Back in the 1980s, the New Republic was at its peak. From its former headquarters on 19th Street, opposite the staid Palm restaurant, Michael Kinsley (now at Vanity Fair) was at his sharpest, and Leon Wieseltier (Brookings) and Charles Krauthammer (Fox News) pounded each other in an intellectual cage match.
Sidney Blumenthal wasn’t quite as famous, but he was rich and erudite and inventive. He captured John Glenn’s 1984 presidential ambitions, for instance, through a profile of Scott Miller, the onetime Coke adman who was then busy linking our Kodachrome memory of astronaut Glenn circling Earth with Senator’s Glenn’s aspirations to lead America to its high-tech future. Long before its title became a truism, Blumenthal’s 1980 book, The Permanent Campaign, described the power shift from political bosses to mercenary consultants to explain why our electioneering never stops.
Fans who followed Blumenthal’s leap to New Yorker staff writer, then Clinton White House aide, will now recognize Sid the Lincoln scholar. Simon & Schuster editor Alice Mayhew is backing him in the multivolume The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, the first installment of which, the terrific A Self-Made Man, is out this month.
The Lincoln of Blumenthal’s pen is a cunning Whig floor leader in Illinois, a brave progressive facing racist assaults on his religion, ethnicity, and very legitimacy that echo the anti-Obama birther movement. (“Abraham Africanus,” jeered one pamphlet.) Blumenthal takes the wily pol of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and goes deeper, finding a Vulcan logic and House of Cards ruthlessness.
Every generation writes history based on its own experience, so it was perhaps inevitable that Blumenthal’s Lincoln comes off as the sort of guy who could prevail in the Clinton wars as well as the Civil War.
At 67, with a thick mop of hair barely tinged with gray, Blumenthal is still an ardent defender of Bill and Hillary, despite the strain his passion puts on personal friendships or the caricature of him, among Republicans, as the Rasputin behind Czarina Hillary. When the former Secretary of State testified in October before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Blumenthal’s name seemed to come up even more than that of American ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the 2012 attack. Republicans fixated on Blumenthal’s e-missives to Clinton, which were by turns cloak-and-dagger—he offered intelligence on Libya—and Mean Girls catty. John Boehner, in a 2010 note, was “louche, alcoholic, lazy, and without any commitment to any principle.”
The panel’s Republicans were apoplectic that Blumenthal had Clinton’s private e-mail address and Stevens didn’t—kind of nuts, because diplomats communicate via diplomatic cables. John Kerry doesn’t reach the President at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More to the point, the scandal-hungry committee chair, Trey Gowdy, had fallen for the Sid-as-Rasputin fallacy. Rather than a mystic monk, Blumenthal is a weave of identifiable Washington types: insider partisan journalist and staunch political realist. He also might be called a Linus blanket—an emotional comfort of the kind the “Peanuts” character could never cast off.
As a journalist, Blumenthal enjoyed the sort of bond with the Clintons that Ben Bradlee had with John F. Kennedy or Lorena Hickok with Eleanor Roosevelt. Bradlee never actually joined Camelot; Hickok, who scoured the country as the eyes and ears of the First Lady, was all-in. Blumenthal’s sympathetic pieces could be fawning but were still insightful. Anyone covering the 1992 presidential campaign knew his New Republic story “The Anointed,” about the Clintons’ inner circle and how they plotted policy in the conservative wastes of the Reagan-Bush years.
Eventually, he became more Hickok than Bradlee. He made himself indispensable as an aide, sometimes to other staffers’ annoyance. Rahm Emanuel, mocking Blumenthal’s penchant for conspiracy theories, dubbed him G.K., for “grassy knoll.” Valerie Jarrett’s special access to the current First Couple similarly infuriated Emanuel when he became Obama’s chief of staff.
Blumenthal never stopped being a voice the Clintons want to hear. A President or a senator aspiring to be one shouldn’t need a security blanket, perhaps, but politicians always want advice, even if they don’t always take it. You ask Sid what he thinks the same way you ask your daughter how your tie looks. He was a talisman that Bill and Hillary touched for reassurance.
To others, Blumenthal is a brawler who doesn’t always land his punches. (Officials at State rolled their eyes at factual errors in his Libya missives.) His Hobbesian view of the world, however, is part of what made him a good journalist. He combined the broad view of a historian with the gumshoe’s nose for a tip. He cut his teeth at the Boston Phoenix, the famed alternative weekly, where he reported on Irish pols and Southie characters and the Runyonesque, porno-laden Combat Zone.
In the Reagan era, he found a Washington already lamenting the loss of bipartisanship—the affectation that “we’re all friends after 5 pm.” Blumenthal has never succumbed to the sentimental belief that we’re one No Labels conference away from “Kumbaya.” The Clintons like him because he sees the same Manichean battlefield they do.
Given the idiocy of impeachment and other faux scandals, the Clintons’ self-pitying (and self-serving) view isn’t entirely without merit. But Blumenthal’s raw partisanship—and his reported Obama-bashing during Hillary’s ’08 run—cost him a perch in the Obama administration, even at Hillary’s State.
Which brings us back to his Lincoln book, even as it makes one wonder about his fate in 2017. Would he rejoin Hillary at the White House or continue to construct his Lincolnian analogs from the outside? It almost doesn’t matter. Either way, he’d have Madam President’s ear.
This article appears in our May 2016 issue of Washingtonian.