The Magazine

HILLARY'S BRAIN

Feb 23, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 23 • By CARL M. CANNON
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When Hillary Rodham Clinton went on the Today show last month to charge that a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" was behind the many allegations against her husband, it had to be a moment of triumph for Sidney Blumenthal. A long- time journalist turned senior White House staffer, Blumenthal has been pushing the conspiracy line for years. In December 1993, while a writer for the New Yorker, he appeared on Nightline to downplay the first great sex scandal of the Clinton presidency, the Troopergate stories published in the Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator. He denounced the reports as "a large, deliberate distraction" pushed by "a small, far-right- wing group of people" who "have been able to pull the strings of the mainstream media."


It was a curious posture for a journalist: leaping to defend the White House by taking pot shots at fellow reporters. But Blumenthal was no ordinary journalist. He had -- then as now -- the ear of the first lady, whom he has known since the late 1980s and who shares many of his views. She suspects large segments of the press are out to get her and the president; Blumenthal confirms her suspicions and fills in the names, faces, and personal agendas of supposed adversaries in the media. His connection to Mrs. Clinton gave Blumenthal influence inside the White House even before he went to work there in August 1997.


But it also earned him enmity from journalists. His colleagues' main complaint was that he was advising the White House -- including on how to handle unflattering press. Two reports produced in the shop of then-White House special counsel Mark Fabiani were clearly Blumenthal-inspired. The first, later ridiculed by the press, was an overview of anti-Clinton press coverage that ran to hundreds of pages, with copies of articles attached. Entitled somewhat ludicrously "The Communications Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," this document, produced by Fabiani and his deputy, Chris Lehane, was superficial but not kooky. The aim was to steer mainstream reporters away from leads of the Vince Foster-is-alive-and-living-in-Argentina variety.


The second report was not so innocent. Dreamed up by Blumenthal, it was a detailed critique of reporter Susan Schmidt's aggressive Whitewater coverage in the Washington Post. Blumenthal floated the project with Mrs. Clinton, members of her staff, and the White House counsel's office. Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Post, recounts the episode in his soon-to-be published book on the Clinton White House and the press, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine. Blumenthal was "still writing for the New Yorker but increasingly whispering political advice to Hillary," writes Kurtz. Blumenthal told Fabiani the White House should exploit a book on Whitewater by James Stewart that he, Blumenthal, expected to be favorable to the Clintons. Use it "to go after the Post," Blumenthal said, according to Kurtz. "You ought to prepare a document outlining the differences between the Post and other papers." Blumenthal wanted the White House to present the critique of Schmidt's reporting to her editor, Leonard Downie Jr., then release it "to show up the Post before the rest of the media."


Fabiani ignored Blumenthal's suggestion, "but he quickly learned that Blumenthal had Hillary's ear," Kurtz writes. "A week or so after he and Blumenthal had talked, she would reel off a list of ideas and, almost word for word, they would be Blumenthal's ideas." As it turned out, the report on Schmidt was never made public. White House press secretary Mike McCurry called it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life" and ordered it killed. Kurtz adds, "All copies of the report were carefully collected."


So when Blumenthal joined the White House last summer, his reputation had preceded him. Top Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel was sufficiently skeptical of all the conspiracy talk that he nicknamed Blumenthal "G. K." -- short for "grassy knoll." But Emanuel, like others in the White House, has become newly respectful in the weeks since Mrs. Clinton's Today performance. "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,'" Emanuel told me. "There is a partisan effort against us -- more than meets the eye." Paul Begala, the 1992 campaign mechanic who has returned to the Clintons' side after a brief exile in Texas, joined the White House staff the same day as Blumenthal. "Everybody predicted he wouldn't work out," says Begala. "Everybody was wrong."