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Of all the feats of prosecutorial muscle displayed by Kenneth Starr, his single-handed transformation of Sidney Blumenthal into a poster boy for a free and unfettered press is the most amazing. The special prosecutor is currently hammering the White House aide to find out who is spreading dirt about his investigation.

Until last Tuesday, Blumenthal had busied himself puncturing the Fourth Estate’s First Amendment prerogatives. Blumenthal, you may recall, took time out from his duties as Washington correspondent for the New Yorker two years ago to assist Hillary Rodham Clinton in conjuring an enemies list of media ne’er-do-wells. And once Blumenthal had turned in his notepad for a White House pass, he built a grassy knoll out of his belief there is a vast journalistic jihad trying to deprive President Clinton of his birthright. In between drawing conspiracy trees on a white board and channeling for Hillary’s darker side, he paused to sue the hell out of digitainer Matt Drudge for publishing a false report alleging that Blumenthal was a domestic abuser.

Blumenthal, like any bona fide Washington player, invokes the Constitution when it suits him. Now that his new career as White House media monitor has yielded a grand jury appearance in Starr’s chamber—his turn in the limelight was ultimately delayed until Thursday—Blumenthal has his own personal mouthpiece sputtering about free speech.

“We view it as an assault on the First Amendment, and I think this is obviously intended to…intimidate the press,” Blumenthal attorney Jo Marsh told the Associated Press. The proceedings are secret, so who knows—maybe Starr is just pulling Blumenthal in for a little advice on how to bring the media jackals to heel.

Blumenthal, by the way, will be back in the very same courthouse on March 11, but then it will be as a plaintiff asking for damages inflicted by the deleterious effects of Drudge’s inaccurate free speech. (Among Blumenthal’s initial demands: “the name of the ‘White House source’ whom you purported to quote.”)

The irony would be too delicious to bear were it not for growing fears that one of the casualties of the pissing match between Clinton and Starr may be the Constitution. The specter of a White House aide being compelled to divulge any and all contacts with reporters is hateful, and per se contrary to the notion of a free society. But it’s hard to forget that the guy with his nuts in Starr’s vise is Blumenthal, a campaign consultant who has masqueraded as a reporter. Journalists have been dutifully horrified, although a dash of Schadenfreude always seems to go with it.

“It would take an awful lot to get the honest press to rally around Sid Blumenthal, but if anybody can pull it off, Ken Starr can. Not everybody is blessed with that kind of adversary,” says National Journal and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly.

Kelly succeeded Blumenthal at the New Yorker and immediately tore down the façade of respectability Blumenthal had erected around the Clinton White House. Kelly isn’t surprised that when Blumenthal switched estates he turned around and opened fire, saying it’s consistent with Blumenthal’s MO when he worked at the New Republic, the Post, and the New Yorker.

“I think he believes that everyone operated the way he did. He got a lot of information from people who trusted him as a politically reliable propagandist. It’s understandable that he would think that is the way that the rest of the world works. The con man always assumes that everybody else is in on the game,” Kelly says.

Even if it is Blumenthal in the middle of it all, Starr’s subpoena-happy offensive is a menace to the free flow of information and may derail his role as special prosecutor; Stuart Taylor called for Starr’s resignation in the National Journal even before his latest witch hunt. As frequently happens in politics, both sides have come to deserve each other: a president who allegedly has his way with those around him and a special prosecutor who doesn’t care whom he screws in his effort to bring that same president down.

Exceptional Excerpt In two weeks, Post media columnist Howard Kurtz’s book Spin Cycle, which chronicles the media tactics of the Clinton White House, will hit the shelves. The book’s roll-out, though, lost a bit of pop last week when Kurtz plucked one of its news-breaking nuggets from the galleys and dropped it into the Feb. 14 edition of the Post. Kurtz reported that Blumenthal had ginned up a White House backlash against Post reporter Susan Schmidt’s vigorous pursuit of the Whitewater story. The first lady, according to Kurtz, had asked White House lawyers in 1996 to prepare a critical report of Schmidt’s work at the suggestion of Blumenthal, who was working for the New Yorker at the time.

The White House quashed the report before it got out, but Schmidt came under renewed attack by Clintonites when she reported that Secret Service agent Lewis Fox had said that Monica Lewinsky “spent at least 40 minutes alone with Clinton.” According to the New York Observer, spinners at the White House began madly faxing and phoning to refute the story and repeatedly assailed Schmidt’s objectivity. The Observer’s Warren St. John suggested that the Post’s publication of Kurtz’s story about a 2-year-old event was a clear example of the paper moving to defend one of its own. Kurtz says he trumped his own book to meet competitive, not corporate, imperatives.

“This was a bit of news that other reporters were sniffing around on, and I went to Len Downie and said if they thought it was newsworthy they could publish it,” Kurtz says. “I did it not to defend Sue Schmidt but to illuminate the mind-set of the White House officials dealing with the press.”

The issue of when Post writers’ books become subject to cherry-picking is a complicated one. There is the Bob Woodward Clause, which suggests that he can do any old thing he wants to, and there is the rest of the world. “There is no firm policy,” Kurtz says. And the Post’s handling of one of the stories knocking around in Spin Cycle hardly clarifies it.

And just in case you were wondering, Kurtz “categorically denies that this was some clever marketing move on my part. My publisher was not that happy about it.” Judging from the placement of the piece—salted away on Page 21 in the front section—his editors felt a little sensitive about covering themselves as well.

People Not Like Us Anybody who thinks Washington lacks the kind of loyalties that quilt together other cities might want to take a look at the tidy circle of wagons around Vernon Jordan. Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, R.W. Apple of the New York Times, and Sally Quinn of the Post have all paid tribute to Jordan at a time when he is being investigated for suborning perjury. The defense has been stalwart and fatuous: Jordan, the ultimate fixer, was simply bamboozled by those crafty little buggers from Arkansas. Quinn, in particular, offered inspired palliative measures. In a Post Magazine piece that presented a clear view into the skull of Washington’s permanent class, Quinn put the rest of the world on notice that the tribe would look after its own:

“When Vernon Jordan stood in front of the cameras in late January to declare that at no time did he encourage Monica Lewinsky to lie, most of the country observed a solemn and resolute man defending his reputation before a horde of unruly and scandal-hungry journalists….When Jordan looked out from the lectern that day, what he saw was in fact not a mob of rabid reporters, but a collection of friends and colleagues, people with whom he had dined and socialized and transacted business for many years.”

The doyenne of Washington’s cocktail nation was not content with providing additional Teflon for Jordan. She made it clear that in a choice between Jordan and the president he served, it wasn’t even close.

“…[S]candals can also be cohesive, in part because the elite rallies to preserve its institutions against interlopers who might corrode or undermine them, and in part because everyone understands exactly how to behave, what role to play, what position to take,” Quinn wrote. Her role, in case you missed it, is to distinguish the silky Jordan from those crass elected arrivistes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In addition to her bon mot in the magazine, she offered the Times the following cat scratch:

“Vernon has a place in the community,” she said. “He knows where he’s going to be for the rest of his life. If you consider the life of Bill Clinton—whenever he leaves the White House, he’s going to get on a plane and where is he going to go? I mean, when you think about it, he’s homeless.”

There, the clothespin is finally off. The smart set hates that trailer-trasher from Little Rock almost as much as old what’s-his-name the peanut farmer. To Quinn’s gimlet eye, Clinton’s current travails are the ultimate expression of bad breeding.

A lifelong observer of the Washington social and political scene thinks all the Jordan-hugging provides an equally disgusting spectacle. “It’s as if it’s OK if a presidency is toppled by indiscretion, but God forbid that Vernon should be sullied by this,” the observer says. “I mean, who are all of these people who decide this stuff? The 30 people she has over on New Year’s? People don’t care who gets invited anymore.”

If Quinn does speak for an upper crust, it’s one that seems to be crumbling.

“Her quandary is starkly confronting the specter of her own irrelevance,” says James Warren, bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune. “Every time one sees her, you see someone grasping to be taken seriously. I don’t know the woman personally, but she is one of the last people that should be opining on office relationships.”

Quinn and the rest of her tea party obviously can’t wait to get their hands on Al Gore, a nice St. Albans boy who still knows the value of the A-list. She concludes her magazine piece with the following embossed invitation:

“The line most often heard inside establishment Washington after the scandal broke was this: ‘I think Al Gore is a truly decent man. And I just adore Tipper.’”

Copy Boy Jackpot People remember Peter Gilstrap for different reasons in Washington. Some remember him as a member of the bands Mother May I and the Neighbors; others recall a promising young writer who got many bylines while serving as a copy aide at Post Style in the early ’90s. A better job was not forthcoming, so Gilstrap headed west and hooked up with the alternative paper Phoenix New Times and became an immensely popular weekly columnist. At the request of his ownership, he recently took his column to New Times Los Angeles. He made a decision to look into the ancient Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping story, taking a ride to Vegas with one of the kidnappers, Barry Keenan. The column worked out a little better than planned. It was published as a massive cover piece that prompted some 100 producers and assorted other Hollywood shmenges to contact Gilstrap in pursuit of the rights. Variety reported on Jan. 23 that Columbia was going to ante up between $750,000 and $1 million for the story, a fee that will be split between Gilstrap, his employer, and Keenan. “All hell broke loose….It is incredibly overwhelming,” Gilstrap says. “I take it all with about 50 pounds of salt. I have seen enough and read enough about Hollywood to understand the nuances of all the bullshit. I am definitely hanging on to my day job.”

Correction: In the 1/30 Paper Trail, it was reported that the Post had withheld its initial Monica Lewinsky story from its first edition to avoid allowing the Times to match the story. That was incorrect. Post deputy national editor Brian Kelly explains: “It just wasn’t ready [for the first edition]. As soon as we had it ready, we put it in the newspaper, which turned out to be the second edition.” —David Carr

#E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.