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.
Late in 1992, reporter Jacob Weisberg profiled the couple for the New Republic. The Thomasons had played a large role in the Clinton campaign that year -- Harry produced the Democratic convention; Linda consulted the costume designer on the set of their show Designing Women to help with Hillary Clinton's makeover. On the other hand, as Weisberg pointed out, the Thomasons also had a tendency to take credit for successes that weren't theirs (like locating the film footage of 16-year-old Bill Clinton with President Kennedy, when in fact it was Mandy Grunwald's office that found the film at the Kennedy Library). Weisberg went on to note the uncanny similarities between Bloodworth-Thomason's hagiographic Clinton documentary, The Man From Hope, and scenes from her politically aware sitcom, Evening Shade. Weisberg's article was critical, but not vicious or unfair.
The Thomasons, though, immediately went to Def-Con 1. Within weeks, they had worked an attack on Weisberg into an episode of Hearts Afire, one of their sitcoms. At one point, the female lead on the show denounced New Republic writers like Weisberg as "little old baby Harvard boys" who "walk around in this constipated haze of Ivy League smugness, intellectually diddling one another. . . . They're irrelevant, arrogant, snide and cynical and negative, and on top of everything else, they're short." And that was just the beginning of the outburst. Editors at the New Republic, Bloodworth-Thomason told one interviewer, "have no facial hair, no life experience, and you feel like their parents and the baby sitter's dead."
Needless to say, the assault was utterly out of proportion to Weisberg's offense, and it should have been a warning to the Clintons that their friends were dangerously thin-skinned and politically unsophisticated. No one seemed to notice, however, and after the 1993 inauguration (which the couple also directed), Harry Thomason stayed in Washington as an unofficial adviser to the president. From the beginning, it was obvious political disaster was imminent. Though he never became a federal employee, Thomason regularly met with White House staff on communications strategy. He was invited to attend Mrs. Clinton's healthcare task force. At one point, Thomason brought the television actress Markie Post to a series of meetings, identifying her as his "assistant."
Nor was Thomason shy about using his access to the president. In March 1993, Thomason, who before moving to Hollywood from Arkansas worked as an art teacher and football coach, wrote a letter to Bruce Lindsey on behalf of a friend named Larry Epstein. "Larry has a sterling reputation as a lawyer, and I recommend him highly, should a position for a federal judgeship come open."
Later, Thomason forwarded to the White House a request from chubby exercise guru Richard Simmons, who wanted to be appointed to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. (When the Simmons letter was produced as an exhibit at a deposition several years later, Thomason's lawyer, Bob Bennett, expressed amazement: "Is that that little guy that runs around on the boat?" Bennett wondered. "He and Kathie Lee, and they tickle each other?")
Within a few months, Thomason's first career as a presidential adviser came to an end when it was revealed that he had pushed the White House to get rid of longtime employees of the travel office. Under fire as the authors of the first major scandal of the Clinton administration, the Thomasons retreated back to California, unindicted but sullied, bitter at their treatment in Washington. The feeling was mutual: David Gergen, Clinton's media adviser at the time, recommended that the president invite the Thomasons back to the White House much less often. Outside of their work in Hollywood, not much was heard from them until the Lewinsky affair.
Their return cannot bode well for the president. The Thomasons may be geniuses in the world of entertainment, but they are pure Wile E. Coyote when it comes to the nation's capital. In 1993, shortly before the travel office fiasco exploded, Thomason turned to a friend and made a prediction: Firing the career employees of the travel office, he said, would turn out to be his best idea since confetti at the convention. It'll be "a great press story," Thomason explained. "Bill Clinton cleaning up house."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.