that the Justice Department investigate whether Mr. Blumenthal committed perjury in his Senate testimony.

The irony is that Mr. Blumenthal, if he is telling the truth and didn't spread the yarn damaging to Ms. Lewinsky's reputation, is the political equivalent of the boy who cried wolf in the old fable. He has been so widely suspected of spreading stories of a conspiratorial nature that he has been nicknamed "Grassy Knoll" by some in the White House and "Sid Vicious" by some outside it.

Mr. Blumenthal was famous, or infamous, in Washington circles as a Clinton cheerleader when he was a reporter. Later, he was one of the leading White House proponents of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" cited by his friend, Hillary Clinton, as determined to topple the president.

As a result, his credibility was called into question by some members of the press corps when he denied the stalker stories.

As a reporter, he wrote idolatrous articles about President Clinton and socialized with Democratic politicians he was supposed to be reporting about -- actions bordering on the unethical.

But it had been assumed in the press corps that even if he had been spreading those stories, he would be protected by the time-honored code of journalism: You don't reveal your sources. It is an irony in itself -- that a one-time reporter held in contempt by many of his old colleagues would be sheltered by them out of a sense of ethics.

Now it turns out that a prominent member of the press corps, indeed one who is regarded as a celebrity journalist, has disregarded any such sense and ratted on his old friend Mr. Blumenthal.

Mr. Hitchens said on the CBS News show "Meet the Press" Sunday that he acknowledged Mr. Blumenthal's stalker remark after being confronted by a House investigator.

"I'm not going to not say something [just] because I get called by the Congress," Mr. Hitchens said. Also, he said Mr. Blumenthal had told other reporters the story.

Mr. Hitchens said he wasn't violating any confidentiality agreement because "we knew each other too well to have, so to speak, ground rules. I was just telling him since '92 I think he's working for a crooked president. And he said, 'Well, there's some stuff you don't know.' " Mr. Hitchens said it was "not believable" that Mr. Blumenthal, "well-known to be a very, very fluent and assiduous defender of the president, went around town with evidence that would make Bill Clinton look good and kept it to himself."

Mr. Blumenthal's attorney was quoted on the show as saying "if anybody . . . thinks they have a pledge of confidentiality to Sidney on the topic of the stalker comment, they're released. Let them come forward and say it."

That's what Mr. Hitchens did. But he also said he didn't believe Mr. Blumenthal had exactly lied to Congress, and would not testify if Congress brought a perjury suit against Mr. Blumenthal "if it's just him." He offered that "there may have been other White House people putting this around."

Whether other members of the press come forward and finger Mr. Blumenthal remains to be seen. He says "the notion that I was trying to plant a story with this rabid anti-Clinton friend is absurd." Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of the word "friend" is.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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