Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: New America / Source of Photo: Sidney Blumenthal, July 31, 2007


* Assistant to former President Bill Clinton
* Developed a reputation for mercilessly smearing opponents of Clinton
* Proponent of the “Third Way,” a philosophy that emphasizes the need for a large social-welfare apparatus and greater economic egalitarianism
* Key advisor to Hillary Clinton
* Journalist

Sidney Blumenthal was born in Chicago on November 6, 1948, and attended Boston’s Brandeis University from 1965-69. During his time in Massachusetts, Blumenthal became a liberal political activist. In 1968 he traveled to Chicago to participate in the famous protests at the Democratic National Convention. At his graduation ceremony in 1969, Blumenthal joined fellow students in displaying a stenciled red fist on his gown as a symbol of protest against the Vietnam War. Also during his years at Brandeis, Blumenthal worked for some time as a guard at the Boston Public Library, and subsequently took jobs at alternative publications called Boston After Dark, Boston Phoenix, and The Real Paper.

In the 1970s Blumenthal contributed to radical-left magazines like the Nation and the Progressive, and toward the end of the decade he became the Boston correspondent for In These Times, a socialist newspaper published by the Institute for Policy Studies.

“At about this time,” reports a 2016 Vanity Fair profile of Blumenthal, “Blumenthal also became involved with a group of young political activists, including Ralph Whitehead, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, who had worked in and around the new consulting firms and had produced an 85-page white paper called The Permanent Campaign. They argued that conservatives were on the march—creating alternative institutions that were well funded and collaborative. The phrase ‘permanent campaign’ has come to refer to the way campaigning never stops, even when a party has come to power, but the more fundamental point of the white paper—that progressives needed to be mindful of how conservatives were operating, often unnoticed and out of sight—was equally prescient. Blumenthal had long been thinking along exactly the same lines.” In 1982 Blumenthal himself published a book bearing the same title, The Permanent Campaign.

In 1981 Blumenthal served as an adviser to former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, who had lost his re-election bid three years earlier and was seeking to stage a political comeback.

In the early ’80s as well, Blumenthal began writing for the New York Times Magazine and The New Republic, the latter of which hired him in 1983 to cover the presidential election of 1984. During that campaign season, Blumenthal gave a great deal of positive coverage to the failed White House bid of Gary Hart, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Colorado. Blumenthal also helped Hart craft his campaign speeches.

In 1984 as well, Blumenthal worked as a commentator for the Today Show.

In his 1986 book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, Blumenthal focused on “an event that is among the most startling and profound in modern American politics,” namely, “the rise of a conservative elite” that had created a “Counter-Establishment” to counteract the “Liberal Establishment.” In a review of Blumenthal’s book, scholar Joshua Muravchik described it as “369 relentless pages of unrelieved sarcasm, ridicule, impugnment of motives, conspiracy theories, crackpot psychologizing, and invective.” For example, Blumenthal’s book:

  • depicted neoconservatives as “sufferers from multiple forms of alienation” who had adopted pro-American positions because “by casting a warm glow around places they believed to be at the center of national life, which they were never part of, they gained a vicarious sense of belonging”;
  • charged that the neoconservative writer William Kristol had secured a teaching position in Harvard’s Department of Education in exchange for the support that his father, Irving Kristol, had previously given to President Reagan’s appointment of William Bennett as Secretary of Education;
  • contended that neoconservatives supported Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative because they viewed it as “a way to compensate” for their failure to “broker the Jewish vote for Reagan” in 1984;
  • claimed that “a desire for vengeance” against the 1960s counterculture had “led some neoconservatives to feel a measure of vindication when John Lennon was killed”;
  • stated that Ronald Reagan’s “ability to present conservatism as a mythological system insulated it from most criticism,” even though “his policies might be contradictory and counterproductive”; and
  • asserted that “some of the former Trotskyites who [as neoconservatives] have gained influence under Reagan have assumed the tone of Stalinist commissars.”

It was also during the ’80s that Blumenthal first came to know Bill and Hillary Clinton, with whom he went on to develop a close and permanent friendship. His initial encounter with the Clintons took place at a Renaissance Weekend retreat, where leaders in the fields of business, finance, government, the media, religion, medicine, science, technology, and the arts would meet to discuss a variety of matters with public-policy implications. Blumenthal wrote of Mr. Clinton at that time: “He was a charismatic if loquacious speaker who had an easy facility with the arcana of public policy.” In 1988 Blumenthal supported Michael Dukakis’s presidential run. And in the late 1980s, Blumenthal wrote for The Washington Post and Vanity Fair, but by 1991 he was back at The New Republic.

When Bill Clinton ran for U.S. president in 1992, Blumenthal lauded the former Arkansas governor as a transformative figure who had the potential to bring “epochal change” to America. In a hagiographic article in The New Republic titled “The Anointed,” Blumenthal wrote: “Clinton is about the renaissance of policy, informed by the Reagan years but moving clearly away from them.” He also wrote reverentially about a Clinton campaign speech where “[h]is performance, upon which the fate of the entire campaign depended, was the most electrifying political moment I had witnessed since I was a boy in the Chicago Stadium” (where a young Blumenthal had attended a 1960 campaign event for John F. Kennedy).

After Clinton’s electoral victory in ’92, Blumenthal became the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. A number of his peers in the media, however, claimed that his close relationship with the Clintons rendered him unable to write objectively about them. Journalist Andrew Sullivan, for one, described Blumenthal as “the most pro-Clinton writer on the planet.” The New York Observer once referred to him as Clinton’s long-time cheerleader.” And according to media writer James Warren:

“[Blumenthal] openly and frequently consulted the Clintons, notably Hillary, even while serving as the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. He took a pass on seemingly obvious stories, notably the Whitewater real-estate controversy and one involving the White House travel office, while attacking the Clintons’ critics. History would prove his essential analyses correct—that the scandals, if any, were pretty low-grade, even if symptomatic of a propensity to cut corners—but he was supposed to be covering the Clintons, not rationalizing their conduct. And with the Clintons, where there’s smoke there tends to be at least a bit of fire. Then there were the allegations by Arkansas state troopers that they had arranged trysts for Clinton, including with a woman later identified as Paula Jones. Those came via an American Spectator article by David Brock, in his right-wing attack-dog days. But Blumenthal’s New Yorker reporting rarely mentioned Clinton’s extracurricular behavior. Blumenthal derided the mainstream media for turning itself ‘into a yellow press, dealing in sexual innuendo and invading the privacy of politicians to try to get at it.’”

In August 1997, Blumenthal was hired as a special assistant and adviser to the president, a post he would hold until the end of the Clinton administration. In this role, Blumenthal was responsible for writing major speeches, crafting foreign policy, and researching news stories that were pertinent to the White House.

Even more importantly, Blumenthal was tasked with smearing and defaming Clinton’s political opponents, which he did with enough tenacity to earn himself the nickname “Sid Vicious.” For instance, in 1998 Blumenthal was widely believed to have been responsible for leaking information to the media regarding an extramarital affair that House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde had been involved in during the 1960s. At the time that this charge was made public, Hyde was preparing to preside over congressional hearings that would determine whether President Clinton should be impeached for transgressions (perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power) related to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. Blumenthal, for his part, released a statement averring that he “was not the source or in any way involved with this story on Henry Hyde.”

In February 1998, Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who had been assigned to investigate the facts of the Lewinsky case, subpoenaed Blumenthal to testify before a federal grand jury on three separate occasions. In addition, Blumenthal was deposed by the U.S. Senate when it tried Clinton on the impeachment charges in January 1999.

Immediately following one of his February 1998 appearances before the grand jury, Blumenthal went to the courthouse steps to make a theatrical denunciation of Judge Starr’s allegedly inquisitorial tactics, and to say he could hardly believe that such an undignified invasion of people’s private lives was occurring in the United States. Claiming that the grand jury had asked him to reveal details about his past communications with at least eight separate news organizations (whose names he enumerated), Blumenthal declared: “I never imagined that in America I would be hauled before a federal grand jury … and forced to answer questions about my conversations, as part of my job.”

Months later, when the transcript of that grand jury session became public as part of Judge Starr’s impeachment report, it showed that Blumenthal in fact had not been asked even a single question about his communications with any news organizations. As investigative journalist Michael isikoff wrote in, “It was Blumenthal, not the prosecutors, who brought up the names of the news organizations—apparently so he could later claim that the questioning was more sinister than it really was.” The late author/journalist Christopher Hitchens, however, observed that Blumenthal’s disingenuous claims had served their purpose, in that they successfully “bought Clinton some time with the press and added to the standard caricature of Starr as a tyrannical monster.”

In a subsequent grand jury hearing, the forewoman told Blumenthal: “We are very concerned about the fact that during your last visit, that [sic] an inaccurate representation of the events that happened were retold on the steps of the courthouse.”

By this time, Blumenthal’s reputation as an unprincipled prevaricator was well established. Columnists Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, for example, said that Blumenthal was “so widely suspected of spreading stories of a conspiratorial nature that he has been nicknamed ‘Grassy Knoll’ by some in the White House and ‘Sid Vicious’ by some outside it.” Columnist Jonah Goldberg put it this way: “Sidney Blumenthal did what he did and said what he said because that is the kind of man he is. He likes saying bad things about people. If you snapped him open like a peapod, nothing but bilious black ooze would come out.” And Michael Isikoff wrote that Blumenthal “rearranges facts, spins conspiracy theories, impugns motives, and besmirches the character of his political and journalistic foes — all for the greater cause of defending the Clintons (and himself)…. Distortion is standard fare for Blumenthal.”

During the weeks and months that followed his grand jury testimony, Blumenthal consistently characterized Judge Starr as “a prosecutor on a mad mission from God,” a “constitutional illiterate,” and a key player in a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” By the same token, he depicted President Clinton as “the victim” of both a predatory and sexually demanding young woman, and a Republican “sexual inquisition.”

Politically, Blumenthal—like Bill and Hillary Clinton—professed to be a proponent of the so-called “Third Way” movement. Indeed, during his tenure as a Clinton staffer, Blumenthal helped organize several Third Way conferences. Also known as the “Radical Middle,” the Third Way is a nominally centrist philosophy that, according to Third Way social democratic theorist Anthony Giddens, embraces a conception of socialism that emphasizes the need for a large social-welfare apparatus, greater economic egalitarianism, and a rejection of capitalism’s allegedly unjust elements, but does not endorse the traditional Marxian call for the total abolition of free markets. Author and political analyst David Horowitz has exposed the “Third Way” philosophy as a bankrupt and incoherent construct:

“’The Third Way’ is a familiar term from the lexicon of the left with a long and dishonorable pedigree in the catastrophes created by messianic socialists in the 20th Century…. In the 1930s, Nazis used ‘The Third Way’ to characterize their own brand of national socialism as a equidistant between the ‘internationalist’ socialism of the Soviet Union and the capitalism of the West. Trotskyists used ‘The Third Way’ as a term to distinguish their own Marxism from Stalinism and capitalism. In the 1960s, New Leftists used ‘The Third Way’ to define their politics as an independent socialism between the Soviet gulag and America’s democracy. But as the history of Nazism, Trotskyism and the New Left have shown, there is no ‘Third Way.’ There is the capitalist, democratic way based on private property and individual rights—a way that leads to liberty and universal opportunity. And there is the socialist way of group identities, group rights, a relentless expansion of the political state, restricted liberty and diminished opportunity. The Third Way is not a path to the future. It is just the suspension between these two destinations. It is a bad faith attempt on the part of people who are incapable of giving up their socialist schemes to escape the taint of their discredited past.”

Following his tenure in the Clinton administration, Blumenthal authored The Clinton Wars, a 2003 memoir of his White House experiences. More specifically, it was a book about the political and media battles that occupied President Clinton’s attention throughout his scandal-plagued second term. As Michael Isikoff put it: “If The Clinton Wars has any central point it is that the scandals that beset the Clinton presidency—from Whitewater to campaign finance to Lewinsky to Marc Rich—were each and every one of them entirely concocted, from start to finish.” To be sure, Blumenthal depicted each of these matters as nothing more than “empty,” unsubstantial “pseudoscandals” engineered by malicious scoundrels with political axes to grind. The author even claimed not to know if Clinton had in fact carried on an affair with a 21-year-old White House intern (Lewinsky). More than that, explained Blumenthal, it was not his, nor anyone else’s, place to ask the president about such things.

Also in his book, Blumenthal took pains to build up Hillary Clinton’s political bona fides. For instance: (a) he affirmed Mrs. Clinton’s claim—made in the midst of her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign in New York—that she was a longtime Yankee baseball fan; (b) he provided a benign description of the then-First Lady’s supposedly dignified and philosophical acceptance of the need for a special prosecutor vis-à-vis the Lewinsky scandal, even though then-Clinton advisors George Stephanopoulos and Dick Morris both recall Hillary’s obstinate refusal and tearful ranting against the appointment; (c) he affirmed that Mrs. Clinton was the author of the 1996 book It Takes A Village, despite the fact that her ghost writer was paid $120,000 for the project; and (d) he gave Mrs. Clinton some undeserved credit for advancing the Irish peace process, saying that her “work” had made it all possible.

As he appeared in numerous media venues to publicize his The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal repeatedly bemoaned “the politics of personal destruction” that demonic conservatives were allegedly using to smear the reputations of innocent Democrats.

From August 2003 until November 2007, Blumenthal was a regular columnist for left-wing British newspaper The Guardian. During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, he was the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the left-wing web publication Salon.

In 2007, Blumenthal served as executive producer of Alex Gibney’s documentary film Taxi to the Dark Side, which condemned America’s alleged use of torture and enhanced interrogation.

In 2007-08, Blumenthal was an adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign against fellow Democrat Barack Obama. Though Obama ultimately emerged victorious, the campaign’s heated rhetoric left the president-elect and his allies bitter and angry at Blumenthal, whom they viewed as the Clinton camp’s primary smear merchant. According to Occidental College professor Peter Dreier, Blumenthal in 2008 regularly distributed e-mails attacking “Obama’s character, political views, electability, and real or manufactured associations.” In addition, Blumenthal also promoted the rumor that a highly inflammatory “whitey tape” existed of either Barack or Michelle Obama derisively referring to white people as “whitey”—something that, had the tape ever materialized, would clearly have been toxic to the Obama campaign.

  • In September 2016, Blumenthal’s name made headlines when it was reported that he may have had a hand in promoting the rumor that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus was ineligible for the U.S. presidency. On September 16, former McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher tweeted that Blumenthal had “told me in person” that Obama’s birthplace was Kenya. “During the 2008 Democratic primary, Sid Blumenthal visited the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Co.,” Asher said in an email to McClatchy that same day. “During that meeting, Mr. Blumenthal and I met together in my office and he strongly urged me to investigate the exact place of President Obama’s birth, which he suggested was in Kenya. We assigned a reporter to go to Kenya, and that reporter determined that the allegation was false. At the time of Mr. Blumenthal’s conversation with me, there had been a few news articles published in various outlets reporting on rumors about Obama’s birthplace. While Mr. Blumenthal offered no concrete proof of Obama’s Kenyan birth, I felt that, as journalists, we had a responsibility to determine whether or not those rumors were true. They were not.” In response to this story, Blumenthal said in an email to The Boston Globe: “This is false. Period.”
  • That same day — September 16, 2016 — former CIA analyst and Clinton loyalist Larry C. Johnson said that he was “shocked at the audacity of Hillary Clinton to decry [2016 Republican presidential candidate] Donald Trump as a birther because her campaign not only pushed that item in a bid to discredit Barack Obama, but mounted a sustained campaign attack Obama on a broad array of issues.” Added Johnson: “How do I know? I was part of that effort and was in regular email and phone coordination with Sidney Blumenthal. Sidney was the conduit who fed damaging material to me that I subsequently posted on my blog. In some cases Sid Blumenthal actually provided a draft piece that I would slightly modify and publish under my name. Most of the time, however, Sid provided background information and researched material that I would use to craft pieces…. [This included] information concerning allegations that Barack Obama was not a natural born citizen…. Listening to Hillary Clinton cry crocodile tears over Trump’s [previous] questioning Obama’s birth place and eligibility to be President … as a ‘racist’ attack is the ultimate example that Hillary is cynical and dishonest. Yes, it is true that the words, ‘Obama is a [M]uslim’ or ‘Obama is not a natural born American’ never passed her lips. But it is also true that people very close to her, such as Sidney Blumenthal, were pushing those stories and trying desperately to promote those memes. Hillary knew about all of these lines of attack on Obama. In fact I was told by Sid on one occasion in the summer of 2008 that the Big Dog (Bill of course) was very pleased with the pieces going up at NoQuarterUSA [Johnson’s website] and thought they were helping Hillary.”
  • A week later, Johnson elaborated further: “I know firsthand, and can testify under oath, that Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign was hot and heavy on the issue of Barack Obama’s [M]uslim heritage. How do I know? Because I was a conduit for information from Sidney Blumenthal, a Hillary Clinton confidant. I was not an official part of the campaign. I was not on the staff. But I was a supporter and I have no regrets for trying to help Hillary defeat Barack Obama.”

In 2008, Blumenthal played a secret role in shaping the political coverage of the newly launched left-wing website The Daily Beast. As author Rosie Gray writes in Buzzfeed News:

“Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal played a quiet role in shaping, and sometimes steering political coverage, in the early days of The Daily Beast…. He wasn’t listed on the site’s masthead, and the site’s founder, Tina Brown, said she had ‘no idea’ whether or not he was on Clinton’s payroll while helping to shape the site’s political coverage. In one case, he commissioned a hit piece on a potential Clinton rival, Caroline Kennedy, though his name appeared nowhere on the story. Brown … confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Blumenthal had been a ‘part time consultant’ in 2008 and 2009 and had ‘assigned and connected us to some writers as asked.’”

When President Obama named Hillary Clinton as his choice for secretary of state in 2009, Mrs. Clinton reportedly wanted to offer a State Department job to Blumenthal. But the White House adamantly refused to permit this. As a Vanity Fair report explains: “President Obama would not allow it: key White House staffers had grown to detest the man. Two of them—press secretary Robert Gibbs and senior adviser David Axelrod—threatened to quit if Blumenthal was hired. They believed that he had been involved in spreading unsubstantiated allegations against the Obamas during the 2008 Democratic primary, as detailed in the campaign chronicle Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.”

Having thus been denied an official position in the new administration, Blumenthal was subsequently hired by Mrs. Clinton’s family philanthropy—the Bill, Hillary, & Chelsea Clinton Foundation—to help with such tasks as research, “message guidance,” and the planning of commemorative events. The Foundation paid Blumenthal $10,000 per month for his services. Meanwhile, he also worked as a paid consultant to Media Matters For America, Correct The Record, and American Bridge 21st Century, pro-Clinton organizations that were both established by left-wing activist David Brock. Blumenthal earned a combined $200,000 per year from these three entities.

After longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi had been driven from power (in August 2011) by Islamist rebels in a civil war effort supported by Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration, Blumenthal served as an adviser to a group of business associates who, according to The New York Times, were seeking “to get in on the ground floor of the new [post-Qadhafi] Libyan economy.” Specifically, they hoped to persuade the Libyan transitional government to award them lucrative contracts for the construction of floating hospitals (to treat Libya’s war wounded), temporary housing (for people displaced by the war), and schools. In order for these projects to move ahead, they would require approval not only from Libyan authorities, but also from the U.S. State Department.

In May 2015, it was learned that during 2011-12—both before and after the October 2011 death of Qadhafi—Blumenthal had sent at least 25 memos about events that were unfolding in Libya to a private, secret, non-government email account belonging to Secretary of State Clinton. According to The New York Times: “Mrs. Clinton took Mr. Blumenthal’s advice [regarding those events] seriously, forwarding his memos to senior diplomatic officials in Libya and Washington and at times asking them to respond.  Mrs. Clinton continued to pass around his memos even after other senior diplomats concluded that Mr. Blumenthal’s assessments were often unreliable.” Moreover, Clinton often appended Blumenthal’s memos with comments like, “Useful insight” or “We should get this around asap.”

After Hillary Clinton announced her presidential candidacy in 2015, Blumenthal continued to work as a paid consultant to American Bridge 21st Century and Media Matters For America.

In 2016 Blumenthal published A Self-Made Man, the first installment of a four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.

In February 2018, Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy implied that Blumenthal had provided some of the information that former British spy Christopher Steele had used to compile a dossier replete with false information designed to smear Donald Trump and to suggest that prior to his election as president, Trump had secretly colluded with Russian contacts to rig the presidential election in his own favor.

Also in February 2018, former Obama State Department official Jonathan Winer penned an op-ed in the Washington Post confirming that Hillary Clinton operatives were aware of the dossier effort as early as the summer of 2016. Winer explained that during approximately that same time period, he had spoken with his “old friend” Sidney Blumenthal, and that the two had “discussed Steele’s reports.” Specifically, Winer said that Blumenthal had given him notes from a “journalist” whom he “did not know,” Cody Shearer, that corroborated the Steele dossier’s allegation that Trump had once hired prostitutes to urinate on a Moscow hotel bed.

In 2019, Blumenthal tried to stop the publication of author Lee Smith’s new book, The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History. Claiming that the book was defamatory because it contained “factual errors” about him, Blumenthal sent threatening letters to publisher Center Street, a division of Hachette Book Group. But the publisher’s legal team found Blumenthal’s claims to be “meritless,” and the book was released in November 2019.

Sidney Blumenthal is the father of journalist and blogger Max Blumenthal.

For additional information on Sidney Blumenthal, click here.

Further Reading:Who Is Clinton Confidant Sidney Blumenthal?” (NPR, 3-20-2015); “The Clinton Confidant You Can’t Escape” (Vanity Fair, 7-5-2016).

Additional Resources:

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