Former Clinton aide Blumenthal now Lincoln biographer
NEW YORK (AP) — Before Sidney Blumenthal was a White House aide and confidant of Bill and Hillary Clinton, before he was a journalist for The New Yorker and The Washington Post and author of the influential political book “The Permanent Campaign,” he was a boy in Chicago mesmerized by the story of Abraham Lincoln.
“I’ve always been fixated on Lincoln,” the 67-year-old Blumenthal told The Associated Press during a recent interview at the offices of Simon & Schuster. He recalled a childhood trip to visit Lincoln landmarks in Springfield, Illinois, the sense of immediacy from the Old State Capitol and the reconstruction of the village of New Salem.
“It had a profound effect on me,” he said.
The mountain of Lincoln books has grown taller with this week’s publication of “A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849,” the first of four planned volumes on the 16th president. More than 500 pages long, “A Self-Made Man” follows Lincoln’s story and the politics of the country from his birth in 1809 through the completion of his one term as a congressman, in 1849. The next installments, which Blumenthal has mostly completed, are scheduled to come out in each of the following three years.
The question for Blumenthal, for any new Lincoln author, is what he can add to the writings of David Herbert Donald, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Burlingame, Harold Holzer and so many others. Blumenthal’s credentials stem from his own background: a reporter’s instincts for uncovering news, a political obsessive’s immersion in history and, through his time in the Clinton White House, firsthand knowledge of how the presidency works.
“American politics is very real to me. It’s very palpable. It’s something I can feel and touch,” he says. “It’s my experience, has been my experience since I was a boy.”
Nearly a decade in the making, Blumenthal’s book arrives with blurbs from such top Lincoln and Civil War scholars as Holzer and James McPherson and favorable early reviews from Kirkus and other publications. Sean Wilentz, the Princeton University professor and prize-winning historian, is a longtime friend who read early drafts of his Lincoln series. He said that two qualities stood out.
“First, Sid understands, as few if any professional historians ever have, the inner workings of American politics, at every level and in all of their aspects — and, with all of their flaws, he respects them,” Wilentz told the AP.
“Second, Sid uses his skills as a shoe-leather reporter to track down leads and unravel important stories that previous writers have either slighted, ignored, or misunderstood — not easy to do on the most written-about figure in all of American history.”
Blumenthal writes about Lincoln’s deep and personal hatred of slavery — “I used to be a slave,” Lincoln would recall of his father’s renting him out as a laborer. He dissents from a popular interpretation of Lincoln’s first major public speech, the so-called Lyceum Address in Springfield in 1838. Delivered soon after a jury had acquitted the leader of a mob that murdered the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, the address was a plea for reason and the rule of law that featured a widely cited passage:
“Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction ...”
The critic Edmund Wilson was among those who perceived the speech as an unconscious prophecy of Lincoln’s own rise. But Blumenthal, drawing upon documents and the scholarship of Burlingame among others, sees it as directed against a fellow Illinois politician who became his longtime rival, Stephen A. Douglas.
“It’s a brilliant idea on Wilson’s part, but it’s a myth,” he says. “Lincoln speaks against mob violence, and talks about at length that the United States will never face an external threat that could end our democracy. ... The greatest threat comes from within, from this kind of trampling of the rule of law and especially through the incitement of mobs and violence.”
Like Donald Trump, the Republican presumptive nominee?
“One wonders what Lincoln would make of a Trump rally, in light of the Lyceum address,” Blumenthal said.
His years with the Clintons inform his Lincoln books, but might also distract from them. Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, in a review for the Washington Monthly, praised “A Self-Made Man” as a “great book,” but also noted Blumenthal’s well-publicized history: The “onetime tiger of the Clinton administration,” notably during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, who went on to advise Hillary Clinton during her 2008 candidacy and become a paid consultant for the Clinton Foundation.
More recently, Blumenthal was a target of the Republican-led congressional investigation into the killings at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, when Clinton was secretary of state. Blumenthal testified in a closed session last June and his name was cited prominently during Hillary Clinton’s televised appearance in October, the questions focused on the dozens of emails she received from her friend.
Before one break in testimony, the committee chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, warned: “If you think we’ve heard about Sidney Blumenthal, wait for the next round.”
Blumenthal, who has no formal role in Clinton’s current campaign, told the AP during his interview that he had “always called for the release of my deposition before the Benghazi committee, from the second I stepped out of that room. I testified for 9 and a half hours. I answered every question.”
“And if and when, ever, that deposition is made public,” he added, “you’ll see I did talk about this book.”