When Sid met Jim

The Rogan-Blumenthal showdown could be the most important confrontation in the impeachment trial.

Published February 3, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The most dramatic face-off between House prosecutors and witnesses in the Clinton impeachment trial was not Monday, when Monica Lewinsky was interviewed for the 23rd time. Her lawyers had prepared her to say nothing in her private session that could convince senators they needed to see her testify live before the nation. And it wasn't when Vernon Jordan had his meeting with House prosecutors on Tuesday. Jordan is too cool and savvy to give up a morsel.

But Wednesday, when Rep. James E. Rogan questions Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal, the heat of the Republican right will meet the guile of the Democratic left -- with potentially combustible consequences.

Both Rogan and Blumenthal are true believers; they are political and personal opposites. And neither is on very solid ground in the current mess.

Blumenthal is a well-known character here in the capital and now on the national stage, where the Clinton-Lewinsky affair has been playing for more than a year. He's been a member of the journalistic and political elite since the 1980s, first as a writer for the Washington Post, then for the New Yorker and the New Republic. He's a playwright. In the Clinton White House, he's known as a loyal political knife fighter who would use whatever means necessary to protect Bill and Hillary.

The Republicans believe the Chicago-born Blumenthal is also the dirty trickster who planted the stories about the sexual indiscretions of Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston, though neither actually came from Blumenthal. On a personal level, Blumenthal, 50, is a well-bred, well-educated intellectual who comes off as smug to an objectionable degree to his critics, and even to some of his friends. Taking Blumenthal's testimony was a gamble for the Republicans. His Ivy League cool might let him survive the ordeal unruffled; or his partisan ire could get the better of him, provoking the unscripted eruption House managers were praying for when they put him on the witness list.

Rogan is Blumenthal's antithesis, a hardcore, hardscrabble Republican who just finished his first two-year term in Congress. He was born out of wedlock to a cocktail waitress and came up rough in San Francisco's Mission District. Rogan told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that he made his entrance into the world when his mother "got pregnant by the bartender who then didn't marry her." He was raised on welfare. He was a high school dropout. He was a Democrat who learned politics from his longshoreman grandfather.

But Rogan righted himself, completed high school, got a political science degree from UC-Berkeley in 1979 and then a law degree at UCLA -- and became a Republican. He stayed in Southern California and acted out his political junkie tendencies by running for office. He won a seat in the California Assembly, rose to majority leader and in 1996 took the congressional seat in the Los Angeles suburbs of Glendale and Pasadena.

Word is Rogan's a born-again Christian. Rogan says he just goes to church at times.

"I'm not quite sure what that means," he told the Chronicle. "I bartended my way through law school and I was a bouncer in an adult theater in Canoga Park for three days ... so I didn't exactly come from a prudish background."

It was Rogan's legal background that got him a seat on the Judiciary Committee and a leading role in Clinton's impeachment. In Los Angeles he served as a deputy district attorney and later became California's youngest sitting judge. Now he's a star on CNN, C-Span and the floor of the House and Senate, where he took the floor to make the closing arguments for Clinton's removal from office.

And Wednesday, Jim Rogan takes on Sid Blumenthal.

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Blumenthal is thought to be a loose cannon by some White House aides. True, he's unequivocally loyal to the Clintons, but he is also rabidly dedicated to the proposition that a right-wing conspiracy is at work in the smearing of this president. He is high-strung and temperamental. Could Jim Rogan pull enough strings to get Blumenthal to pop off?

Blumenthal apparently testified before the grand jury that Clinton denied having an affair with "that woman," and told him that Lewinsky was the aggressive "stalker" in the scenario. Blumenthal is supposed to have then spread that version of events to journalists. Rogan and other House prosecutors see this as part of Clinton's attempt to obstruct justice.

If there's a danger for Clinton in the Rogan-Blumenthal face-off, it's that Blumenthal will reveal more details that could raise new questions and open the door for the House prosecutors to demand live testimony before the Senate. There's also a danger to Blumenthal: If he denies spreading the stalker story to journalists, and even one journalist comes forward to contradict him, he could face more time before Ken Starr's

But Rogan faces his own dangers -- of a political nature. He barely won office in 1996, with 50.3 percent of the vote. He won last year with 50.8 percent. His district becomes more Democratic by the month, with an influx of Latinos and Asians. The latest polls in his district, taken by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, make him look like a loser.

Approval rating: Clinton, 69 percent; Rogan, 45 percent.

Likely to vote for Rogan again, 34 percent; anyone else, 37 percent.

Less likely to vote for Rogan because he voted to impeach Clinton: 39 percent; after seeing his role as a House manager, 44 percent.

Rogan's weakness is certain to be exploited by the Democrats in 2000, when they hope to take back the House on the strength of the public's reaction against the impeachment debacle. Rogan is likely to be the bull's eye of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the next election. But he is such a true believer in Clinton's guilt on both charges that he's told many interviewers he's willing to stand on principle, damn the political costs.

Sid Blumenthal and Jim Rogan have at least one thing in common: Neither is very well-liked right now in his home territory. But only one of them can emerge from Wednesday's confrontation better off than he entered it.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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