May 23, 2003
Sidney Blumenthal, Author of "The Clinton Wars"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
"When in 1997 Bill Clinton appointed Sidney Blumenthal as a senior advisor, the former writer was catapulted into the front lines of the Clinton wars. From his first day in the White House until long after his appearance as the only presidential aide ever to testify in an impeachment trial, Blumenthal acted in or witnessed nearly all the battles of the Clinton years. His major new book -- part history, part memoir -- is the first inside account we have of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.
The Clinton Wars begins in 1987, when Blumenthal first met Bill and Hillary Clinton. His chronicle of Clinton's first presidential campaign and first term draws on his experiences as confidant to both the President and the First Lady, and is enriched with previously unpublished revelations about both. This remarkable personal interpretation goes far in explaining the polarizing nature of Clinton's presence on the national scene.
The narrative of Clinton's second term is even more dramatic. Blumenthal takes special note of the battle that was waged within the media between the President's detractors and defenders, which he expands into a vivid picture of Washington society torn apart by warring factions. But he does not neglect the wars fought on other fronts -- in Kosovo, against Congress, and for economic prosperity. His remarkable book ends with the inside story of the fight to elect Al Gore in 2000 and extend the legacy of the Clinton-Gore Administration.
Every page of this unrivaled, authoritative book, with its intimate insights into Clinton's personality and politics, attests to Blumenthal's literary skill, profound understanding of politics, and unique perspective on crucial events of our recent past. The Clinton Wars is a lasting contribution to American history."
That's the review of "The Clinton Wars" that appears on Amazon.com. You can purchase the book -- and support the work of BuzzFlash.com -- by going to http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/clintonwars.html.
And now, the BuzzFlash.com interview with Sidney Blumenthal:
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BUZZFLASH: In chapter 11 -- "In Starr's Chamber" -- of your book The Clinton Wars, you mention that when you were subpoenaed by Ken Starr, he, in essence, was invoking a legal doctrine that was similar to the infamous Sedition Act. What did you mean by that?
SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL: Ken Starr subpoenaed me not because he believed or knew that I had any knowledge whatsoever relevant to the matter he was investigating about Monica Lewinsky. I'd never met Monica Lewinsky. As far as I know, I've never been in the same physical space as her. He subpoenaed me because he was trying to make an example of me, to intimidate others to stop criticizing him.
I had many friends in the press corps, and I was talking to them about the punitive, unconstitutional and abusive partisan investigation that he was running. And I also knew that he had colluded with the right-wing lawyers -- the so-called elves -- around the Paula Jones case, and that there was, in fact, if not vast, a right-wing conspiracy. And that he had misled Attorney General Reno in getting an expansion of the probe. How did I know this? I knew it from David Brock, who was a former right-wing hit man who had turned against the right and still had contacts, and was telling me, in the White House, as an assistant to the President and senior adviser, all of his information.
By the end, really, of the first day that the scandal broke in the Washington Post, January 21, 1998, I knew from my conversations with Brock -- and then with another source that I developed named Bud Lemley, who was the financial manager for the American Spectator and had all their internal records on the Arkansas Project -- pretty much everything that they were doing and that was later revealed. And I was doing my best to make sure that that was reported by the press, and they were beginning to do it. Joe Conason, for example, in The New York Observer, broke the story on the Arkansas Project soon. And The New York Times ran a story.
BUZZFLASH: Let me get back to the Sedition Act. You say that Starr was trying to intimidate you.
BLUMENTHAL: Starr decided to indict me. Control over the press was essential to his investigation because it was a political operation he was illegally leaking to the press. It's illegal under the Code of Federal Prosecutors to give to the press information that has been or might be presented to the grand jury. He was using that sort of information, or what he purported to be that information, to mesmerize the press into publishing articles that were driving the Clinton White House to the wall and really trying to force the President to resign.
BUZZFLASH: And this was illegal?
BLUMENTHAL: This was absolutely illegal, and there was a case against it, of which I was one of three plaintiffs with Bruce Lindsey, who was deputy legal counsel, and the President. We filed a case and it went through many convoluted iterations in the courts about Starr's leaks. And in the end, the federal judge's ruling that Starr had leaked, and was in contempt of court, stands today. And that is the resolution of the whole matter, although no charges were ever brought against him. But it is a fact that that's what stands in history.
BUZZFLASH: Who would have brought charges if charges were brought?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, we dropped the case in the final resolution of all the legal matters involving all the investigations. The Independent Counsel had no case whatsoever against the President. And we just tied everything up together, although the judge's ruling still stands.
BUZZFLASH: Starr accused you of obstructing justice because you were merely talking to reporters.
BLUMENTHAL: Yes -- what happened was I got subpoenaed. Reporters were writing articles critical of Starr and his office and their tactics, and writing articles about who the prosecutors were, what their histories were as prosecutors. I was faxing those out to other reporters. Starr sent a subpoena that was an amazing document. It demanded all information from me about my contacts with members of the media, including my phone logs of all my conversations with every single reporter I had talked to. And I had to turn those over to the Independent Counsel.
Then I filed a motion to quash his subpoena, and Starr, in his argument, in a closed in-camera session in the court, argued that any criticism of him or his office constituted obstruction of justice. And it was on that basis, that Draconian argument -- in effect, Starr promulgating his very own sedition law reminiscent of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1797-98 that Jefferson and Madison railed against -- that I was hauled before the grand jury.
BUZZFLASH: And at some point in the chapter, "In Starr's Chamber," in The Clinton Wars, you mentioned that it became tragic farce at times -- that the Independent Counsel, at one point, accused the White House of leaking information that the Independent Counsel was actually leaking.
BLUMENTHAL: When I was in the grand jury, they asked me, tauntingly, "Isn't it true that you leaked the information to the press that was attributed to us, in order to get us blamed for illegally leaking?" I took to calling the whole courthouse and the grand jury room, "Kafka's waiting room."
BUZZFLASH: How did you feel in this moment? One day you waited, and they didn't call you in. They asked you back the next day, and finally you went in. You described the room as having fluorescent lighting, being very dreary. The grand jury panel is there. You're on a kind of beat-up aluminum chair. It's almost an interrogation setting.
BLUMENTHAL: It was like being in the black-and-white set of a very bad episode of Dragnet.
BUZZFLASH: You seemed to have been very committed to telling the truth and not being intimidated. But were you thinking at some point: Is this America? How did this happen?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, it was both absurd and, to some people there, a little frightening. There were some other White House aides, including some younger people, who were also being questioned when I was being questioned, and they were very upset and they were scared. And one of the people I met was Terry Lenzner who was a private investigator who had worked for the President's lawyers on a number of other matters. And the prosecutors wanted to accuse me of being in a conspiracy with Terry Lenzner. I met him in the waiting room -- I'd never met him before -- and I recognized him, and I said, "Terry, you know, they say we're in a conspiracy, but we'd never met before. Glad to meet you." I went in the room and they said, "Have you ever met Terry Lenzner?"
Afterwards, I went out and gave a speech on the courthouse steps. I said that I never expected in America to be called before a grand jury and demanded to know what I had told reporters and what they had told me. And I also said that if they think they've intimidated me, they have failed.
BUZZFLASH: You said, "Ken Starr's prosecutors demand to know what I had told reporters and what reporters had told me --
BUZZFLASH: "-- about Ken Starr's prosecutors. If they think they have intimidated me, they have failed. And if any journalist here or elsewhere wants to talk to me, I'll be glad to talk to you."
Some other people, because of their fears, just tried to run out through the back entrance because they were so scared and frightened. You took Starr head on and told the truth. Is there a lesson there in terms of dealing with the Bush administration or with any of the sort of bullying? Because, obviously Ken Starr was bullying and had run amok with the judicial process, but after your comment, Starr's favorability rating fell to 11 percent, and Clinton's reached 73 percent. And the more people seemed to take him on, the more his popularity, if you want to even call it, plummeted. It wasn't popularity; he had such little public approval. But obviously you chose the route of not saying "no comment," but rather taking it right to him.
BLUMENTHAL: The lesson is that it's always the right thing to stand up to bullies. Starr was trying to overthrow President Clinton. He was using his office in a politically driven operation to destroy the progressive policies and politics of the Clinton administration that were moving the country forward. That's the larger picture. That's what puts it in perspective. And that's what I understood at the time, and why I stood up. It was an easy choice to make for me.
BUZZFLASH: You mention that Starr basically, in our words, had decided with his staff that the President and Mrs. Clinton were guilty. All the Independent Counsel had to do was find a crime. And in the absence of a crime, they were still guilty. What were they guilty of in the mind of Ken Starr?
BLUMENTHAL: In the course of writing this book, I interviewed Sam Dash, who was hired by Ken Starr as his counselor to advise him on his prosecution. Dash was a Democrat. He was the Majority Counsel in the House Judiciary Committee in the impeachment hearings of Richard Nixon, and he was one of the early proponents of the Independent Counsel Act. Dash later quit to protest Starr's advocacy of impeachment before Henry Hyde's House Judiciary Committee because he thought that the Independent Counsel should never act as an advocate, but simply present the facts.
Dash told me that he reviewed every single prosecution memo on Whitewater, on the FBI files case, on the travel office -- on every single thing that they were investigating. And as he told me -- quote -- they had nothing. And he also told me that he told them that. He said: Zero plus zero plus zero equals zero. He urged them to drop it and to wrap up the investigation. That should have been their due diligence as professional prosecutors. They should have concluded the matter. That was their responsibility, their obligation. But they didn't listen to Dash.
Instead, as he explained to me and another prosecutor in Starr's office -- who spoke to me at great length on background -- they believed that the Clintons had to be guilty of something. Why? Because they had to be corrupt. They had to be evil. They had to be morally suspect, both of them -- both Bill and Hillary Clinton -- because of a matter of faith on the part of Ken Starr and his prosecutors that they were. It was the view not of American jurisprudence but of the Spanish Inquisition. In other words, identify the target and find a crime.
BUZZFLASH: But what was it that was motivating them, whether or not it was part of the right-wing conspiracy -- and we certainly would ascribe to that? But let's just look at Ken Starr and his chief assistants, who you say were self-described members of the Likud faction of the prosecution.
BUZZFLASH: What did they think? Given that they didn't have a crime, what did they think the President was guilty of?
BLUMENTHAL: They didn't know. They couldn't quite put their finger on it, but they kept trolling for it. And they were driven by deeply seated, conservative, cultural and partisan views toward the Clintons, which overrode their professional responsibilities to wrap the whole matter up. And that's what happened when the office of the Independent Counsel was captured by Starr, who filled the office with these kinds of hard-charging right-wingers.
BUZZFLASH: We've had two interviews with David Brock. We've interviewed Joe Conason. And this is something we keep coming back to because it's one of those factoids that gets lost in the nanosecond of news coverage that we're subject to now: Early on in the Clinton administration, before you joined the the White House staff, Robert Fisk was the Independent Counsel. And he was going to close down the Whitewater investigation and the Vince Foster investigation. He said there was nothing there.
And it was at that point that Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth met with Federal Judge David Sentelle, who headed the panel of judges that oversaw the Independent Counsel. And they, according to the story, replaced Fisk with Ken Starr for the purpose of continuing an investigation until something was found. And so it went on for years and years. Was there a point, in retrospect, even though you weren't with the administration at that time -- that this assault on democracy could been stopped?
BLUMENTHAL: Yes. The first Independent Counsel was, as you said, a man named Robert Fisk. He was a Republican -- a moderate Republican. He had great prosecutorial experience. He'd been the U.S. Attorney for the District of Southern New York. He had been a high Justice Department official. He had been head of the American Bar Association Review Committee on Federal Judges, including for the Supreme Court. He was disliked intensely by the right wing because they believed he was responsible for a negative review of Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination. But Fisk was incredibly fair-minded and professional. His deputy, Mark Touhy, tells me, and I relate in the book, that they would have wrapped this entire matter up by early 1996 and the Clintons would have been exonerated, just as they were by the Resolution Trust Corporation Report and all subsequent investigations. But Starr was installed.
When the Independent Counsel Act was up for renewal, there was a huge right-wing campaign mounted against Fisk, including by conservative pundits like William Safire and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. And it was said that Fisk had a conflict of interest because his law firm had once represented the International Paper Company that had once been involved in a loan with the Madison Guaranteed Bank that Jim McDougal had run. It's all getting very complex here. However, that's a very attenuated way of pushing Fisk out of the way. And then, Sentelle, who was head of the three-judge federal panel that appointed independent counsels, had met with Faircloth and Helms, and it seems clear to any astute observer that Starr was one of the results of that sort of pressure.
Starr, in the beginning, was considered to be fair-minded and judicious. He was well respected in the Washington establishment. However, Starr also had many connections to the conservative movement, including to the Paula Jones defense team, which he didn't make clear at the time of his appointment. Had he done so, it would have been a conflict of interest that would have eliminated him from consideration for the post. And so Starr was off on his hunt. Starr quit at one point, as you recall.
BUZZFLASH: Yes, to go to Pepperdine.
BLUMENTHAL: To go to Pepperdine to head a school that was funded by the Daddy Warbucks of the right wing, Richard Mellon Scaife. Then, once again, the same conservative pundits who had waged this raging campaign against Fisk were in a whirlwind about Starr quitting and demanded that he go back to the job and prosecute Clinton. And he did so under this pressure. And it was then, according to a report later in the Washington Post, that Starr began his sex hunt against Clinton and started interviewing the same uncorroborated stories that Paula Jones was after. And this was in February of 1997 -- before anyone knew a thing about Monica Lewinsky.
BUZZFLASH: On page 392, you say that "through it all, sex had been a tracer, a code. Clinton had been accused of miscegenation -- and ancient and recurrent theme -- in racist Southern politics, from the start of his career. In politics, sex is rarely just about sex. The prudish and pedantic Starr was setting off cultural depth charges." What were the cultural depth charges that you're referring to?
BLUMENTHAL: Clinton was hated because he represented the 60's to the right. He represented all the social movements. He represented shaking up all the old rules. His wife was the first professional woman to be a First Lady. She was an equal. He represented the women's movement that shook up the idea that women should have a subservient, secondary role. And he was also for women's rights, abortion rights and gay rights.
Now the truth is that Bill Clinton, as a political figure, was trying to curb the excesses of the 60's that had tarred the Democratic Party and move it towards the center. Yet to the right, he represented those very excesses. And their cultural war -- their culture war, as Henry Hyde called it -- their symbolic battle against Clinton -- blinded them and took precedence over the fact that there were never any crimes committed.
BUZZFLASH: And Paul Begala, whom we interviewed, mentioned that of all recent administrations, the Clinton administration actually had far fewer convictions of administration members than recent Republican administrations.
BLUMENTHAL: I'll just read you something. If you look at page 791 of the book, you'll see what I say about that. In fact, there wasn't a single top official of the Clinton administration convicted of any crime involving public conduct in office. And, you know, the only official ever convicted of anything was the chief of staff to the Secretary of Agriculture, who was convicted of lying under oath in a failed prosecution that cost $21 million by an independent counsel. By contrast, 27 officials of the Nixon administration were convicted in Watergate, and 32 members of the Reagan administration convicted of crimes committed in Iran Contra and other scandals. So that's quite a contrast. And everything that Clinton was accused of in terms of crimes turned out to be bogus.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask you as a final question: How did you, the President and Mrs. Clinton cope with the effort to demonize everyone? You were included; the New York Post called you Sid Vicious. To this day, Regnery Press is publishing books that demonize Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton is still fodder for sites like Newsmax and the right wing. Bill Clinton's not in office, and they still are blaming everything on him. There's a level of emotionalism on the part of the right wing that sees people like yourself and people like the Clintons as evil, basically. And I note in your book you said at one point Bill Clinton was writing notes on newspaper articles, saying: astounding, unbelievable. How did you cope with that? Do you understand it yet? Were you able to contain your emotions?
BLUMENTHAL: The attacks on me and others, and especially the Clintons, but many others in the White House, were intensely personal. Drudge lied about me and my wife, claimed I'd beat her and hid police records falsely. It was a completely false report that was politically inspired to try and smear me and take me out of my job on my first day. And it went on from there. I was accused of all sorts of things. The New York Post ran a headline calling me Bill's Dirt Devil. On that day, I introduced myself to my colleagues by citing Mick Jagger from "Sympathy for the Devil" -- "Please allow me to introduce myself."
Hillary Clinton gave me the best advice I had about all that. She said, "Remember, it's never about you." Well then, what is it about? It was about the President. It was about the progressive program that we were pursuing for the country. And it was about the Constitution. Ultimately, that's what it was really about. That's why they attacked us. That's why it was so personal, too. They were trying to upset us, trying to damage us personally. But there was a larger political agenda at work here. And if you understood that, you could achieve some detachment and stand up and fight for everything that we believed in.
BUZZFLASH: Sidney, thank you very much.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
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