On the Frenzy Over Sidney Blumenthal

We all have our flaws. But the conversion of one man’s name into shorthand for “what we don’t like about the Clintons” is out of control, and unfair.

Sidney Blumenthal (Wikipedia)

When David Carr of the New York Times died, shockingly, a few months ago, the journalistic world showed its collective grief. Understandably so: David Carr, whom I knew and very much liked, was an enormously big-hearted man, who confessed rather than concealed his many weaknesses (starting with years as a drug addict) and became the fallible and therefore more compelling conscience and inspiration of our business. To a degree he would have lampooned had he been around to watch it, what was bad about him was forgotten, in the mourning for the loss of so much that was good.

I mention this as a reminder that we’re all mixed creatures, and we hope that the good in us gets at least equal billing with the inevitable bad.

Something like the opposite of the David Carr effect is now going on with Sidney Blumenthal, who is at the center of a “scandal” involving emails he sent to Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State. Anything good or even non-Machiavellian about him is melting away, the better to sharpen the impression of a cartoon villain.

I’ve known Sidney Blumenthal since we were aspiring reporters together in our 20s. He and his wife Jackie have been good family friends through the years. We’ve sometimes disagreed, most sharply during the 2008 presidential campaign. He was working hard for Hillary Clinton; I thought Barack Obama was the better choice, mainly because of the two candidates’ different judgments about the Iraq war. But it’s the rare friend with whom you’ve never disagreed. And through those years, in addition to counting the Blumenthals as our friends, I’ve respected and admired the best of what Sid has done in his writing.

What is that best? His chronicles of the shift of American politics rightward during the Reagan era stand up very well. The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, published nearly 30 years ago, deserves re-reading as a guide to the politics of our times. How Bush Rules, ten years ago, looks all the better with the passing years. And The Permanent Campaign defines the era in which we live. I have not read his upcoming multi-volume series on Abraham Lincoln, but Simon and Schuster clearly believes in it and is putting a big push behind it.

Like David Carr, like me, like all of us, Sidney Blumenthal has his flaws. Even more than Carr or me, he has not cared about making enemies. But the way in which his name has become a shorthand for “something we don’t like about the Clintons,” or “something we don’t like about politics,” or simply “something we don’t like about Sid” is out of control, and really unfair. Even the steadfast loyalty to friends-and-institutions that was celebrated as one more virtue in David Carr’s case is one more count against Sidney Blumenthal.

I hope you will read Joe Conason’s detailed piece in Politico, which goes into specifics about the gap between what “everyone knows” is scandalous in Sid Blumenthal’s relationship with the Clintons, and what has actually been demonstrated by facts. For instance: Everyone “knows” that Sid had “business interests” in Libya, but in fact he has not been involved commercially in any activities there, at all. Additional note: It is usually a sign of canniness in a public official, rather than the reverse, to keep channels open to friends who predate the official’s time in office. This is something we celebrate in leaders from Lincoln to FDR. I am not equating Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, to Lincoln or FDR in the White House. I am saying that it’s usually a virtue to have information coming from many sources, as was happening in this case.

Again, Sidney Blumenthal has his flaws, and more than his share of enemies. But think for a minute how you’d react if, without proof, someone you knew as a person-in-the-round was being caricatured as a flat-out villain. (Yes, I know that I’ve portrayed former VP Dick Cheney as a flat-out villain. But that is based on things everyone agrees he has said and done.) I think this caricaturing is happening to Sidney Blumenthal right now, and it is not fair.