Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Storyby Michael Isikoff, Michael Asikoff
"I realized something that should have been apparent to me much earlier: I was in the middle of a plot to get the president.”
A quarter of a century after Woodward and Bernstein’s history-making expose All the President’s Men stunned the nation by capturing the Nixon presidency in the throes of turmoil, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff gives us an/i>/i>
"I realized something that should have been apparent to me much earlier: I was in the middle of a plot to get the president.”
A quarter of a century after Woodward and Bernstein’s history-making expose All the President’s Men stunned the nation by capturing the Nixon presidency in the throes of turmoil, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff gives us an equally explosive and surprisingly suspenseful behind-the-scenes account of his investigative role in the scandals that have rocked President Clinton’s second term and led to the historic vote for impeachment that will define his presidency.
Isikoff, who is credited with breaking the Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky stories, is universally acknowledged as the leading reporter who brought to light the incredible revelations about Clinton’s personal and political lives that have consumed this country and shocked the world. As a reporter for the Washington Post and Newsweek, Isikoff has established himself as an astute observer and chronicler of Clinton's conduct throughout his presidency, following a trail of presidential misconduct from Little Rock, Arkansas, to the Oval Office. But Isikoff also unwittingly became a primary character in the unfolding Clinton drama. This is a story only he could tell, a gripping narrative of how one journalist went from battling skeptical editors and a formidable White House spin machine in his quest for the truth about Clinton to becoming a central participant in one of the biggest scandals in American political history.
Featuring a cast of bizarre characters who make this book as entertaining to read as a novel, Uncovering Clinton is also a nuanced and scrupulously fair account with a wealth of never-before-told information about the major players and events in the Clinton scandals, including:
- The real reasons why some Washington Post reporters and editors believed Paula Jones’ story from the start and why Isikoff’s story nonetheless was later killed before it ran.
- How George Stephanopolous covered for Clinton as Isikoff pursued the Paula Jones story.
- How Lucianne Goldberg’s private notebook and tapes of her phone calls with Linda Tripp show that while Tripp was crying “victim” to the press, she was really plotting to bring down the president and betray Monica Lewinsky and write a book about it all./li>
- The real truth behind Hillary Clinton’s oft-cited “vast right-wing conspiracy” a coterie of right-wing lawyers known as “the elves” who secretly wrote the Jones legal briefs and arranged to bring the Lewinsky story to Ken Starr’s office and to public light.
- How Linda Tripp manipulated Ken Starr’s prosecutors into launching a criminal investigation into the Lewinsky matter while withholding critical information, including her repeated contacts with Isikoff.
Isikoff had no agenda when he started investigating President Clinton’s conduct other than to get at the truth. Now, after accomplishing a remarkable case of journalistic detective work, Isikoff gives us something even more significant: a work that illuminates the psychologically troubling behavior of a president, an Administration that has enabled his actions, a motley crew of Clinton-haters who would stop at nothing to topple the president, and a rapidly changing media grappling with the ever-shifting boundaries between public and private behavior. Uncovering Clinton will surely be the definitive account of our nation’s biggest political scandal since Watergate.
Author Bio: Michael Isikoff joined the Washington Post in 1981, where he covered the Justice Department, the Iran-Contra Affair, and Latin American drug operations. In 1994, he moved to Newsweek, where he covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 election campaign, and other national issues. His exclusive reporting on the Lewinsky scandal gained him nationwide attention, including profiles in the New York Times and the Washington Post. He is a news analyst for MSNBC and a frequent guest on numerous news programs including NBC's Meet the Press and PBS's Charlie Rose.
The American Spectator
What always gets overlooked in this sort of speculation is an accomplishment that may prove to be Clinton's greatest legacy: his entertainment value. Imagine how boring the past seven years might have been without the unending intrigue that the entertainer-in-chief and his supporting cast have brought us. It's been a drama of operatic dimension, starting with that first weasely 60 Minutes interview during the '92 campaign and building up to Monica Lewinsky's appearance with Barbara Walters, when the fat lady sang. Throughout it all, Clinton has proven himself to be a bold new type of celebrity that no star-hungry citizen can resist. Any student of the Madonna school of fame knows that if you lack talent, you tweak your persona every few years to hold the public's attention. What's so brilliant about Clinton as a performer is that he embodies several personas simultaneously. The president's multiple-identity disorder becomes apparent after rifling through three new books that feature him.
Take Uncovering Clinton, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff's account of how he survived a one-man journalistic sally through the minefield that is the chief executive's sex life. Here, Clinton comes across as a dangerousshadow presence, plotting and manipulating from a throne of treachery to cover his stains. As the reporter spins an entertaining investigative yarn out of the way he snagged the first interview with Paula Jones, hunted down several women who felt the president's pain, and sniffed out Linda Tripp (first impression: "a somewhat annoyed-looking, heavyset woman with disheveled hair') only to be upstaged by gossip hound Matt Drudge, Clinton emerges as a deeply flawed leader with no compunction about abusing his authority. Suspecting Clinton is a sexual predator allows the author to justify delving into such tawdry subject matter, one of many ethical dilemmas he mulls over for all of two seconds before resuming the hunt. Isikoff's compulsion to defend his dogged pursuit of a hot story reaches its hilarious nadir when he rebuts Lucianne Goldberg's complaint in her testimony that he ate more than his share of her gourmet pistachios at their first meeting: "It was late in the day and I was hungry.' Mostly, though, he spares us his whining and concentrates on presenting only the facts behind Slick Willy's indiscretions.
That's why Joyce Milton's The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton is ultimately more fun to readshe's not afraid to dish. Trying to understand the freak show that is the Clintons' marriage from its shaky beginnings to its frigid present, the writer who previously has written biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Martin Luther King Jr. draws on a number of substantiated and unsubstantiated sources, like the juicy Arkansas state trooper stories. "I need to get fucked more than twice a year!' one of the troopers recalls Hillary shouting in an argument, and that seems to have been one of her better days. Her hubby comes across about the only way he can in the context of his married lifea bumbling, horny oaf. A far cry from Isikoff's schemer, this bubba couldn't finagle his way out of a Happy Meal.
Hillary is the brains of the operation, though she jeopardizes Bill's rise to power as much as she helps it. The ice maiden presented in Milton's pages is partially culpable for nearly every controversy of the Clintons' joint political life. When she's not mercilessly picking apart anything and everything about the First Lady, from her liberal activist roots to her White House Christmas tree decorations, Milton even blames her subject for helping to cover up the sexual indiscretions she's known about from the start of her relationship. A marriage of convenience? In a moment of rare sympathy for these two law-school grads brought and stuck together by measureless ambition, Milton points out all the damage they've done to each other and those around them, noting that there is "very little that could be called 'convenient' about the Clintons' marriage.'
After wallowing in the eight hundred pages of Arkansan depravity between these tomes, Dick Morris' guide to modern political survival, The New Prince, surprisingly proves to be the most upbeat of the three. Clinton's former political consultant uses his most famous client as his shining exemplar of the perfect politicianone who understands what the people want and gives it to them. While it seems unavoidable that sleaze would creep into the musings of a confirmed whoremonger updating Machiavelli by citing the career moves of the most publicly disgraced standing president of all time, the book takes a higher road.
Morris makes the assertion that the twenty-first century politician can only succeed by embracing idealism, being honest when faced with scandal, and stressing issues over image. However dubious his assertions, his predominately glowing references to that which Clinton has done right (balancing the budget, reforming welfare, ushering in an age of micro-proposals for improving the everyday minutiae of our lives) are pleasant reminders that there's no need to feel guilty about enjoying the Clinton Show.
The president, after all, has more or less done his job as effectively as any other chief executive, with an added bonus. Running the country well enough to keep his audience comfortable, Clinton has ensured we can enjoy his living theater of passion, betrayal and stupidity without distraction and free of charge. Steve Wilson
The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
"It's just a cheap political
It didn't take Craig Shirley long to figure out that things weren't going well. The slight giggles, the hostile questions, the looks on the faces of the reporters listening to the odd woman at the podium, told him all he needed to know. The press conference Shirley had helped arrange a press conference he hoped would embarrass and even humiliate the president of the United States was starting to look like a train wreck.
Only a few hours earlier, Shirley a charter member of what First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton years later described as a "vast right-wing conspiracy" thought things would be quite different. It was February 11, 1994, and a miserable winter storm had snarled traffic in the nation's capital. Shirley was helping to coordinate publicity for the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting of hard-line activists that had started the day before at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel. If there was any unifying theme to the event, it was the presumed defects ideological, political, ethical of William Jefferson Clinton. Few disdained Clinton more than Shirley, a veteran right-wing Republican strategist and political consultant. Like many of those present, he viewed the president as a moral leper, a man undeserving of the respect customarily afforded the occupant of the highest office of the land. But Clinton-bashing was to be expected at events like the CPAC conference. A cool pragmatist about the world of public relations, Shirley knew the usual anti-Clinton rants had little chance of making news. Then early that morning, Shirley had huddled in a hotel suite with Cliff Jackson, a lanky lawyer from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and one of Bill Clinton's oldest and most bitter political enemies. Suddenly, Craig Shirley got very excited.
Jackson had been booked for a CPAC panel on media coverage of Clinton. He was invited to speak about his role in giving birth to Troopergate, the raucous mini-scandal that had erupted barely two months earlier when a group of Arkansas state troopers told stories about soliciting women and facilitating extramarital trysts for Clinton while he was governor. The stories were indeed extraordinary at once shocking, nasty and, if true, disturbing. The troopers depicted Clinton as a terminal adolescent with a libido that was out of control, a man-child who plotted endlessly to conceal his escapades from the public and from his tempestuous wife. Jackson had a philosophy about how to handle stories such as these. When it came to exposing Clinton, he argued, conservatives had to overcome their distrust of the news media and reach out to mainstream news organizations. He had done precisely that with Troopergate, secretly arranging for the troopers to tell their stories to Bill Rempel, a ferocious investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. Reporters like Rempel had no qualms about going after Democrats like Clinton; they were "equal opportunity abusers" who had long since concluded that anything Clinton said had to be viewed with a healthy degree of distrust. Still, fearing that Rempel's editors might get cold feet, Jackson had arranged for an ideologically sympathetic "backup" in this case the conservative American Spectator's resident "hit man" David Brock to be given the same stories on an embargoed basis. The strategy worked: when Rempel's nervous editors held his story, Brock rushed into print, thereby forcing the Los Angeles Times to publish its far more substantial account of Clinton's rampant womanizing. At least for a brief moment, the Times story gave Troopergate "legs." Rempel had done his homework: He had cell phone records documenting Clinton's repeated late night calls to one of his alleged paramours; he had one of the troopers recounting how Clinton, as president, had tried to entice him to keep silent by offering a federal job. It was, as Jackson saw it, a textbook example of how to work with, some might say manipulate, the mainstream media.
To spice up his presentation to the CPAC conference, Jackson had brought his troopers to Washington, where they would have a chance to repeat their accounts to what was sure to be a wildly appreciative audience. But that morning, Jackson briefed Shirley on somebody else he had brought along a former Arkansas state worker. Her name was Paula Corbin Jones.
When Jackson relayed what Jones had to say, Shirley reported later, his jaw dropped. This, he thought, was going to be huge.
* * *
The press conference convened at one P.M. in the Omni Shoreham's shabbily elegant Diplomat Room. Within minutes, Shirley realized that nothing was going according to plan. Jackson's two troopers beefy, vaguely menacing men took their seats on the dais just a few feet from Jones and her entourage. Jackson, it turned out, wanted to use the press conference to make a fundraising pitch. A "Troopergate Whistleblower Fund" had been set up to handle the "legitimate job security" and "legal services" needs of his cops and to encourage other whistleblowers to step forward and tell the truth about Bill Clinton in a "professional, dignified and non-tabloid manner." Jackson had set up an easel with a poster bearing an 800 number for benefactors to call. This was really stupid, Shirley thought. It was sure to turn off the press.
Then there was the lawyer Jackson had brought along, a bespectacled "good ol' boy" with an Arkansas drawl named Danny Traylor. Traylor was Paula Jones's attorney. Jackson described him as a "yellow dog Democrat." When he took the podium, he baffled everybody. He was, he said, just a "real estate lawyer" and he had not come to Washington to cause "any undue embarrassment to the First Family." He and his client just wanted to redress a grievance. The story Traylor told that afternoon was convoluted. "Mrs. Jones," as he called his client, had come to Washington to clear her "good reputation." She had been "defamed, libeled and slandered" by Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson in the Troopergate article written by David Brock and published in the American Spectator.
This seemed to make no sense. Cliff Jackson the man who had just introduced him was the impresario of the Troopergate article. But Traylor insisted that on one point, the Brock article had got it all wrong. It quoted Ferguson, anonymously, describing how he had taken a woman identified only as "Paula" to a hotel room to meet Clinton. The article suggested that this woman had had a "consummated and satisfying sexual experience with Bill Clinton." It quoted her as volunteering to be Clinton's "regular girlfriend" after their meeting. The "Paula" in question was his client, Paula Jones, and she had indeed gone to meet Bill Clinton that day at the invitation of trooper Ferguson. But the quote attributed to her was false; so, too, was any suggestion that the meeting had resulted in a "satisfying sexual experience." In fact, Jones's experience in the hotel room with Bill Clinton had been quite unpleasant.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Traylor said, "out of deference to the First Family [and] the presidency, I do not want to appeal to the prurient interests of us all." So he was instructing his client not to say precisely what happened when Bill Clinton met Paula Jones. "But let me assure you that what transpired in that room is the legal equivalent of on-the-job sexual harassment."
Jones herself seemed a puzzle. Slight, somewhat mousy, with long dark hair, she had a high-pitched, squeaky voice. She was twenty-seven years old, the mother of a young boy. She was accompanied by an angry-looking husband who remained resolutely silent. Jones looked nothing like Gennifer Flowers, the lounge singer with frosted hair who had rocked Clinton's campaign in 1992. When it was her turn to speak, she was maddeningly circumspect. "It's just humiliating what he did to me," she said.
What? reporters wanted to know. What had he done to you?
"He treated me in a most unprofessional manner."
Reporters hate nothing more than to be teased. The vagueness of Jones's account seemed to infuriate them. The questions, skeptical at first, grew hostile. Traylor and Jackson claimed that Jones had received no money to come to Washington to tell her story. Would she and her husband turn over their credit card receipts to verify that was the case? As for her allegations about the incident in the hotel room, the press corps demanded specifics.
"Was there any physical contact?"
"Was there any touching?"
"Was there any exposure of sexual parts?"
Jones huddled with Traylor. The lawyer decided to "open the door a bit" and let her give a few more details. Yes, Clinton had touched her. He had taken her by the hand and pulled her close to him. He had asked her for a "type of sex."
What did that mean? Nobody was satisfied, including Reed Irvine, the dyspeptic chief of Accuracy in Media a conservative watchdog group. Irvine wanted Jones to tell all. That was the only way to make headlines, he knew. He thought he might smoke her out by asking a pointed enough question.
"You mentioned that he asked you to perform a sexual act," he shouted from the audience. "Was this something that involved taking his clothes off?"
The audience groaned.
Shirley watched the reporters glancing at each other and shaking their heads. He could tell: Nobody's buying it. He had begun the day hoping that CNN would carry Jones live; that the TV networks would report on her allegations that evening; that the major newspapers would carry her story on the front page the next day. CNN hadn't even bothered to show up. Now, Shirley wondered what, if anything, could possibly come of this.
Even Traylor, Jones's lawyer, seemed to have his doubts. By the end of the press conference, he was actually apologizing for even taking up the president's time with such a matter. He had no political agenda, he said. He and his client had no reason to embarrass the president or even to press the matter any further, even though, Traylor strongly hinted, they might well have a cause of legal action. But he had "lost a lot of sleep" over how to handle his client's needs and decided for now on a different course of action. He had written Ferguson a letter asking him to admit the truth. He had written the president a letter as well. All Clinton had to do was acknowledge his misbehavior, apologize to his client and set the record straight that there had been no sexual relations between the two of them.
Then he and Jones would go away.
Traylor closed with a quaint entreaty.
"We've got Bosnia," said Traylor. "We've got a health care crisis. We've got eighteen children living in a room without a father. Mr. President, this is something that shouldn't occupy your energy and your attention. I would encourage you to come forward and ... tell the American people what the truth of this matter is. If you made a mistake, the American people will forgive you."
Based on how the press conference had gone, there was little reason to think the White House would have to pay Traylor's request any heed. But years later, some said it was the soundest advice Bill Clinton would ever get.
* * *
To help drum up interest earlier in the day, Shirley had tipped off two reporters from The Washington Post to Jones's appearance. One was Lloyd Grove, a wry, acerbic writer for the paper's Style section who specialized in lampooning the idiosyncracies and idiocies of politicians of all stripes. Grove had watched much of the press conference with a bemused expression. What a joke this all was, he thought. Why would Jones choose to come forward at an event hosted by a Clinton enemy like Cliff Jackson and surrounded by people like Reed Irvine? And why was Traylor prattling on about a presidential apology? The whole thing illustrated the right wing's obsession with bimbos. He had been planning to write a Style article poking gentle fun at the CPAC conference and never imagined he would be handed such rich material.
I was the other Post reporter in the audience, and I had a somewhat different perspective. I was forty-one years old and on the national staff, assigned to cover the Justice Department a prestige beat that was supposed to involve important national issues like affirmative action and the future of the criminal justice system. But for the past two years, I had carved out a far more entertaining subspecialty: investigating allegations of improprieties involving Bill and Hillary Clinton.
I had no particular ax to grind. As a college student, in the early 1970s, I had been inspired by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they uncovered the crimes of Richard Nixon. As a professional reporter, I had frequently had occasion to skewer Republicans, exposing the hypocrisies of the religious Right many of whose leaders figured prominently at the CPAC conference. I had written extensively about the glaring weaknesses in gun control laws, earning the enmity of one of Shirley's clients, the National Rifle Association. I was even, briefly, a small hero to the Clinton campaign's notorious "war room" when in the fall of 1992 I broke a series of front-page stories describing how Bush administration officials at the State Department had pawed through Bill Clinton's old passport files in search of political dirt.
But as a reporter, I don't think ideologically. The political intrigue of Arkansas fascinated me the bizarre characters, the southern folklore, the strange mix of rumor, fact and tabloid fantasy. At the time, the Clinton White House seemed like a gothic warehouse filled with endless mysteries and intrigue. Lamps went flying in the middle of the night. Ushers and travel workers were fired for unexplained reasons. One sunny day the previous July, a White House lawyer a childhood friend of the president's had left work early, driven out to a park by the Potomac River and put a bullet through his mouth. Why? Why did these things happen?
Back in Little Rock that winter, odd characters kept popping up, talking about suspicious land deals and disappearing documents. Much of it was probably hokum cooked up by paranoids and far-right crazies. But all of it? Digging into Clinton's past was like walking into the pages of All the King's Men. You never knew what long-buried secrets you might stumble across.
I looked at Paula Jones and wondered: Could she be one of them?
* * *
As the press conference broke up, I decided to talk privately to Jackson. That morning, Shirley had told me what Jones would not say at the press conference: that Clinton had dropped his pants, exposed himself, and asked for oral sex. Now I wanted to hear this directly from Jackson. Was this really Jones's claim?
Yes, he assured me and it's even better than that. He reminded me that the press kit he had passed out included sworn affidavits from two friends asserting that Jones had first told them all about this that very day and that she was quite upset. That struck me as serious: real-time corroboration. I had helped cover the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings for the Post, and I remembered how feminist leaders had striven mightily to find witnesses who would testify that Hill had told them about Thomas's behavior at some point reasonably close to the time it had allegedly taken place. If Jackson's affidavits were to be believed, they could be important evidence that bolstered Jones's story, establishing that her account could not have been recently concocted to undermine Clinton's presidency.
I had gotten to know Jackson in 1992, when I first started chasing down Clinton scandal stories. There was no question he had an agenda and a deep animus toward the president. They had known each other for more than a quarter century and had actually once been friendly at Oxford University, where Jackson was a Fulbright Scholar while Clinton was a Rhodes. Clinton later had sought Jackson's help in contacting the leader of the Arkansas Republican Party to get a crucial draft deferment. But at some point the two went their separate ways. Over the years, a rivalry turned into a near blood feud at least on Jackson's side. I recalled having dinner with Jackson along with a colleague, David Marannis, in early 1992 and being struck by how personal it all seemed. Jackson was soft-spoken, shy, socially inept everything the fast-talking and personable Clinton was not. To Jackson, Clinton was a phony, a man who pretended to be your best friend one minute and forgot you the next, a man who would do anything to get ahead. Jackson, it was clear, burned with resentment toward Clinton. He reminded me a bit of Messala, the fictional Roman proconsul who, spurned by his childhood friend Ben-Hur, plots eternal vengeance.
Still, unlike many other embittered Clinton enemies, and there seemed to be quite a few of them in Arkansas, Jackson struck me as worth listening to. He was, I thought, a more complicated and interesting character than the rabid hater depicted by the White House. In my experience, Jackson didn't make things up; indeed, during the 1992 campaign he released letters stored in his attic that strengthened the case that Clinton had dissembled about his draft status. He was also a veteran trial lawyer; a few years earlier, he had won a multimillion-dollar sexual discrimination verdict on behalf of a female employee of Texaco not a case that would have attracted many arch-conservatives. Jackson understood the rules of evidence and the need of reporters to have solid sourcing. He assured me that he had personally spoken to Jones and her corroborators and could vouch for them.
I wanted to pursue this, I told him. Jackson was intrigued. To have The Washington Post take the story seriously would give the Jones allegations much more credibility. This, he thought, could be a repeat of his Troopergate strategy with the Los Angeles Times. Jackson took me aside, away from a group of reporters who seemed to be trying to listen in. In hushed, vaguely conspiratorial tones we talked some more.
Perhaps he could see to it that I could talk to Jones alone and check out her story. Would I be interested?
Of course, I said. Let's do it.
Jackson gave me his room number at the Shoreham and said I should call him later.
* * *
But first I had a story to write or at least so I thought. I arrived back at the Post newsroom about three P.M. and headed toward the national desk to brief my editors. Along the way, I ran into Robert Kaiser, the managing editor. With somewhat excessive enthusiasm, I gave him a quick fill: A new woman had just surfaced who was claiming Clinton whipped it out in a hotel room.
Kaiser, not surprisingly, glared at me disapprovingly. "What a worthwhile piece of news," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Yeah, well, we'll see," I muttered, walking away. Kaiser, in my view, was a pompous snob; a Yalie, a former Moscow correspondent, the son of a member of the diplomatic corps who had served as an ambassador under John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Kaiser liked to propound grand thoughts about the serious mission we at the Post had to educate our readers. Not surprisingly, he didn't have much use for me; in truth, many editors didn't. I was known for my disheveled attire, messy desk and erratic work habits. Personnel evaluations dating back a decade invariably described me as "difficult"; I was an "uncommunicative" reporter who wandered off on his own without keeping his editors informed. At best, Kaiser tolerated me; every once in a while, my tenacity produced results. Most of the time, I was quite certain, he viewed me with utter disdain.
In any case, if Kaiser wasn't interested in the story, I was sure other Post editors would be. I was right. Within minutes, the news of a new sex charge against Clinton spread through the newsroom and I soon got the word "Len" wanted to be briefed right away. Executive Editor Leonard Downie, the boss, successor to the legendary Benjamin C. Bradlee, was in many ways the antithesis of Kaiser; in Post folklore, he was "Land Grant Len," an Ohio State grad who worked his way up, starting as a tireless, low-level metro reporter who was breaking stories of land fraud in Prince George's County before the world had ever heard of Woodward and Bernstein. Downie was an aggressive newsman and fiercely competitive. When it came to scandals involving a president of the United States, he was determined the Post would not be beaten.
Downie wanted to know what this latest charge was all about. One by one, the editors assembled in his office Kaiser, Karen DeYoung, the Post national editor Fred Barbash, the deputy national editor, and a few others. I held court, laying out Jones's allegations and why I thought they were serious. Only a few months earlier, I explained, the paper had wrestled with what to do about the Troopergate allegations that Clinton had routinely used state police officers to procure women for sexual trysts. The White House had labeled the charges "ridiculous"; aides had demanded to know how come there wasn't a single woman who had stepped forth to confirm what the troopers were saying. The point had been taken up by Clinton's defenders in the news media. "Where are the women?" asked Joe Klein in a Newsweek column entitled "The Citizens of Bimboland" that derided the troopers' accounts as "trash."
Well, here was a woman, I told the Post editors. Jones said this happened to her.
I had brought along copies of the sworn affidavits from Jones's friends I passed them around.
The editors looked uncomfortable. Barbash was the most openly dismissive. We can't trust these affidavits, he said, waving his arm with disdain. They look exactly alike, he pointed out. They were clearly written by somebody else then handed to Jones's friends for their signatures.
Well, I started to say, they still signed.
Downie did not seem impressed with Barbash's point. That's the way these things are usually done, he pointed out. The lawyers prepare them that doesn't mean much. Let's go ahead and report it out, he said. I should call the White House and draft a story.
Within minutes, I was on the phone with Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos. I had dealt with Stephanopoulos a bit during the campaign and found him likable enough. He returned my calls relatively promptly and tried to be helpful. Now Stephanopoulos was irritated. He had watched Clinton almost sink under the weight of the Gennifer Flowers allegations in 1992 and then had spent considerable time during the campaign keeping the press from revisiting the issue. His primary weapon, captured brilliantly in the documentary The War Room, was shame. Serious journalists don't ask questions about stuff like this. "People will think you're scum," he could be heard telling a radio talk show host in The War Room who was threatening to air new sex allegations against Clinton.
He was only a bit more subtle with me. "You're not really going to write a story about this?" Stephanopoulos asked. It was obviously political, he argued. He pointed to Jackson's involvement and his advertisement to raise money for the "Troopergate Whistleblower Fund." He had already checked the story out. Clinton didn't even know this woman, he told me. She was being used.
Well, can I have a quote? I asked.
He hesitated. If he gave one, would that make it easier for the Post to run the story? I pressed. Downie has ordered me to write this, I told him. Grudgingly he gave one. The charge is "not true," he said. "It's just a cheap political fundraising trick."
There were a few other players who had to be called. One, of course, was the trooper, Danny Ferguson. It was Ferguson's comments in the American Spectator that had prompted Jones to come forward. Although he had not been named in the piece, Ferguson was the trooper who described bringing a woman named "Paula" to Clinton's hotel room. "Paula told him she was available to be Clinton's regular girlfriend if he so desired," the article reported. I tracked down Ferguson in his home in Arkansas that afternoon to ask him if he had been accurately quoted. "I'm not going to have anything to say," he told me.
Well, what about the author of the Spectator article? Young and cocky, Brock had already made a name for himself as a right-wing attack dog, even before his Troopergate scoop, his book The Real Anita Hill, had skewered the feminist icon. It seemed no small irony that Jones's main beef, or at least her reason for going public, was her distress at what she contended was the libelously inaccurate portrayal of her in Brock's piece. I got Brock on the phone and asked him: Did you get it wrong?
Brock got huffy. Not at all, he said. The Jones story "corroborates the essence" of what he wrote because it shows that the troopers actually did solicit women for Clinton.
Well, how about Jones's complaint that you portrayed her wrongly, she contended as a compliant sexual partner of Clinton?
"That seems a fairly minor point to me," Brock said.
What a sensitive guy, I thought as I hung up.
While I was writing, my Post colleague Lloyd Grove was sent back to the hotel by Downie to interview Jones. The Post wanted to know precisely what she was alleging. Grove found Jones in her room at the Shoreham. She was lounging on the bed. She was friendly, but Traylor refused to lift his instructions that she not talk about the events of the day in question. "She wouldn't tell me what happened," Grove said later. Grove got annoyed and frustrated. "I told her this is not credible, you're attacking the president of the United States. You've got to do a little better than this. This is really not a good way of getting your message out." Jones simply repeated the same limited account she had given at the news conference. After about an hour, Grove gave up and returned to the Post. His assessment: He had no idea whether or not she was telling the truth.
By now, it was getting close to deadline. By 6:30 P.M. I had written about eight hundred words a relatively minor piece that I figured would run inside the paper somewhere. The story was low-key and, I thought, down the middle. Jones's charge was the lead, followed by a paragraph of context and Stephanopoulos's denial:
A former Arkansas state employee said yesterday that President Clinton made unwanted sexual advances during a 15-minute encounter in a Little Rock hotel room while he was governor in 1991.
The woman, Paula Jones, 27, provided her account of what she called "sexual harassment" at a Washington press conference sponsored by a conservative political group seeking to embarrass the president by reviving allegations of his sexual infidelity.
White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos flatly denied Jones's story, saying Clinton did not know the woman and that she was being used by the president's political enemies. "It's not true," he said of her account. "It's just a cheap political fundraising trick.
But Cliff Jackson, a bitter political enemy of the president who hosted the press conference, said that Jones's story provided important new corroboration for the recent accounts of two Arkansas state troopers that they were regularly instructed to solicit potential sexual partners for Clinton.
The story, I felt, played it straight. But was it fair? When the issue is something as highly charged and corrosive as sexual misconduct, do the usual rules apply? Is it responsible journalism to report sensational allegations simply because they had been aired at a public forum? I thought there was enough there the sworn affidavits from Jones's friends, the rough tracking with the Ferguson version of the same story to let the readers know what had gone on at the CPAC conference. But I realized it was going to be a dicey call.
No sooner had I finished than I picked up rumblings of what I was up against. Stephanopoulos had been on the phone with Ann Devroy, the paper's chief White House correspondent, lobbying hard against my story. Devroy apparently agreed and talked to some of the editors on the national desk. Now, just as the paper was being laid out, Downie convened another meeting.
This time, the discussion was more pointed. Devroy, without mentioning her talks with Stephanopoulos, argued most forcefully. "How can we run this story?" she demanded. "We have no idea if any of this is true." The involvement of Cliff Jackson made the whole thing suspect. We hadn't even interviewed the woman ourselves, we still didn't know precisely what she was alleging; we knew nothing about her background and how she came to be at this gathering of Clinton enemies.
I was annoyed more at the idea that another reporter was trying to suppress my story than at the points Devroy was raising. Devroy was a dogged reporter, the best White House correspondent in the business. I didn't view her as a White House lackey. But I did think she wanted to control the paper's coverage of Clinton. If the Post was going to stick it to the president, she wanted to be the reporter doing it on her terms. The press conference had been a public event; it was bound to be covered in most papers tomorrow and would probably get some TV coverage. "How could we not print anything?" I asked. Readers would hear something about Jones's charge and expect to learn something about it in their morning paper. "How can we just ignore this?"
For about half an hour, the debate went back and forth. Others joined in, mostly on Devroy's side. Downie listened then ruled. We would not run the story but not because we didn't take this seriously. In fact, he wanted it investigated thoroughly. Jones and her friends should be interviewed; we should look into who she was and how she'd come to make this charge. It was my job to get to the bottom of it.
Early that evening, I got back in touch with Jackson at the Shoreham. By now, he and his visitors from Little Rock Jones, her husband and Traylor were in the doldrums. CNN had ignored their press conference, and there was nothing on the network news. Now I was informing him that the Post wouldn't run anything. But I relayed Downie's charge to me: The story had to be investigated. I reminded him of our talk about the possibility of interviewing Jones in depth. Jackson seemed excited. If a "liberal" paper like the Post took an interest, that could change everything. Jackson, it turned out, had already talked to Traylor and Jones about my request. They, too, were interested. Of course, I explained, I wanted this to be exclusive. Nobody else should have access to Jones while I did what I had to do. Jackson understood. We worked out arrangements for me to come by the hotel and meet Jones the next morning.
Actually, I didn't wait that long to get to work. I had gotten the phone number of one of Jones's sisters that night one she supposedly had spoken to at the time about her experiences with Clinton and called her. Lydia Cathay, then twenty-nine and married, answered the phone and spoke to me at length. Yes, her sister had indeed told her all about the incident with Clinton the very night it happened. She came to the bedroom, shut the door, then plopped onto her bed and cried, Cathay said. "She was afraid she might lose her job."
I called Jones's mother, Delmer Corbin, who sounded somewhat confused. Still, her story tracked. "She didn't tell me near as much as she did her sister I think because she knew how much it would hurt me," she said. Well, I asked, what did she tell you? "I just remember her telling me how Clinton was flirting around. I do remember her saying he put his hands on her and kissed her.... I was greatly surprised that the governor would act that way toward her." Paula didn't tell her more, Corbin said, because "I think Paula was afraid that it would hurt her mother. I've cried, and I've prayed about this and it just hurts me. You know, she was brought up in church. I'm a Christian lady."
That night, I got a message that Downie wanted me to call him at home. I'd never been asked to do that before. I rang, he answered. He wanted to know where we stood, what we'd learned and what I planned to do next. I briefed him, told him about the plan to meet Jones on Saturday. I also told him about my interview with Jones's sister. "Well," said Downie, "that's a start."
Meet the Author
Michael Isikoff's exclusive reporting on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal gained him national attention, including profiles in the The New York Times and the Washington Post, and, in 1999, the National Magazine Award for Reporting, which he received together with Newsweek. He is a news analyst for MSNBC and a frequent guest on numerous news programs. Isikoff lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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