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With Friends Like These

Photos courtesy AP/Wide World

The Year of Monica is ending as it began: with a stunning act of personal betrayal.

In the beginning, there was Linda Tripp, whose rage at Bill Clinton led her to turn on a young woman she had befriended and counseled.

And now comes Christopher Hitchens, whose rage at Bill Clinton led him to turn on a close friend of 15 years: White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

In his deposition to the House managers, Blumenthal swore that while the president had indeed falsely told him that Lewinsky was a "stalker," he himself had never told anyone of that conversation with the president, nor passed that story on to reporters. The House managers took these latter assertions as a blow to their case; they wanted to demonstrate that Clinton had planned a Lewinsky-vilification campaign that was all set to go until that pesky stain turned up on her dress.

And so, last Friday, they turned to Christopher Hitchens, the columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair who’d apparently related to folks around town that Blumenthal had sure the hell told him that Lewinsky was a stalker. A staff attorney for House prosecutors phoned Hitchens, and before you could say, "Et tu, Brute?" Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, had produced a deposition alleging that Blumenthal was a peddler of the president’s slander.

In his defense, Blumenthal says he doesn’t recall any such conversation and notes, rightly, that "stalker" stories had been appearing in the media for some weeks prior to the day last March when he lunched with Hitchens and supposedly spun the tale. More pointedly, he argues that he would hardly have been trying to get Hitchens to write such a story — that Hitchens’ very public hatred of Clinton made him the least likely vehicle for stalker stories. What this was, he says, was a lunch with a friend — someone he’d had to his house for Passover Seders, and hung with in one saloon after another during a dozen years of covering campaigns. (Blumenthal had been a political reporter and columnist before he went to work at the White House in 1997.)

Hitchens, meanwhile, has achieved a state of cable-news-ubiquity over the past couple of nights, as he’s sought to explain his actions to an uncomprehending world. Piecing it together from his comments on three separate talk shows and in a column in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Hitchens’ apologia goes like this: First, he was obliged to talk to the House managers (which, I should interpolate, he did without first consulting an attorney, who would have told him that under the District of Columbia’s reporter-shield law, he wasn’t obliged at all). Second, his friend Sidney really isn’t likely to face criminal repercussions, because Hitchens only gave his affidavit for use against the president in the current Senate trial, and he will refuse to testify in any other proceedings (of course, having given the affidavit, he doesn’t have to testify; it can be used against Blumenthal in any criminal perjury proceeding). Third, if Blumenthal is the object of a perjury proceeding, Hitchens will repudiate the affidavit, even though he puts himself at risk for a contempt citation by so doing. And fourth, the real villain in all this, the real perjurer he intended to nail, is Bill Clinton. "My hope is that when this shakes out," he told Jonathan Broder of MSNBC, "I will have directed a truthful arrow at Clinton that may seem to have gone straight through Sidney, but in fact has not."

Problem is, the new information, if we believe Hitchens’ allegation, leaves Clinton more or less unscathed — and Blumenthal with his guts pouring all over the floor.

I should note at this juncture that Sidney Blumenthal is a friend of mine, and Christopher Hitchens is — make that, was — a friendly acquaintance. Indeed, one of my encounters with Hitchens came at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego when he was just about to bail Sid out of trouble: Blumenthal had been speaking darkly, as we journalists sometimes do among ourselves, of a political figure (in this case, Republican nominee Bob Dole), and a delegate, innocent of the ways journalists speak among themselves in convention hotel bars, took this as a threat. When I came across Hitchens, he was on his way to convince the Secret Service that Blumenthal’s irony had been lost on the delegate.

No wonder Sid felt free to schmooze in Hitchens’ company.

What’s ultimately so infuriating and bewildering about Hitchens’ betrayal is that it really doesn’t damage Clinton — his presumed target — very much at all. We already know that Clinton said Lewinsky was a stalker and that that story got around town; we know that it is part of an obstruction-of-justice article that will be defeated in the Senate late this week. The only new allegation Hitchens makes — that Blumenthal lied when he denied discussing the story with reporters — doesn’t pertain to the president at all.

To his credit, Hitchens never espoused a leftism that holds that the end justifies the means. Now that he has sacrificed his friend, he cannot be said to have achieved his end in even the slightest degree. When Linda Tripp betrayed Monica Lewinsky, she at least achieved her goal. She got — oh, how she got — the president. The only claim Christopher Hitchens can make is that he got his friend Sidney.