It was the most extraordinary public saga of our time, and Jeffrey Toobin gives us a definitive history of the ordeal that very nearly brought down a president. Here is the whole story of the Clinton sex scandals -- from its beginnings in a Little Rock hotel to its climax on the floor of the United States Senate with only the second vote on presidential removal in American history. Rich with Shakespearean characters and dramatic secrets, fueled with the high octane of a sensational legal thriller, and tinged by misguided, outlandish behavior that was played out at the very highest levels, Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy brings a dignity and integrity to this story that it has never before received.
The Clinton sex scandals will shape forever how we think about the signature issues of our day -- sex, privacy, civil rights, and, yes, cigars. A Vast Conspiracy will shape forever how we think about the Clinton scandals.
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From Chapter 6: "Joan Dean"
The president's attempt, in February 1996, to cut off his relationship with Monica Lewinsky had been less than fully successful. The frequency of their contacts never approached the halcyon days of the previous month, but their encounters didn't stop altogether, either. On the Sunday afternoon of March 31, Clinton summoned Lewinsky to the study for the first time since their breakup a little more than a month earlier. (It was on this occasion that they made erotic use of one of the president's cigars. Lewinsky told her biographer, Andrew Morton, that after the experience with the cigar, "she realized she had fallen in love." One FBI interview with Lewinsky on this subject included a revealing disclosure about the real taboos of the Clinton era: "The president did not smoke the cigar because smoking is forbidden in the White House.")
On the following Friday, April 5, 1996, Lewinsky was fired from the White House staff. Her departure was the work of Evelyn Lieberman, a deputy chief of staff who made it her business to monitor White House staffers (especially women) for inappropriate behavior around the president. Lieberman regarded Lewinsky as a "clutch" who tried too hard to be around the president. But Lewinsky was also let go because she wasn't very good at her job. Lewinsky and her boss, Jocelyn Jolley, were terminated on the same day. The two women were responsible for directing routine correspondence from Capitol Hill to the correct office in the White House. According to Lieberman and others, they did it slowly and inaccurately, and a change was needed regardless of Lewinsky's behavior around the president. As Timothy Keating,Clinton's director of legislative affairs, told the Starr investigators, Lewinsky "spent too much time out of the office and not enough time doing what she should have been doing." Neither woman was thrown off the government payroll, however. Jolley was given a temporary job in the General Services Administration, and Lewinsky was dispatched to the public affairs office of the Pentagon.
By almost any standard, Lewinsky's new job was better than her old one. It came with a raise, the opportunity to travel, and increased responsibility. Still, Lewinsky was shattered by the change. She devoted the next year and a half to finding a way to return to the White House and proximity to Clinton. Notably, in all of these eVorts, Lewinsky displayed no interest in what she might actually do at the White House. This is not entirely surprising, since she admittedly had no interest in politics or the workings of government. (Indeed, it suggests that the decision to fire her was a pretty good one in the first place and that she was lucky to get the job that she did.) Two days after her transfer, on Easter Sunday, April 7, Lewinsky made a teary appeal for a stay of execution in an audience with the president in his private study.
Lewinsky later described this meeting with Clinton in one of the conversations that Tripp surreptitiously taped. "He called me at six o'clock and he said, you know, 'Hi,' and I said, 'Hi.' And this was, like, the Ron Brown thing." (The secretary of commerce, who was a close friend of Clinton's, had just been killed in an airplane crash.) "I said, 'How are you doing?' He was like, 'Oh, I'm okay. It's so bad, da, da, da.' I said, 'I know.'" Following this moment of shared grieving, Lewinsky told the president, "Well, I have more bad news for you....Guess whose last day is tomorrow....Can I please come and see you?"
"So I went to see him," Lewinsky went on, "and he you know and I was so upset, and he said, 'Well, let me see what I can do,' you know. He said he says, 'Why do they have to take you away from me? I trust you so much,' you know. And then then he said, 'I promise you...if I win in November, I'll have you back like that. You can do anything you want. You can be anything you want. You can do anything you want.'
"And then," Lewinsky continued to her friend, "I made a joke, and I said, 'Well, can I be the assistant to the president for blow jobs?' He said, 'I'd like that.'"
Before this conversation with the president ended, Lewinsky again auditioned for that position (this time while the president was on the telephone with his adviser Dick Morris). Their interlude was interrupted when Clinton's aide Harold Ickes arrived in the offal office to see the president. Lewinsky scurried out a side door. They didn't see each other privately for the rest of 1996.
* * *
Lewinsky's title at the Pentagon was confidential assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Kenneth Bacon. She was, in essence, the secretary to the press secretary. For most twenty-two-year-olds, it would have been a dream job full of glamorous travel with high-level delegations to the best hotels in the great capitals of the world. But Lewinsky didn't see it that way. She was consumed by a single interest in life: waiting for the president to call her for phone sex, a visit, or best of all, a job (any job) back at the White House. She moped, ate a great deal, and did this job rather badly as well, especially under time pressure. (She was supposed to do transcriptions for Bacon, and she did not type well.) On her Day-Timer at work, Lewinsky kept track of the days since her last sexual encounter with the president and the days until the election, when, she hoped, she would return to the White House.
A small bright spot in Lewinsky's otherwise grim existence came shortly after she started at the Pentagon. She noticed that one of her colleagues in the public affairs office had decorated her work space with "jumbos" of President Clinton the large-format photographs that are displayed throughout the White House. Lewinsky wondered if the owner of the photographs had also worked at the White House. As Tripp later testified in the grand jury, "I had the jumbos and she begged me for one of the jumbos." So on the basis of this aspect of their shared past, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp struck up their friendship.
Despite the difference in their ages Tripp was twenty-four years older than Lewinsky the two women had more in common than just their prior place of employment. They both loved to gossip, and they shared an intense interest in clothes, hair, and dieting. Tripp recalled later that she always knew that Lewinsky was a big fan of the president's, but she never noticed anything unusual about her interest in him until August 1996, when the young woman traveled to New York to attend a gala fund-raiser on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. At this event, Lewinsky contrived to place herself near the president, and then, in the words of one of her FBI debriefings, "Lewinsky reached behind herself to fondle and squeeze the President's penis." Lewinsky didn't share that detail with Tripp at the time, but she began to hint that she had a big secret in her recent past.
At first Lewinsky would say only that she had had an affair with "someone" at the White House. She called him "Handsome" or "the Big Creep" the latter because of the way he had ended the relationship and finally she admitted her lover was the president. (Lewinsky had already shared the news with her mother, her Aunt Debra, a therapist, and a handful of friends in all, eleven people.) Tripp, who had just dropped her book project with Gallagher and Goldberg, was as interested in listening as Lewinsky was in talking.
As the presidential election approached, Lewinsky was racked by nervous tension offer whether she would finally be allowed to return to a job at the White House. (She also had an abortion in this period, the result of a brief relationship with a Pentagon colleague.) After Clinton's victory offer Bob Dole, the president never delivered on the promise of a job, but he did agree to see Lewinsky again. After her departure from the White House, she had begun cultivating the president's personal secretary, Betty Currie, who came to serve as Lewinsky's conduit for messages to, and occasionally from, Clinton.
On February 28, 1997, Currie invited Lewinsky to watch the taping of the president's weekly radio address. When the couple retreated to his private office after the speech, Clinton gave the former intern a pair of belated Christmas gifts a blue glass hat pin and an edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. For the first time in nearly eleven months, Monica began performing oral sex on the president, but this time their encounter would end differently from all the others. As Lewinsky later testified to Starr's prosecutors, "I finished" and she was wearing a blue dress from the Gap. (There was only one more sexual contact between them. On March 29, with the president still on crutches from his knee injury at the golfer Greg Norman's house in Florida, Lewinsky once again performed oral sex "to completion" while, as she put it to Starr's prosecutors, Clinton "manually stimulated me" to four orgasms. Still consumed with her White House job hunt, Lewinsky left the president with a copy of her résumé on this day.)
By this time, Lewinsky was keeping Tripp apprised moment to moment on the progress of her relationship. The two women gave somewhat contradictory accounts of Tripp's behavior in response. Tripp asserted that she gave no advice on how Lewinsky should sustain the relationship, but Lewinsky said Tripp goaded her to keep it going. Lewinsky's account is far more persuasive. If Tripp had really disapproffed, she could have simply cut off contact with Lewinsky; indeed, if that had been Tripp's attitude, Lewinsky probably would have wanted nothing to do with her. Instead, the pace of their contacts only accelerated. It was, for example, in the spring of 1997 that Tripp suggested that Lewinsky use the Excel spreadsheet software on her computer at the Pentagon to make a grid of all her contacts with Clinton. That way, the older woman said, Monica could identify the "patterns" of the relationship. This, however, was a plainly bogus pretext for Tripp to secure documentary evidence of the subject that had long obsessed her the president's extramarital sex life.
And, by coincidence, it was at this time that Tripp met a man who shared her obsession with that subject. On March 24, 1997, Mike Isikoff came calling at the Pentagon to ask about Kathleen Willey. This was, as Tripp told him, "barking up the wrong tree."
* * *
But still, Isikoff wanted to know about Kathleen Willey. The reporter began shuttling between the two women, trying to sort out what (if anything) had happened between Willey and the president. He later wrote that "the relationship between Tripp and Willey turned out to be a lot more complicated than I suspected." Though Tripp had befriended Willey at the White House and tried to help her find a paying job there, Tripp came to think that Willey was trying to steal Tripp's own job in the counsel's office. Tripp's departure to the Pentagon had ended the budding competition between them, but some bitterness lingered. More important, even though Willey promised Isikoff that Tripp would back up her story about the president's crude pass, Tripp did no such thing. According to Tripp, it was Willey who had schemed to ensnare the president.
Isikoff's inquiries illustrated the diYculties of sexual investigative reporting. According to Tripp's later testimony, while they both worked in the White House in 1993, Kathleen had complained about her marriage to Ed Willey and tried to have an affair with the president. "They both had appeared to have not very good marriages, and it just seemed to be as consenting adults," she said. Tripp had indeed seen Willey after her November 29 meeting with the president, but she had been anything but distraught by the encounter. "I can just tell you that she was very excited, very ?ustered, she smiled from ear to ear the entire time," Tripp told the grand jury. "She seemed almost shocked, but happy shocked." (Clinton would proffide still a third version of what happened between him and Willey. He acknowledged meeting with her in his private office, but said that he had only comforted her about her husband's travails. Starr's prosecutor Jackie Bennett challenged Clinton about this incident in the president's grand jury deposition: "You placed her hand on your genitals, did you not?" Clinton bristled, saying, "Mr. Bennett, I didn't do any of that, and the questions you're asking, I think, betray the bias of this operation that has troubled me for a long time.")
But before Isikoff had a chance to put his reporting in the magazine, he was, in a way, beaten to the punch. In late June 1997, Matt Drudge visited Washington at a time when his celebrity was still rather modest. Two years earlier, Drudge had started posting various news items and gossip mostly early reports of weekend moffie grosses along with occasional news of show business contract disputes on the ?edgling World Wide Web. His popularity grew with that of the Internet, and Drudge soon developed a following in the tens of thousands, especially among journalists. Drudge wrote with a cranky anti-Clinton slant, but his juicy tidbits and old-time tabloid style made his intermittently reliable Drudge Report a must-read in political and media circles. By the time he toured Newsweek's offices, in the summer of 1997, he could promenade through them like a visiting dignitary. (On the same trip to Washington, Drudge was guest of honor at a dinner thrown by the ubiquitous David Brock.) In a conversation with Drudge at Newsweek, Isikoff accidentally confirmed that he was working on an article about a possible act of sexual harassment by the president in the White House.
Drudge ran a vague item on his web site about Isikoff's research on July 4, and then tried hard to follow up. It wasn't too diYcult, because by this time, Cammarata had already located and subpoenaed Willey. The elves the conservative lawyers who were helping the Jones team began leaking to Drudge. Laura Ingraham, later a network journalist, introduced Conway to Drudge, and Conway told Drudge about Willey. Drudge's items put pressure on Isikoff and Newsweek to give the story their imprimatur. It was the same strategy employed with the leaks to The Washington Times after Isikoff's suspension in 1994 to goad a national publication into running a story that would damage the president.
Isikoff went back to Willey to try to persuade her to put her story about Clinton on the record. She wouldn't talk, but among Cammarata, Tripp, and Willey's friend Julie Hiatt Steele who told Isikoff that Willey had earlier asked her to lie about the incident with the president the reporter had enough to cobble together a story for the magazine. Entitled "A Twist in Jones v. Clinton," Isikoff's story hit on August 3, 1997. "The phone call was provocative, to say the least," it began, describing the mysterious caller who had tantalized Cammarata in January. "She refused to give her name," the article went on, "but offered enough details to allow Cammarata to track down the woman he believes made the call: Kathleen E. Willey." This was artful phrasing on Isikoff's part. The caller did offer enough details "to allow Cammarata" to track her down, but that wasn't exactly what happened. As Isikoff implied later in the article, Cammarata had used Isikoff to track her down and make her story public which was what the lawyer had wanted all along. Of course, the story included Bob Bennett denying, on Clinton's behalf, that he had made a sexual advance toward Willey.
Isikoff's story also included one more significant, if garbled, passage. Isikoff quoted the then obscure Linda Tripp as saying she remembered seeing Willey after her alleged encounter with the president, and she looked "disheveled. Her face was red and her lipstick was off. She was ?ustered, happy and joyful." Tripp wanted "to make it clear that this was not a case of sexual harassment." In this instance, Tripp's comments both help and hurt the president suggesting that Willey was lying but also that some consensual sexual activity might have occurred. But Isikoff quoted Bennett as saying only that Tripp "is not to be believed." Tripp later cited this comment as turning her from a loyal soldier in the administration to a determined enemy. It was a debatable claim for example, Tripp had already planned an anti-Clinton book but the Bennett comment gave her the pretext she needed to turn against Clinton completely.
In any event, Isikoff had his scoop, albeit with an annoying postscript. In his last report on the Willey story, Matt Drudge had added a characteristically proffocative kicker. isikoff book blowup, Drudge's headline screamed. "Was investigative reporter Michael Isikoff holding back his wild Kathleen Willey White House sex tale for a book? Talk around the newsweek offices has Isikoff compiling stories on various Clinton scandals for a collection Willey was to be one of the 'newsworthy' sell points of the project." It was not true that he was holding back, but just the same, Isikoff and Glenn Simpson decided to put their book idea aside. As it happened, however, two other book projects in the case were just then coming to life.
Copyright © 2000 by Jeffery Toobin
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters
Prologue: "This Is Danny"
1. What the Bubbas Wrought
2. "Isn't That What Happened?"
3. Party Girl
4. "I Love This Man"
5. A Really Big Crush
6. "Joan Dean"
7. Their Tabloid Hearts
8. "Good Strong Christian Men"
9. "Draw the Penis for Me"
10. Consensual Sex
11. Revenge of the "Peace Corps"
12. The Definition of Sex -- and L-E-W-I-N-S-K-Y
13. The Richard Jewell File
14. "I Guess That Will Teach Them"
15. "Words of Assent"
16. "Eighteenth-Hand" Rumors
17. "I Don't Care If I'm Impeached..."
18. Winning by Losing
19. Mr. Genitalia and the Perjury Ladies
20. These Culture Wars
Epilogue: Private and Public
Source Notes and Bibliography
What People are Saying About This
Thomas Powers The New York Times Book Review An admirably clear, vigorously written, plain-spoken and common-sensical book.
Anthony Lewis The New York Review of Books A superb work of factual and legal analysis....Few novels are as gripping.
People A story as taut and surprising as any thriller....Unimpeachable page-turner.
David Kaiser The Boston Globe An irresistibly readable new overview of the whole ugly case.
The Economist A good read...a brave book.
Floyd Abrams The New York Observer A superlatively researched and written book.
Wayne Woodlief Boston Herald A richly detailed narrative...[and] a fascinating read.
Michael Coffey Publishers Weekly Toobin has risen to the challenge of rendering the chaos of the impeachment, what led up to it and its denouement, in a sharp prose style and in a manner that makes sense of a disastrous phase of American political history.
Sherryl Connelly Daily News Compulsively readable....A Vast Conspiracy delivers new information, provides arresting perspective and is a helluva read for all that.
Chicago Sun-Times A rich and readable reprise of the Clinton scandals by the New Yorker writer who shows brilliantly how the American legal system spun out of control.