The Magazine

HARRY THOMASON, FIRST PAL

Mar 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 25 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Shortly after the Monica Lewinsky story first broke, Hillary Clinton asked her old friend Harry Thomason to come to Washington. Thomason, who was in the middle of producing both a sitcom pilot and a feature film, dropped everything and bought a plane ticket. Within days, the Hollywood producer had taken up residence in the Clintons' private quarters on the second floor of the White House. He stayed for nearly a month.


What was Harry Thomason doing at the White House? Not much, claim his friends. "He's just wonderful company," explains James Carville. "Harry's good at just popping into your office and offering you a Lifesaver." Fellow spinner Paul Begala agrees. "He's a buddy," Begala says, "someone the president and Mrs. Clinton can stay up with, laugh and talk about old times, and play Boggle." According to Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel, Thomason's presence has been a welcome diversion for White House aides shoulder-deep in scandal management: "Harry's role, when we'd get into a tunnel and work too long and too hard, was to make sure we'd go to lunch. He'd get us out of here. "


It's an appealing image -- the hearty, bearded Thomason as White House jester-cum-therapist. And it is true that Thomason, along with his wife, the sitcom writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, is perhaps the Clintons' closest friend, particularly since the first couple's recent estrangement from Vernon Jordan. Still, anyone who believes that Thomason was summoned from Los Angeles simply to dispense hard candy and play board games probably still believes that Vernon Jordan is an avuncular power broker who arranges multiple job interviews for promising White House interns. Actually, Thomason has never spent time at the White House without throwing his weight around.


According to the Washington Post, it was Thomason who choreographed the president's first "forceful, jaw-clenched, finger-wagging, lecture-thumping" denial of the affair. A few days later, at the White House dinner for British prime minister Tony Blair, Thomason was spotted by one reporter huddled in a corner with Rahm Emanuel reading an early version of the damaging New York Times story about Clinton assistant Betty Currie. In late February, reports surfaced that Thomason had raised money in Hollywood to finance an investigation into Ken Starr's private life.


Thomason responded angrily to the allegation he hired private investigators -- "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," he told CNN. And while his anger may be sincere, there is no denying he has been central to the White House spin effort. "Like me," says Harold Ickes, another old Clinton friend recently returned to the White House, "Harry does talk to a number of press people during the course of a day." Unlike Ickes, however, Thomason has almost unlimited access to the president and so is able to act as a kind of messenger between the president and the rest of the administration's communications apparatus. "He gives a sense to the president of how things are playing, of what people outside the hothouse of the White House are saying," says Ickes. "Basically, he says, 'Here's what the press is interested in; here's where they're going on certain issues.'" Thomason also helps decide where the White House should go. "He's been spending a lot of time hanging out in [White House communications aide Sidney] Blumenthal's office," says one former White House staffer who knows (and likes) Thomason. " They work together on this stuff."


What sort of stuff is that? According to several people with knowledge of the effort, Thomason has been at the center of the ongoing, if quiet, White House campaign to discredit individual reporters who are aggressively covering the scandal, notably Jeff Gerth of the New York Times and Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post, both of whom also covered Whitewater (a story that Gerth originally broke). Attacking individual reporters as sloppy and biased is a risky strategy for any White House to pursue (especially if, as in this case, the reporters being attacked are among the most highly regarded in American journalism), but Thomason and his wife have long harbored an unusually active hatred of the press.