It started with a friend's betrayal -- Linda Tripp's of Monica Lewinsky -- and it may end with one. In what seem to be the waning days of the Clinton scandal, as senators look for a way to end the trial, Washington has been riveted by journalist (and sometime Salon contributor) Christopher Hitchens' decision to submit an affidavit to Republican trial managers swearing that his old friend, presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal, described Lewinsky as a "stalker" over lunch last March, contrary to Blumenthal's own sworn deposition in the trial last week.
Hitchens' accusations have elicited bipartisan calls for a Justice Department investigation of Blumenthal. But the legal ramifications of his act may, in the end, be minor. What's certain is that the topic has stunned liberal Washington, providing what writer Christopher Buckley has called "a Chambers vs. Hiss moment," referring to the controversy that divided liberals in the 1950s. Buckley is certainly exaggerating -- it's unlikely anyone will be writing books about this decades from now -- but the Hitchens-Blumenthal split has surprised people who know both men well. Their 15-year friendship was well known in Washington, despite Hitchens' increasingly bitter antipathy toward Blumenthal's boss. Their families regularly socialized, and Hitchens attended Blumenthal's last birthday party and toasted his friend warmly.
One journalist who is friends with both men told Salon that Hitchens' decision to attack Blumenthal publicly is due to his "extreme bitterness" over Clinton's ability to slip the noose in the Lewinsky mess. Mutual friends within the liberal and left journalistic community have persistently resisted Hitchens' often diabolical estimation of the president, this friend said, and Hitchens has grown increasingly strident, and vocal, in questioning their sanity and their integrity.
Hitchens himself has said that in the course of researching a Nation column on Blumenthal's overzealous defense of Clinton, he mentioned their March lunch to some Republicans. Then he got a phone call from House Judiciary Committee counsel Susan Bogart, who -- surprise, surprise -- had heard of his claims. She asked him to make a sworn statement, which he did, though he has said repeatedly he will never testify against Blumenthal should he be charged with perjury.
And perjury is what Republicans have been trying to pin on Blumenthal. It is true that for many months the buzz within journalistic circles was that Blumenthal had peddled various disparaging stories about Lewinsky to the media. And Hitchens repeated that charge Sunday on "Meet the Press." "I would say most of the people I know in the profession who heard that story," Hitchens told host Tim Russert, "they knew it either directly or indirectly from Mr. Blumenthal." But, to date, none but Hitchens have come forward. On Monday a friend of Hitchens' submitted an affidavit swearing that Hitchens told him of his lunch with Blumenthal where the presidential aide smeared Lewinsky, but no journalists have joined Hitchens in revealing that Blumenthal was the source of such stories.
Blumenthal has not specifically denied that he discussed the Lewinsky-as-stalker theory in his March 17 lunch with Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue. His statement over the weekend denied that he was a "source for any story about Monica Lewinsky's personal life." (Hitchens did not return phone calls.) The core of Blumenthal's defense seems to be that literally hundreds of stories describing Lewinsky as a "stalker" had already run in the media before his lunch with Hitchens. Though Blumenthal has said he has no specific recollection of the lunch meeting, he says he would have considered such a lunch with his "then-friend" Hitchens a social event, not a professional meeting. This would mean that he was telling the truth when he said in his trial deposition that he had only talked about the Lewinsky mess "with friends and family."
Several Blumenthal defenders have observed that if the presidential aide had wanted to plant the stalker story with a journalist, Hitchens would have been his last choice. The British journalist is open in his utter contempt for the president, and it would stand to reason that if Blumenthal were going to leak the story into the press he would leak it to reporters who have been more supportive of Clinton
Three such reporters contacted by Salon on Monday categorically deny that Blumenthal ever relayed any such story to them. Lars-Erik Nelson, the New York Daily News columnist who has been sympathetic to the White House through most of the last year, says Blumenthal never smeared Lewinsky. "I am baffled by it," he told Salon late Monday afternoon when asked for his thoughts about Hitchens' accusation. Though he had been talking with him "continually throughout the past year," Nelson said, Blumenthal had never mentioned Clinton's stalker story.
Veteran New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said the same thing. Though he had spoken with Blumenthal on only a few occasions, he said, Blumenthal had "never" relayed the stalker story Clinton had told Blumenthal in January.
New York Observer and Salon columnist Joe Conason told Salon Monday afternoon that Blumenthal "never mentioned" the stalker story. Conason, who said that Blumenthal had last week "specifically released him" from any confidences related to their conversations, said that he had spoken to Blumenthal on numerous occasions regarding the Lewinsky scandal, and specifically asked him for any information that might lead him to believe that the president and not Lewinsky was telling the truth. But Blumenthal would say only that he "believed the president." In his Salon column this week, Conason revealed that Republicans had contacted other journalists, including Arkansas writer Gene Lyons, to see if they had received any "stalker" stories from Blumenthal. Those efforts came up dry.
So what's going on here? Are we apt to see a Kathleen Willey vs. Julie Hiatt Steele battle of wills over who's telling the truth? Probably not. A close look at just what each man has said leads to the conclusion that the facts actually in dispute may be minimal or even non-existent. In fact, even Hitchens told Russert on "Meet the Press" that from what he saw on the deposition videotape, Blumenthal "has not lied to Congress."
Blumenthal told the House managers at his deposition that he had never revealed to anyone -- save his wife -- his conversation with the president in which Clinton said that Monica was known as a stalker. He also said that he was not the source for any story that depicted Monica as a stalker. He did say, however, that he had spoken with "friends about what was in the news stories every day, just like everyone else, but when it came to talking about her personally, I drew a line."
By March 17, when Hitchens says he discussed the matter with Blumenthal over lunch, more than 400 stories had been published that included some version of the Lewinsky-as-stalker story. So it seems conceivable that the two men discussed the issue of Lewinsky being described as a stalker -- and both would still be telling the truth in their sworn statements of the last week.
Sources familiar with various aspects of the case, reached late Monday afternoon, expressed doubt whether the entire question would ever lead to an indictment of Blumenthal, or anything more than a perfunctory investigation of the matter by Justice Department lawyers. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr is known to loathe Blumenthal, and would no doubt love to get his prosecutorial powers around Blumenthal, but he has no jurisdiction in the matter.
One staffer from the office of a conservative Republican senator, who is no friend of the president, told Salon that there had as yet been little serious discussion among Republican senators of pressing the matter with the Justice department. "It's up to the Justice Department," the staffer told Salon. "There's not much people on the Hill can do about it." House manager Henry Hyde pushed to introduce the Hitchens affidavit into the record of the impeachment trial, but the move was blocked by the Senate.
Like so many peripheral developments in the course of the scandal, the Blumenthal-Hitchens episode seems -- at least at this point -- destined to live only briefly in bold headlines. But the underlying passions and bitterness the scandal has loosed, and the severed friendships and associations it has left in its wake, may turn out to be the most enduring consequences of the entire drama.