Score-settling season

It's a bad time for the New York Times, but good for anyone wanting an inside account of the toxic political atmosphere of fin de siecle Washington.

Published May 23, 2003 1:30AM (EDT)

The spring media betrayal season has arrived, and it's one of the best in years. Let's see -- there's the daring, desperate deceitfulness of the journalistic bounder Jayson Blair. There's newly minted novelist Stephen Glass, cashing in for a second time on the extravagant fabrications that got him bounced from the New Republic. There's "The Devil Wears Prada," the bitchy roman à clef by Anna Wintour's ex-assistant-from-hell at Vogue, Lauren Weisberger, set in the gulag of the Condé Nast fashion closet.

And now the 800-page memoir of the former journalist and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, in which his erstwhile friend Christopher Hitchens (boo hiss!) plays the role of Whittaker Chambers. My head is spinning with cries of J'accuse!

Perhaps the amping up of the vogue for unreliable memoirs is the Internet's fault. It makes everyone the star of their own media soap opera. In a piece in last Sunday's New York Times about the rash of "bloggers" who pour uncensored play-by-plays of their private lives onto the Web, one of them, a Brooklyn theatrical producer named Jonathan Van Gieson, pleasantly comments that he now gives his friends pseudonyms in his weblogs to "toe the line between simple harmless betrayal of trust and nasty actionable libel." (As in, "Let's get together tonight for a simple harmless betrayal of trust.")

Blumenthal's book, "The Clinton Wars," uses real names. It's a compellingly feral account of the toxic political atmosphere that swirled around fin de siècle Washington. It captures the sensibility as much as the happenings of that deeply nasty era of Republican recklessness and Clintonian fecklessness. It traces the pedigree of every poisoned dart, every malevolent gambit of the Republican Savonarola Kenneth Starr. In one of these episodes Hitchens rats out Blumenthal to the special prosecutor for supposedly smearing Monica Lewinsky as a stalker in a conversation between old comrades that was either a routine gossip session over a liquid lunch or part of a White House plot to save a depraved president by destroying an innocent damsel, depending on whom you believe.

In Sid's version, Hitchens is an inexplicable Judas driven by dark, mysterious compulsions to seek attention any way he can get it. Sounds right, actually. In a media world where every Op-Ed position must be conceived as a cable TV niche, Hitchens knows that his brand is Mr. Counterintuitive Contrarian, and he has always done it better than anyone else. Blumenthal's book will give him another juicy opportunity for political vaudeville. It has already set off a rash of score settling from all the bloggers, polemicists and literary journalists in the payback business.

Blumenthal has always excited strong feelings. When I was editing the New Yorker and Sid was our chief Washington correspondent, I was constantly having to arbitrate disputes in the bureau over his Democratic partisanship that allegedly got in the way of other writers' coverage of the Clinton White House. That rancor continues to run deep. In Washington last month at the funeral of the columnist and editor Mike Kelly -- who also covered the Washington beat for us at the time -- one of the mourners told me she had been asked to oversee Blumenthal's ejection if he showed up at the church. (In one of the many lively moments in the book, Kelly's belief that Blumenthal is spying on his copy for the first lady has him shouting, "You fucking asshole!" down the phone at Sid.) Despite all the aggravation in the bureau, I still have a soft spot for Sidney. At the Oxford Union-type public debates we sometimes used to stage at the New Yorker, it was always a touchingly Clark Kent moment when, just before striding to the podium, Sid would take off his glasses.

Blumenthal was absolutely right, of course, back in 1995 to keep insisting -- almost alone, and in the face of the frenzy of the press pack and my own anxiety about missing the bus -- that the allegations of Clinton corruption in the Whitewater affair were a big load of nothing. On the other hand, he was absolutely wrong to maintain -- as he put it with maddening loftiness -- that "It's not a story." Not a scandal, perhaps, but not a story? A cabal of right-wing fanatics manipulates the press, the judiciary, and the FBI to the point of nearly destroying a president and it's not a story? It was a helluva story -- as Sidney's book amply shows. And the story isn't over yet, as the Clinton wars continue to be fought in the reviews.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, for example, Joseph Lelyveld, the former executive editor of the New York Times, devotes a huge chunk of space to a haughty, patronizing and not especially convincing defense of his old paper's Whitewater coverage. I guess if you're a condescending Times editor, maybe it's not your week.

As I doubt even he would bother to deny, Sid was in the tank for the Clintons. (He just thought the tank was full of Evian.) The truth is, I would have been more tolerant of Sid being in the tank if it had delivered the New Yorker a string of scoops. The big problem with being relentlessly nice to politicians or even just fair and balanced is that they repay you by never giving you any real news. Their press secretaries save the red meat to throw off the back of the sled at the ravening wolves from the Washington Post. Why else would G.W. Bush invite scary Bob Woodward in to write an authorized account of the buildup to the invasion of Afghanistan? So he doesn't write the other book, the one where all the enemies talk. The Clinton White House knew Sid was the Democrats' samurai so they went elsewhere to break their hottest stories.

This created a problem with Sid's stuff as far as I was concerned. V hot it was not. But the book cooks.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Bookmark Tina Brown here

By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

MORE FROM Tina Brown

Related Topics ------------------------------------------