When the White House announced the appointment of Sidney Blumenthal as assistant to President Bill Clinton, it was perfect dinner-party material for Washington's media. The announcement, in June 1997, was also the source of a sour mix of journalistic cynicism and professional jealousy. Since Mr Clinton's 1992 campaign triumph, Blumenthal had used his columns in the New Yorker and other publications to venerate the presidency - to the point, many colleagues thought, of outright sycophancy. To many pundits, Mr Blumenthal was simply going to be paid by the White House for something he had long done for free. Indeed, the New York Observer remarked the Clintons should give their new appointee several years of back-pay. But amid the barrage of sniping, there was a lone voice backing an old friend. Christopher Hitchens, the prickly British writer who covers politics for Vanity Fair, told the Washington Post the critics were simply jealous Mr Blumenthal was reaping the reward for his opinionated coverage of a president he admired. Hitchens said: 'Sidney just openly said: 'I think this guy has the best politics and would be the best president.' Many people who were just as much in the Clinton tank, but less honestly and affirmatively so, can now reinforce their own claim to being above the fray by jumping on Sid.' That Hitchens would openly back the move was no big surprise. As much as he disliked and mistrusted the president, he and Mr Blumenthal had been close friends for a decade, joining each other for regular family get-togethers. Imagine Mr Blumenthal's shock, therefore, when he heard last Saturday that his old friend had sworn an affidavit before counsel for the Congressional impeachment managers, which revealed the contents of a private conversation between the two men, and effectively called Mr Blumenthal a liar and perjurer. The affidavit not only interfered with the Clinton trial, bolstering to a degree the prosecution's charge of obstruction of justice, but it also lay Mr Blumenthal open to the possibility of being indicted at some point for perjury. The fact that a supposed good friend could pull such an act, putting into question his journalistic integrity, speaks volumes not only about the character of the two main protagonists, but also of the incestuous nature of the relationship between the media and the political class in the nation's capital. There is enormous personal drama in this story: a tale of a bitter wedge driven between not only two friends - but two men who, in their own way, wield extensive influence inside the Beltway. Hitchens is one of those peculiar Washington creations - a journalist-cum-political commentator whose own celebrity often seems equal to the suits he writes about. Americans love to hate him as the token cynical Brit in town, a man quite happy to go against the flow and throw insults around the table if it will enhance his reputation. He is best known as the man who dared to cast aspersions on the spotless reputations of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, and a pundit who enthusiastically cuts through the usual bland etiquette of television debate by telling his opponents to 'shut up'. But even those Washington insiders who are used to Hitchens' overwhelming ego were astonished that he would inject himself into the Monica Lewinsky saga other than through the tip of his acerbic pen. He appears to have been irate that Mr Blumenthal testified to the impeachment staff that he was not the source of stories that appeared in the press soon after the Lewinsky scandal broke, painting the former intern as a 'stalker' who had turned the president into an innocent victim. Hitchens recalled that at a lunch last March 17, Mr Blumenthal repeatedly referred to her in those terms, and seemed intent on placing that idea into his friend's mind. Was it an attack of moral outrage, or a familiar Hitchens ploy to get himself into the story? Could it have been a public relations stunt to plug his forthcoming book rubbishing the Clinton presidency? Whatever the truth, the journalist agreed - when contacted by committee staff who had heard rumours of his anger - to sign an affidavit giving his version of what happened at the fateful lunch. In doing so, Hitchens stands accused of breaking a reporter's number one rule: never divulge sources or the contents of off-the-record conversations. In fact, Mr Blumenthal had tempted such a fate when his lawyer - convinced that Mr Blumenthal's claims of innocence could not be contradicted - gave reporters carte blanche to declare openly any information the presidential aide had given them in the Lewinsky matter. But does that let Hitchens off the hook? 'I can't imagine why Hitch would do this, unless he's trying to promote his book,' Joan Bingham, a Washington publisher, told the Washington Post. 'Because of what Hitch has done, Sidney is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal expenses. There are people around town who think that Hitch has gone loony.' Mr Blumenthal has responded by repeating his denial of spreading anti-Lewinsky stories, adding: 'My wife and I are saddened that Christopher chose to end our long friendship in this meaningless way.' Even if Hitchens faces being banned from the capital's A-list cocktail parties, he has, in his own way, drawn a valuable moral line by refusing to countenance the kind of unadulterated spin-doctoring so many Washington journalists lap up from day to day. There has never been any secret that Mr Blumenthal joined the White House as a spin doctor. Through his friends in the media, his daily task has been to manage crises and massage stories to his boss's satisfaction. Whether or not Mr Blumenthal was involved in an effort to discredit Ms Lewinsky, there is no doubt; such a campaign took place. Just as administration officials threw mud at Linda Tripp by leaking details of a past arrest, so did they try to bolster the president's denials of a sexual affair by planting stories calling into question Ms Lewinsky's mental stability. No one emerges from this affair smelling of roses. Many Washingtonians may be glad they do not have friends like Hitchens, while others secretly gloat that what has befallen Mr Blumenthal could not happen to a nicer man. If, however, President Clinton walks away beaming from his Senate acquittal while one of his loyal henchmen ends up on trial, it will be a harsh justice.