The dark prince

House managers are hoping that deposing right-wing whipping boy Sidney Blumenthal will expose a hidden world of presidential dirty tricks. Don't bet on it.


Joshua Micah Marshall
January 29, 1999 9:32PM (UTC)

On Wednesday, as expected, the Senate voted down the motion to dismiss the charges against the president and approved the House managers' proposal to depose three witnesses, both by near-party line votes of 54-46 (Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin was the lone Democratic defector). But for all the talk of the struggle between Republicans and Democrats, the most intriguing battle is the one taking place between Senate Republicans and their House colleagues.

Republican senators now seem intent on bringing the trial to a conclusion as soon as possible. But they need cover. Their three-witness proposal -- deposing Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal -- which the Senate GOP muscled the House managers into accepting last weekend, is their attempt at an exit strategy that will satisfy their conservative base that they haven't cut and run or left the House managers out to dry.

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If they can squeak by with just three witnesses and an up or down vote on the articles of impeachment and have the whole episode over by next Friday, they can get impeachment behind them with a minimum of damage. One Republican insider used a military metaphor to describe the situation: The Senate Republicans want to withdraw their forces, but they need cover to pull out their troops. The House managers are anything but happy with this measly haul. On the Senate floor, Henry Hyde called the truncated witness list "pitiful." House and Senate Republicans are clearly at odds: By deposing only Lewinsky, Jordan and Blumenthal, senators are hoping they can light the witness fuse, but snuff it out before it blows up in their face. The House managers, of course, are hoping for just the opposite -- that the witnesses trigger an explosion that will finally force the Senate, if not the country, to take their campaign against the president seriously.

The managers' hope for a blow-up centers almost entirely on Sidney Blumenthal, the far-right's whipping boy and alleged Dark Prince of smears against the Republicans. Blumenthal nudged sure-bet Betty Currie off the proposed witness list, which at first glance seemed puzzling. But Currie promised to be a tough witness who had stuck to her testimony that Monica Lewinsky initiated the return of presidential gifts. Plus, the House managers had to dread the prospect of interrogating a kindly, loyal middle-aged government employee in the well of the Senate. That she happens to be black, and would face a squad of right-wing, disproportionately Southern interrogators, was a public relations disaster waiting to happen.

Blumenthal is a much better witness for the House. The supposed reason for calling him is to have him confirm that Clinton told him Lewinsky was a "stalker" after the story of their affair surfaced. This, in the managers' reasoning, supports the obstruction of justice charge against the president, since Clinton knew Blumenthal might be called to testify before the grand jury. Further, Clinton didn't amend his story when Blumenthal was in fact subpoenaed. Most legal experts see Blumenthal's role in buttressing the obstruction charge as very flimsy.

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But the managers clearly have a political as well as legal agenda in calling Blumenthal. Deposing him lets them delve into Blumenthal's alleged role as the White House's leaker in chief of salacious gossip. Over the course of the last year Blumenthal has become the bête noire of conservatives who believe him responsible for almost every negative story that has surfaced about Republicans, from Henry Hyde's youthful indiscretions to a range of other reported sexual hi-jinks by GOP congressmembers. This makes Blumenthal an attractive witness for two reasons. Grilling him is red meat for conservatives, whatever he says. And it also lets them pry into what they can find out about other White House dirty tricks. If he testifies about other White House shenanigans, they reason, the momentum of the trial could change dramatically. And if he refuses to testify about certain issues, the tenor of the proceedings could instantly become deeply polarized as they try to compel his testimony.

There's only one problem. Despite Blumenthal's reputation as a consummate White House leaker and peddler of stories to the press, he's actually clean on most of the charges that conservatives have charged him with. According to one reporter who's covered the Lewinsky scandal, "If they hope to castigate Sid for polluting the political discourse by outing Henry Hyde, Dan Burton, Bob Livingston, etc., they will look dumb. Sid is clean on these matters." While William Kristol of the right-wing Weekly Standard boasted of "outing" Blumenthal as the source of the Hyde story -- which first appeared, for the record, in Salon -- journalists who tracked the story, including those at Salon, have all cleared Blumenthal. A feature in the December/January Brill's Content, "Who's Vicious Now?" concluded that while many of Blumenthal's detractors "are thrilled at the chance -- legitimate or not -- to watch him squirm," none of the charges of spreading sexual stories about Republicans had any merit.

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Certainly Blumenthal is known for faxing friendly reporters his take on current events. And he is no doubt a partisan street fighter. "Sid believes in the right-wing conspiracy," says the same Washington reporter, "and he can do what the first lady cannot -- which is do battle with the right." He was the source of published reports that the president considered Monica Lewinsky a "stalker" -- but he admitted as much in his grand jury testimony. It's not clear what more the House managers hope to gain.

Moreover, admirers and enemies alike agree that whatever one can say about him, Blumenthal is brilliant. And despite a reputation for arrogance and a hot temper -- displayed in a September press conference when he blasted reports that he was the source of anti-Republican smears -- those who know him agree that he can be cool and affable when it counts. And it will never count more than during a deposition in a trial that could remove his boss, friend and sponsor, President Clinton.

Even with Wednesday's vote to call witnesses, Democrats may still get essentially what they want -- a rapid end to the trial, with witnesses deposed behind closed doors. That may explain the lack of a dramatic response from Senate Democrats after today's session, and Sen. Tom Daschle's relatively accommodating statements about negotiating procedures for the deposition of witnesses. For all the talk about how senators are notoriously independent operators, the Senate Republican caucus has actually demonstrated a remarkable degree of party discipline -- fending off erosions of support on both the right and the left. And they've managed to fashion a pared-down witness list, with private depositions only, and yet not have the House managers revolt.

But the moment of truth is still yet to come. Until now, for House Republicans, impeachment has meant not only never having to say you're sorry, but also never having to say it's over. At every stage that the crisis has seemed to trend toward its inevitable denouement, House Republicans have insisted on taking it to the next level. And the conservative activist core of the party has always threatened to crucify those who tried to shut it down. When Republican senators try to end the trial after the three witnesses are privately deposed, they are sure to face demands for more from the managers. At that point, they'd finally have to say it's over, and send "blue collar" Henry Hyde to shuffle off into that great good night, as he promised. Whether they'll be able to finally do that remains an open question.

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Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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