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Sidney Blumenthal Interview: Clinton Confidant on Political Work, "The LA Times Calls That a 'Payout.' I Just Call It Pay for Work"

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Image attributed to Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post, Washington editor and staff writer for The New Yorker, senior writer for The New Republic and has contributed to numerous other publications.

Blumenthal’s books include the bestselling The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment and The Permanent Campaign. His latest offering, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849, was released May 2016. He was the executive producer of the Academy Award and Emmy-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. Born and raised in Illinois, Blumenthal lives in Washington, DC.

“They used the occasion to probe my political background and my involvement with Democratic Party-oriented and affiliated groups, some of which I work for. I also, in addition to writing about Abraham Lincoln, do some political work, and I get compensated. That’s my work. The LA Times calls that a ‘payout.’ I just call it pay for work. Its what people do. Even political people get paid for their work.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why release a book on Abraham Lincoln in an election year?

Sidney Blumenthal: Well, I’ve been working about ten years on this, so it didn’t have anything to do with an election year. I grew up in Chicago and have been interested in Abraham Lincoln since I was very young and always had a picture of Lincoln that I’ve hung in various offices when I was a journalist and when I worked in the White House with President Clinton. When I finally got a chance to devote a period of time to Lincoln, I basically fell down a rabbit hole, started working and didn’t come out (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This book covers from birth (1809) to 1849.

Sidney Blumenthal: I went all the way to the beginning, and made an effort to understand as much as I could the character, the growth, the intellectual life, the trajectory of Abraham Lincoln, how he became a great politician and using those skills, became the Great Emancipator, freed the slaves and saved the United States. I’ve done it in a precise way employing as much original research as I could.

I follow Lincoln, in this volume, through all of the stages of his development from being an impoverished son and oppressed boy to somebody who arrives at a river town, takes up all kinds of tasks, self-educates and rises largely through politics, then the law and runs for political office from age 23 on until the end of his life. He marries an unlikely woman of a class far above him, far more educated and the most political woman he knew, Mary Todd, and he serves one term in Congress eventually and returns to Illinois obscure in the political wilderness, not anticipating any destiny for himself except a law office in downtown Springfield with one law partner, and yet, anti-slavery and the awaiting circumstances will draw him out of this chrysalis really.

To me, this is really the story of American character in its distilled form and of our politics, what it takes to be a politician, of the relationship between intellectual life and political life and the relationship of pragmatic and practical principles and the root of many of the conflicts we face today. So, I’ve been completely engaged in this project. This is the first of four volumes.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Many people have erroneously believed that Lincoln was a Democrat fighting slave-owning Republicans in the South, and then some say that today’s Democrats are the old Lincoln Republicans. What exactly is a Lincoln Republican?

Sidney Blumenthal: (laughs) Good question. In part, that’s why I wrote the book. Originally, I had begun work on a book on race and presidents, partly because of my own experience working in the Clinton White House and the salience of race in so many of the issues we face and what I had to deal with working there. I wondered how the parties had actually changed their identities and when it had started.

I was going to start with Franklin Roosevelt when the democratic party was a progressive party, but also the party of the segregationist South, the solid South. Roosevelt would not even take up an anti-lynching bill because of that. Over time, the parties gradually changed and became very different parties. I wondered where it all started. So, in part, that’s the reason I went all the way down to Lincoln.

Now, Lincoln’s first party was not the Republican Party. It was the Whig Party; a party we can’t even imagine now. But, he spent most of his life as a Whig. He was a stalwart, partisan Whig. That was a party of national economic development using government for infrastructure building largely canals and railroads, in order to build up the country and expand commerce. The idea was that enterprise and government were not diametric opposites, but complementary. It was part of Henry Clay’s model called the “American System.”

That’s what Lincoln tried to do. He created a system like that. That was one part of Lincoln’s politics, and all that went into the Republican Party, belief in government activism and the role of government in the economy, so that Lincoln, when he was president, created the transcontinental railroad. That was an expression of that. He believed that the government should play a role in education in establishing land grant universities. Land grant schools were created as a result of Lincoln.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Lincoln was also anti-slavery.

Sidney Blumenthal: He was opposed to the extension of slavery in the west, that territory which was gained during the Mexican War. These were huge amounts of territories from California all the way to the Great Plains. The question was whether it would be slavery free. That would tip the balance of the country economically and politically if what was called the “Slave Power” would rule or whether there would be a system of free labor, and in the conflict over that, the Whig party split into northern and southern wings and broke up. It also broke up over immigration because there was a great wave of Irish and German into the country.

There was a native anti-immigrant movement that broke up the Whig party as well. Lincoln was adamantly against this anti-immigrant sentiment. He regarded it as the oppression of white people. It was similar to that of slaveholders toward slaves. He put together the Illinois Republican Party. The Republican Party was formed state-by-state, and it was an anti-slavery party to oppose the extension of slavery in the west. When he was elected president in 1860, that in itself was the event that led to southern secession. They could not tolerate having the executive branch controlled by a president who would not open the west to slavery.

Lincoln didn’t have a complete plan at all for abolition when he became president, but he had said that he would put slavery on the road to ultimate extinction. There were things he could do as president using the powers of the presidency, and that, in itself, led to secession and the Civil War. That was what being a Lincoln Republican in the days of Lincoln meant.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. Some Republicans (who are not supporters of Donald Trump) say that they long for the party principles of Abraham Lincoln. Would that be because Trump has been accused of being a racist by members of his own party?

Sidney Blumenthal: Well, I can’t speak for them. They’re going to have to speak for themselves. I know that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan talks about the party of Lincoln. He’ll have to define what that means. But, the party of Lincoln that Lincoln defined had different principles than the Republican Party today, particularly on immigration and the world of government as well.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The House Benghazi report was released today (June 28, 2016). A headline in the Los Angeles Times reads, “House Democrats mistakenly release transcript confirming big payout to Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal.” What are your comments?

Sidney Blumenthal: This interview is conducted the day that the House Republican-control select committee on Benghazi has released its report in which they essentially found no wrongdoing on the part of Hillary Clinton and exonerated her and have found nothing of any consequence that’s new from the previous eight other commissions and inquiries into the terrorist attack in Benghazi. So, we’ve concluded that matter.

The LA Times ran a bizarre report that in it was at best pejorative, at worst libelous. In my testimony … I was questioned for 9 ½ hours by the Benghazi committee. I had nothing to offer on Benghazi. I was not part of the administration. I was not part of the decision-making. I knew nothing about what happened in the attack and no first-hand information to provide.

They used the occasion to probe my political background and my involvement with Democratic Party-oriented and affiliated groups, some of which I work for. I also, in addition to writing about Abraham Lincoln, do some political work, and I get compensated. That’s my work. The LA Times calls that a “payout.” I just call it pay for work. Its what people do. Even political people get paid for their work.

I was asked literally hundreds of questions by the Benghazi committee about the Clinton Foundation, which I had worked for in the past doing educational work and my involvement with Media Matters which tells how right-wing media deals with news stories. They were interested in what they paid me, they were interested in my relations with other Democrats, and they were interested in articles that had appeared.

It is no surprise to me that even today after releasing the Benghazi report, the Republicans won’t release my transcript, and the reason is, it’s so embarrassing to them.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Even though the report’s out, which means the investigation is concluded, can it still be used to help the Trump campaign?

Sidney Blumenthal: This committee began two years ago long before Trump began to take over the Republican Party, and now it files this report with Trump as the presumptive nominee, something that I think the Republicans have never expected. All I can say is, this report cannot help the Trump candidacy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next, Sidney?

Sidney Blumenthal: I’ve actually written the second book on Lincoln and submitted it to my editor, Alice Mayhew, who is really one of the greatest editors of our time at Simon & Schuster. She has it. There are four volumes, and I’ve written all the way to the end. I’ve submitted volume two.

The books will be published one a year. I’m re-writing volume three now. Four is basically done. I have to polish it. I have lots of new material, and I hope new ways of looking at things all the way through. I’m very excited about them. Basically, I have something to do this decade (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any interest in a cabinet position?

Sidney Blumenthal: My plans are to publish Lincoln every year (laughs). That’s what I have planned. And, obviously, I’ll look forward to voting for Hillary.

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