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Washington, D.C.’S Best Grudge Match

3 minute read
Adam Cohen

East-coast intellectuals, like Appalachian mountain folk, are famous for their feuds. When Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy in the 1950s, the political elite chose sides, and some still aren’t speaking. After novelist Mary McCarthy called playwright Lillian Hellman a liar–or, more precisely, said, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”–the literary crowd split in two. They’re at it again. That rumbling out of Washington is the sound of a new chattering class feud–and unaligned wordsmiths had better head for the hills.

The firing-on-Fort-Sumter of this little war came when Christopher Hitchens, a lefty Brit who writes for Vanity Fair and the Nation, signed an affidavit against his old friend Sidney Blumenthal, a presidential aide and former political writer who has worked for the New Yorker and the New Republic. Hitchens told congressional investigators that Blumenthal, who left journalism two years ago for the White House, had called Monica Lewinsky a “stalker” at a social lunch last March. It could be a big deal if it helps prove Blumenthal lied under oath when he told impeachment investigators he didn’t know the source of alleged White House leaks that painted Monica as a “stalker,” and that he never talked about her private life. Or it may not contradict his testimony at all. Like his boss, Blumenthal parsed a lot of fine lines under oath. Blumenthal insists he told the truth and says he’s “saddened” that his old friend turned on him. Why did Hitchens do it? The vociferous Clinton critic says impeachment is important–so when Congress asked him, he had to talk. Intellectual feuders always argue noble principles are at stake, and this time is no different. Hitchens says it’s about standing up to the White House’s lies. “They have the power, and they’ve gotten away with everything from campaign finance to wagging the dog,” he says. Blumenthal’s camp says it’s about friendship, loyalty and something even more sacrosanct to Beltway journalists: the secrecy of gossipy off-the-record lunches with sources. With the Clinton saga wrapping up, it’s hard to believe much is really at stake. Blumenthal is unlikely to stand trial for perjury; if he does, Hitchens insists he will go to jail rather than testify.

Like pro wrestling, this fight is most interesting for its colorful combatants, and it’s hard to know whom to root for. Hitchens is a tweedy contrarian from the British upper classes, a page of Evelyn Waugh brought to Washington. His Oxonian socialism led him to bash Princess Diana after her death and demonize Mother Teresa in a scathing book. The sharp-elbowed Blumenthal made enemies as a rabidly pro-Clinton journalist, and even more as the Clintons’ lofty–some would say supercilious–ambassador to the White House press corps. But the real question is Who’s winning? Hitchens took an early lead. His wife Carol Blue (who is–surprise!–a Washington writer) offered an affidavit saying she was also at the lunch and backing her husband’s account. And journalist Scott Armstrong signed a pro-Hitchens affidavit. Still, Hitchens is feeling a chill. “The Nation magazine,” he says “has completely disowned me.” And insider Washington is rejiggering its guest lists. “It nauseates me that it’s come to who will or will not have me to dinner,” sighs Hitchens. Most fun, of course, would be a dinner party with both disputants. Fox could broadcast it live: Reality TV! Sid & Hitch’s Media Grudge Match!

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