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Why Republicans Are Turning Hillary Clinton’s Old Friend Into the Benghazi Villain

AP/Getty Images

This was supposed to be the eighth congressional hearing on the Benghazi attack. But halfway through, it mysteriously transformed itself into the Blumenthal hearings, with Representative Trey Gowdy treating the audience to excerpts from Sidney Blumenthal's missives to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “And here’s another Blumenthal email to you about the president’s national security adviser: ‘Frankly Tom Donilon’s babbling rhetoric about narratives on the phone briefing of reporters on March 10 has inspired derision among serious foreign policy analysts both here and abroad.’” 

To those not versed in Republican folklore, the Blumenthal line of questions surely made little sense—especially to the many Americans hearing all this and wondering, who the heck is Sidney Blumenthal? A former journalist who wrote for the New Republic and The New Yorker in the 1980s and 1990s, Blumenthal worked as an adviser to Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. In that capacity, he often worked behind the scenes to get the Clinton's side of the story out to the press, in effect serving as a public relations officer. He attracted some controversy because the late Christopher Hitchens, then friends with Blumenthal, alleged the Clinton aide spread lurid stories to discredit presidential amour Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens' version of events ended his friendship with Blumenthal and led to congressional hearings. 

There’s nothing to connect Blumenthal to what happened in Benghazi. Most of the emails Blumenthal sent to Hillary Clinton were journalistic reports about various political events, intermixed with gossip and flattery. The Republicans tried to suggest that it was unfair that Blumenthal had access to Clinton’s email, while Ambassador Christopher Stevens did not. But this line of questioning makes no sense: Ambassadors have many ways of connecting with the secretary of state that are much more secure than a personal email. A tweet by former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul makes this point acutely:

Blumenthal was a hot topic at the Benghazi hearings not because he had anything to do with the attacks but because he’s a convenient villain. In the Republican imagination, Blumenthal exists more as a mythological figure than a real person. He’s a Svengali or a Rasputin, the man who hides behind the scenes and whispers poison into the ears of the King (or, in Hillary's case, the Queen). Blumenthal fits the convenient conspiratorial archetype that is often given to supposedly sinister presidential advisors. Harry Hopkins, the Commerce Secretary from 1938 to 1940 who organized many New Deal programs, occupied a similar role during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Even more fancifully, Bill Ayers has been made into a lurid devil figure in the biography of President Obama. As the Ayers example shows, archetype is much more powerful than mere facts. Ideological opponents need a convenient scapegoat who can be the emblem of all evil. Whether that scapegoat has real power or not is immaterial.

By making the Benghazi hearings into the Blumenthal hearings, Republicans have shown that they have no interest in using these hearings to reach the general public. They are aimed only at hardcore partisans, who already know the elaborate mythology the right-wing media has constructed around the Clintons and Blumenthal. 

Of course, even in the best-case scenario, these hearings were unlikely to change many minds. After all, the actual attack on Benghazi which took place on September 11, 2012, was very fresh on the minds of voters when Obama was re-elected that year. If Benghazi didn’t work as an election issue in 2012, it is unlikely that it will be any more successful four years down the road when many more pressing issues have come to the fore.

The Benghazi hearings are geared toward an inside crowd, those who are already convinced that Hillary is covering up some awful dereliction of duty and this is somehow connected to Blumenthal. As such, the hearings may be excellent for fundraising. The Republicans will get some good soundbites that they can exploit for their re-election campaigns. But the hearings are unlikely to move the bored electorate, the vast majority of whom have never heard of Sidney Blumenthal and still don't understand how he became such a focal point of today's proceedings.