Joe Conason's Journal

Michael Isikoff loses his cool, and pays backhanded tribute to Sid Blumenthal in his review of "The Clinton Wars."

Published May 21, 2003 9:24PM (EDT)

Down memory lane with Mike
The editors of Slate did Sidney Blumenthal an unintentional service today by publishing Michael Isikoff's seething response to "The Clinton Wars"; his review displays the Washington mind-set that is a principal theme of Blumenthal's controversial memoir: The capital press corps remains righteous, long after being proved utterly wrong.

Aside from (again) noting my friendship with Blumenthal, I should also say that despite strong disagreements, I've long regarded Isikoff as a highly capable reporter. During his career he has investigated many politicians of both parties, frequently producing significant scoops. Usually, he is capable of a calm, rational approach to his quarry.

Somewhere between his desire to "uncover" Bill Clinton and his dealings with Kenneth Starr, however, Isikoff permanently lost his cool on certain subjects. Even now, he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the Whitewater scandal and the Paula Jones case he labored to promote were an awful waste of time and resources -- or worse, manipulations in a right-wing scheme to undermine Clinton's presidency.

Isikoff admits upfront that he's a highly interested party on the subject of Sid. That permits him to complain bitterly that his Lewinsky reporting is "repeatedly maligned" in "The Clinton Wars." But although there is no topic on which Isikoff possesses greater expertise than his own work, he offers not a single specific refutation of Blumenthal's criticisms.

Instead, he introduces his review with a recycled smear that should be beneath him. Based on an offhand remark about Rep. Henry Hyde's ancient "reputation" as a skirt-chasing lawyer in Chicago, Isikoff insinuates that Blumenthal was somehow implicated in Salon's famous exposé of Hyde's past adultery. (He also seizes the opportunity to drag in his nemesis Jeffrey Toobin, whom he accuses of "trolling for dirt.") Then the reporter who spent nearly a decade in deep scrutiny of Bill Clinton's sex life upbraids Blumenthal as "a hypocrite" for gossiping idly about Hyde! Coming from him, this sudden burst of indignation lacks credibility.

As Isikoff knows very well, the Hyde story had been circulated among dozens of journalists -- by a Florida retiree who had befriended the still-furious ex-husband cuckolded by the congressman -- long before it appeared in Salon. Indeed Salon editor David Talbot, who wrote the Hyde exposé, stated emphatically at the time -- and still does -- that he was tipped off about Hyde by the Florida senior, and that no one in the Clinton administration ever communicated with him about the congressman. Isikoff undoubtedly understands that Blumenthal had nothing to do with that story's appearance in Salon, but in his Slate review, he casually "rearranges facts" to "besmirch the character" of his enemy. That Isikoff would even try to revive this discredited tale only serves to underline Blumenthal's searing account of the repeated, calculated and often hysterical smears against him and his family.

Isikoff also retrieves an old chestnut from his book, "Uncovering Clinton" -- namely, his belief that Blumenthal somehow "misled" the public at a co-press conference following his grand jury confrontation with Starr's prosecutors. Isikoff and I debated this question after I reviewed his book for Salon in 1999. As Blumenthal recounts in great detail on Pages 420-423 of "The Clinton Wars," the Starr prosecutors questioned him closely about his contacts with the media. Specifically, OIC deputy counsel William Bittmann asked whether he had distributed a news clipping about another OIC prosecutor.

When Blumenthal forthrightly replied that he had done so, Bittman asked: "To whom?" The answer -- in which Blumenthal named "some of the reporters and editors to whom I'd sent it" -- was blacked out in the grand jury transcript later released by Starr's office. So, contrary to Isikoff, he was indeed required to name journalists in the grand jury. And Isikoff conveniently forgets that the OIC forced Blumenthal to hand over all his phone logs and other records naming reporters he had contacted since joining the White House staff.

Isikoff's most plausible criticism of Blumenthal is that the former White House aide dismisses the campaign-finance scandals that disfigured Clinton's second term too casually. While it is true that no member of the administration was indicted for any crime, and that many of the accusations were wildly exaggerated, it's also undeniable that many of the fundraising practices indulged in by the president and his party during the 1996 election cycle were malodorous, if not illegal. But then Isikoff rather too easily yokes together all the "Clinton scandals," as if the campaign-finance abuses could retroactively justify the mainstream media's grossly biased, often inaccurate reporting on Whitewater.

But Isikoff rarely allows himself to be distracted from the trivial. Discussing Blumenthal's advice to Hillary Clinton about Washington Post reporter Susan Schmidt, he suggests that it was somehow wrong for the Clintons or their staff to contest that bias. Apparently Isikoff cherishes the conceit that any such effort by the Clinton White House was "vaguely Nixonian" -- a phrase that conjures sinister memories of wiretaps and black-bag jobs. Creating a "dossier" of Susan Schmidt's mistakes might or might not be deemed worthwhile by a press secretary, but it hardly evokes Watergate, except in the fevered imaginings of the Whitewater press posse.

As a leading honcho in that posse, Isikoff insistently ignores arguments that might embarrass him now. An innocent reader of his review would think Blumenthal's only reason for doubting Whitewater was that Hillary Clinton claimed to be innocent. In fact, Blumenthal painstakingly dissects both the scandal allegations and the press coverage of those charges. It is telling indeed that at this very late date, Isikoff can't or won't confront those larger issues, preferring to carp about irrelevancies like the Schmidt "dossier."

At the end, Isikoff admonishes Blumenthal for indulging in an "orgy of political spin," perhaps presuming that nobody will recall how and when he lost his own journalistic virginity.

Elsewhere on the rapidly expanding Blumenthal beat, Bob Somerby asks how Time's reviewer can find "The Clinton Wars" at once "dull, predictable" and "surprisingly convincing."
[7:30 p.m. PDT, May 21, 2003]

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