Amid the shifting sands of Christopher Hitchens’s accounts of and apologias for his bearing witness (deemed false witness by the man he still insists on calling his friend) against Sidney Blumenthal, let us take the rationale he offered in The Nation last week. Here he described how in February 1998 “my old friend Sidney Blumenthal emerged from the grand jury and…denounced the inquisitorial tactics of Judge Starr…: ‘Today I was forced to answer questions about my conversations, as part of my job, with, and I wrote this down, the New York Times, CNN, CBS, Time magazine, US News, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Observer….'”
Hitchens then narrates how this allocution on the courthouse steps prompted onslaughts on Starr and “suckered” The Nation. But, Hitchens continues, the transcripts of that grand jury session show that Blumenthal wasn’t asked any such questions, let alone forced to answer. Instead, he was asked if the White House had produced “talking points” about Lewinsky, in response to which question he answered that he had referred reporters to the Democratic National Committee to get the talking points, and that those reporters included people from “news organizations ranging from CNN, CBS, ABC, New York Times, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, New York Observer, Los Angeles Times.”
The forewoman of the grand jury, Hitchens avers, “admonished [Blumenthal] in the strongest terms at the end of his subsequent appearance, expressing the anger of her fellows at the misrepresentation he had offered to the cameras.”
Here we come to the moment Hitchens claims he decided to embark on the course that led him to agree so readily to swear the famous affidavit that exposed Blumenthal to charges that he had perjured himself in his deposition to the House managers.
“When I found this out,” Hitchens writes, “I was depressed. It’s one thing to exaggerate in your own defense, but another to falsify your own rather cowardly testimony in order to pose as an upholder of the First and Fourth amendments.” The “grand jury transcript might never have been made public. I suppose Sidney assumed it wouldn’t be.” So he decided to show up Blumenthal.
But what did Hitchens actually find out? The answer is, nothing. Either from ABC’s Nightline, Murdoch’s Fox News or the New York Post he swallowed a concoction of lies put out by Starr’s people. Those stories presented the same distorted sequence later picked up by Hitchens. The Post article on November 15, by Brian Blomquist, quoted one Ronald Rotunda, identified as “a lawyer working for the Senate investigator Ken Starr.” Starr’s office, he said had been “vilified and lied about by Clinton aides like Blumenthal in their confidence that the truth would never come out.” “You remember,” Rotunda said, “last February, Blumenthal came out of the grand-jury room and announced how…he’d been asked [by investigators] who in the press he had been contacting…. [Blumenthal] was never asked that question and the next time he showed up in the grand-jury room, the grand-jury forelady said, ‘How could you say this to the press? It was just a lie.'”
But the grand jury forewoman said nothing of the sort, and Blumenthal didn’t lie. In the grand jury session on February 26 he was indeed questioned about his contacts with news organizations. Directly after hearing Blumenthal’s list, as quoted by Hitchens, Starr’s assistant Solomon Wisenberg asked: “Would you, though, distribute the talking points? Would you cause the talking points to be distributed to any of these news organizations?” Then, after a break for consultation, Blumenthal was repeatedly questioned about discussions with reporters.
It’s clear Hitchens was citing the grand jury session without having read the transcript. If he had, he would have known the questions just noted, plus others from Robert Bittman of Starr’s office about a conversation between Blumenthal and Jay Brannigan of Time; also demands by Starr’s man that Blumenthal detail which members of the press he had given material from Stanley Sheinbaum, a well-known Democrat in Los Angeles.
So Hitchens’s charge that his friend lied about his testimony is false. So is his comment on the forewoman’s remarks.
Blumenthal testified three times before the grand jury, on February 26, June 4 and June 25. If Hitchens had glanced at the transcripts on the basis of which he says he decided to render his affidavit, he would have known that it was only in the concluding moments of Blumenthal’s final day, June 25, that the forewoman addressed Blumenthal thus: “We are very concerned about the fact that during your last visit an inaccurate representation of the events that happened were retold on the steps of the courthouse.”
Now, Blumenthal’s “last visit” had been on June 4, and he said nothing on the courthouse steps. His attorney William McDaniel Jr. made some remarks which do not, from the news reports my colleague Joe Guinan assembled, seem controversial. Could the forewoman have been referring to the February 26 remarks that so annoyed Hitchens? It’s possible, but note that she does not identify Blumenthal as the author of the offensive characterization, nor does she use “the strongest terms,” as Hitchens put it. That description seems to owe more to the imaginary words put into the forewoman’s mouth by Starr’s news manipulator, Rotunda: “‘How could you say this to the press? It was just a lie.'”
Why does Hitchens call Blumenthal not only a liar but also a coward? Blumenthal’s task in the grand jury was to protect himself and his associates while being truthful. The Nation wasn’t duped by Blumenthal. Hitchens, with suspicious ease, was duped by Starr’s agitprop. But then, as Hitchens himself has conceded, he’d already begun to play out his Blumenthal gambit in an article for a British newspaper. It’s eerily ironic, in retrospect, that Hitchens and I had a tussle about the ethics of snitching last fall, on the topic of his hero Orwell. In his frantic adherence to the crusade of Starr and the House managers, he has mangled facts, traduced his friend and now whines that he, somehow, is the victim. Next, it seems, we can look forward to a self-serving Hitchens column, remunerated at a level far in excess of thirty pieces of silver, in Vanity Fair. It’s a dejecting spectacle.