Martin Walker is caught in the middle of an extraordinary political feud between two of his closest friends, Christopher Hitchens and Sidney Blumenthalby Martin Walker / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Despite being an intensely partisan and political city, Washington seldom allows politics to get in the way of personal relations. Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the most liberal of US politicians, has always got on rather well with the conservative Senator Phil Gramm and the two cooperated discreetly in some of the procedural manoeuvres in the impeachment process. Republican friends who despise Bill Clinton helped arrange a lavish party for the launch of my own favourable book about him, The President They Deserve. And White House officials, such as George Stephanopoulos and Sidney Blumenthal, held a special affection for Christopher Hitchens and wined and dined with him often, despite the visceral loathing he expressed for Clinton in his columns in The Nation.
But Washington is a warped city, lacking industry, show business and high finance. The biggest private employer was the Washington Post, until it was overtaken by a local supermarket chain. In the absence of competing glamour the only stars of the incestuous capital are the politicians and the media, who bask in the mutual reflection of their artificial glory. In this most media-intensive theatre of American life, any row between big names in journalism-which would be forgotten in Britain after a brief flurry in Private Eye-can assume awesome proportions.
This helps to explain the extraordinary feud which blew up this winter between two of my closest friends in the city. Christopher Hitchens and I go back three decades, to our first meeting at Balliol, and he was an incomparable best man at my wedding. Indeed, I spent my wedding night with him, because my mother-in-law insisted that her daughter’s virtue be maintained in the family home after the register office ceremony (before church the next day). Christopher and I made do with a nearby hotel. We have sunk ridiculous amounts of drink together, praised one another’s books, liked our respective wives, dandled each other’s children on our respective knees. I love him dearly and always will.
Good fortune also introduced me to Sidney Blumenthal after I arrived in Washington in 1989. He became the most astute of political guides and a loyal friend. The first bar-mitzvah I ever attended was for his son, and last summer we were on holiday together with our wives in Tuscany, while Sidney worked on the speech which Clinton was to deliver after his testimony to the grand jury on the Monica Lewinsky affair. (At the time, Sidney believed Clinton’s public and private denials of dalliance.)
So, looking at photographs of me and Sidney and Christopher arm-in-arm at my 50th birthday party, I find it hard to believe that the two should have fallen out so bitterly. The feud began after Christopher gave an affidavit to the House Judiciary Committee, declaring that Sidney had told him over lunch that Miss Lewinsky was a stalker. This was a smear which the White House had denied peddling. It seemed to put Sidney at risk of a perjury charge and would certainly add to his heavy legal bills (approaching $200,000). The suggestion of perjury no longer looks like a runner. In his testimony to the grand jury, when asked if he had discussed the Lewinsky affair with his friends, Sidney replied truthfully: “Every day.” The whole city was talking of little else, and what Hitchens rightly identifies as the bizarre suggestion that a president might be stalked in his own office was commonplace in the press.
A careful reading of the chapter in Hitchens’s book which deals with this affair suggests that he remains sufficiently loyal to a man he calls “an old friend” to try to spare Blumenthal from a direct charge of lying. Hitchens writes that, over lunch, Sidney said that “Monica Lewinsky had been threatening the president. Sidney had first-hand knowledge of the truth of this story (which I later discovered he also related, along with its authorship, to the grand jury).” The first-hand knowledge came, of course, from the president. Hitchens goes on, in what appears to be a further attempt to exculpate Blumenthal: “The ‘stalker’ story had appeared extensively in print by then, immediately following the president’s false claim to Sidney (a claim which he later, in his Senate testimony, truthfully described as a lie).”
The main charge which Hitchens makes against Blumenthal is the tone Sidney adopted in speaking about Kathleen Willey, whose allegations of a direct sexual lunge by Clinton had been aired on the programme 60 Minutes the previous weekend: “‘Her poll numbers look good now,’ he said rather coldly, ‘but you watch. They’ll be down by the end of the week’. As indeed they were.”
In the book-as distinct from Washington last winter, where an affidavit to the House Judicial Committee could have explosive effect-Hitchens accuses Sidney of little more than excessive zeal in loyalty to an unworthy president. Hitchens seeks to explain, if not excuse, such devotion: “I have known a number of people who work for and with, or who worked for and with, this man [Clinton]. They act like cult members when they are still under the spell, and talk like ex-cult members as soon as they have broken away.”
But Clinton is not the only beneficiary of the cultish aura which can surround successful political leaders. I saw it around Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Fran?ois Mitterrand, and I see traces of it trailing in the wake of Tony Blair. Among their aides and staff, political loyalty is blended with passionate personal devotion. But politics at the top, above all in superpowers, is a tantalising and very special biosphere.
One of the features of Hitchens’s career is that he never wanted to breathe this biosphere’s air. Like most journalists, he preferred to be amid the action but not of it. His most characteristic line in this book comes as he describes the moment of choice, when asked to give the damning affidavit: “Had I decided not to cooperate, only I need have known. The door marked ‘insider’ would have shut noiselessly behind me.”
Those of us who have known the Hitch since his days as a Trotskyist, with all his baggage of lost causes, romantic revolutionaries and deep suspicion of all power, know that this insider status would have been intolerable. And as he later says: “The pact which a journalist makes is, finally, with the public.” Thus I cannot join those who excuse his actions by saying he was just trying to promote this book. I prefer to believe that he acted from an integrity which his old friends know to be consistent with the rest of his life.
My difficulty is that I have no doubt that Sidney Blumenthal is also a man of deep integrity, and where I part company from the Hitch is that I can see Sidney’s loyalty to his president as a virtue. Without loyalty-to family, friends and political leaders and the causes one chooses to follow-there would be little left in life to rely on. And Sidney remains a political believer. A convinced Democrat and progressive, he learned his trade as a political journalist in that dispiriting period of 24 years of Republican dominance of the White House (broken only by the disappointment of Jimmy Carter). I recall his commiseration with me in that dreadful April of 1992, when the Tories beat the opinion polls and were re-elected. Sidney and I were virtually living with the Clinton campaign at the time.
At the heart of the Sidney-Christopher feud is a cleavage as old as politics: between those, like the Hitch, who would rather be right than rule; and the pragmatists who know that winning power is the first commandment of politics. Sidney, after the shock of learning that his president had lied to him, remains loyal because he sees that while Clinton may be a flawed man, he is a president good enough to be the first Democrat re-elected to the White House since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
Sidney can count off an impressive list of Clinton achievements, beginning with the boom which has slashed unemployment and significantly raised median household income for the first time since 1972. He cites the Earned Income Tax Credit, which means that no household with a member in work now falls below the poverty line, and which benefits 24m people. And although Clinton must take some of the blame for the Republican triumph in recapturing both Houses of Congress in 1994, he then displayed both guts and political genius in blunting and then reversing the Republican charge on abortion rights, on affirmative action for minorities and on social security. Above all, Clinton slew the deficit monster which had crippled politics by foreclosing most options in public spending.
Hitchens will have none of this. In this short work (104 pages) of characteristically pungent polemic, he slams Clinton for hypocrisy over race, blunders over health care reform and corruption in fundraising. Beyond the rhetoric, Clinton was not a left-of-centre politician at all, but a “stealthy envoy from the enemy camp,” a plausible cat’s-paw for the forces of capital: “The left gets words, the right gets deeds.”
The best chapter condemns Clinton’s foreign policy as a callous despatch of violence whenever his opinion polls or sexual plight suggested that he needed, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” On the atrocious attacks on the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant or the recurrent flailings against Iraq, or the ridiculous Cuba policy, Hitchens makes a cogent case. But Clinton was also the president who defied the polls to depose the dictators in Haiti and impose a delayed peace on Bosnia.
This is not a book for which Hitchens will want to be remembered; it is not in the same league as his marvellous study of the Anglo-American relationship, Blood, Class and Nostalgia. And from this book’s careful treatment of Blumenthal, I believe he regrets the way his old friend was savaged in the slipstream of Hitchens’s loathing for a president and his court “where unchecked greed, thuggery and egotism were allowed to operate just above the law, and well beneath contempt… the draft-dodger has mutated into a pliant serf of the Pentagon, the pot-smoker into the chief inquisitor in ‘the war on drugs,’ and the womaniser into a boss who uses subordinates as masturbatory dolls.”
No one left to lie to
Verso 1999, ?12