Sam Donaldson and Wolf BlitzerGet It Up but They Just Can’t Score

WASHINGTON, D.C.-About 75 Beltway players gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on the evening of Feb. 2. The journalists and lawyers were there to toast White House special counsel Lanny Davis. As the dismay over the Monica Lewinsky allegations was giving way to the realization that the President just might dodge the bullet, Mr. Davis was returning to private practice after 13 months in the service of Bill Clinton. Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Glenn Simpson congratulated Mr. Davis for leaving the White House during “a brief window of opportunity between scandals” and toasted the honoree by reading from “letters” he said he had received from prominent Washington players unable to make it to the affair:

“Dear Lanny,” Mr. Simpson intoned. “You motherfucking asshole son of a bitch. Sincerely, Harold Ickes.”

The party guests laughed like hell. And there, milling about the hummus and crudités, were CNN’s Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno; its Capitol Hill correspondent, Bob Franken; Wall Street Journal editorial page writer John Fund; CBS’s White House correspondent Bill Plante and the New York Daily News ‘ Washington correspondent, Tom Galvin, among others. The gang got ready for the next zinger and Mr. Simpson obliged, reading from a note he attributed to “a certain Newsweek reporter” (meaning, of course, Sexgate newsbreaker Michael Isikoff):

“Dear Lanny, Thanks for steering me off that Lippo piece-the other tip you gave me ended up being a really great story!”

Another blast of laughter. This gathering captured the peculiar relationship between the Washington press corps and the public officials they cover-even as that relationship was melting down. Mr. Davis was famous for stonewalling journalists during the campaign finance scandal; Maureen Dowd dubbed him the “Special Assistant for Obstruction.” Yet the roast in his honor was organized and heavily attended by the very Washington journalists he had stonewalled.

The implicit understanding between the guests and the honoree was that they were all playing the Game. The only rule of the Game is that the players not take the hits personally. The relationship resembles the one between Wile E. Coyote and the sheep dog in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. When on duty, the hapless coyote works hard to catch the sheep, while at every turn, the dog thwarts him and usually pummels him for good measure. At quitting time, the coyote and the sheep dog punch out, pick up their lunch pails and head back home, the best of chums.

In Washington, the coyote, with a little help from Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, recently got his sheep, and the old social order came undone. The press corps went mad with unsubstantiated tales of semen-stained dresses and Secret Service witnesses, and tallied Mr. Clinton’s lovers in the “hundreds.” The White House responded with charges that the press had fallen for a vast “right-wing conspiracy.”

A sympton of the confusion: Sidney Blumenthal, the former New Republic and New Yorker journalist, has been spinning his conspiracy theory so vigorously that even his colleagues at the White House have nicknamed him “G.K.”-short for “grassy knoll.” Meanwhile, the Washington reporters at ABC have a new respect for George Stephanopoulos, the former-Clinton spin doctor turned ABC commentator; he was not only one of the first to utter the word “impeachment,” but he has also been working sources, helping his new masters to nail down facts in an effort to keep ABC on top of the story.

It’s hard to play the Game when the old cozy relationships are in chaos. A few hardened reporters at the National Press Club party confessed to feeling uneasy. They may have been laughing at the rude toast for the departing Mr. Davis, but the mood was off. It was the wrong party at the wrong time.

‘President O.J.’

At 9:30 A.M. on Friday, Jan. 30, nine days after the Lewinsky scandal broke, the White House press corps was attending “the gaggle,” a daily off-the-record briefing session in the office of spokesman Mike McCurry. They were getting the usual stuff-the President’s schedule for the day and a dose of spin.

Mr. McCurry told them Mr. Clinton would be addressing the Conference of Mayors in the East Room of the White House that morning and, later in the day, would be hosting a reception for the Detroit Red Wings, last year’s Stanley Cup champions. Mr. McCurry made it clear that he wouldn’t go into the Lewinsky matter, prompting the first shout of the day from Sam Donaldson: “What do the Red Wings know about Monica Lewinsky!”

By this time, almost no one in the press corps believed that Mr. Clinton would lose his job over Monica Lewinsky, and almost no one believed his denials. Some in the press corps got into the habit of calling Mr. Clinton “President O.J.” As one reporter explained, “He’s guilty but free.”

Another journalist said you could tell that Mr. Clinton’s job was never really in danger, because he didn’t yet have a book contract with Random House.

As White House correspondents raced by-CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, NBC’s John Palmer, NBC’s Claire Shipman, NPR’s Mara Liason, who works in a basement office the size of a veal crate-bored cameramen ripped through a couple Clinton jokes:

Q: Did you hear what Bill Clinton said about the abortion bill?

A: “I thought I paid it!”

And this one:

Q: Did you hear what the President said about the Iraqi position?

A: He said he likes it, but Monica says it hurts her knees.

CNN’s Mr. Blitzer confessed his dismay over his latest assignment. “I’ve been a journalist for 25 years and I’ve never found myself discussing such sexually explicit material,” Mr. Blitzer said. “It’s hard.”

Fun With Sam and Ti-Hua

A few minutes before 1:30 P.M., Sam Donaldson got hot again. “We’ve got the smoking gun!” he yelled toward Mr. McCurry’s office. The daily press conference in the White House briefing room was about to get under way. Mr. Donaldson, who was recently sent back into the field after enjoying armchair status at ABC, started performing for the weary troops.

“Somebody called me a sorry son of a bitch,” he told his colleagues. “I said, ‘Thank you, it’s an honor.’” Then, slipping into his television voice, he said, “Good evening. This is the sorry son of a bitch, reporting from the White House.”

Mr. McCurry emerged from his office and the reporters took their seats. When asked if Miss Lewinsky had called Mr. Clinton when he was in Bosnia in late December, Mr. McCurry replied, “I’ll refer you to my transcript yesterday, which referred to my transcript the day before.” (The original transcript contained a no comment.)

The reporters had a case of journalistic blue balls-worked into a lather by all the naughty talk and come-ons (i.e., leaks) early in the story, then denied gratification.

WNBC-TV’s all-purpose man Ti-Hua Chang asked Mr. McCurry if having no sexual relations was the same as having no sexual contact. “Asked and answered,” was Mr. McCurry’s reply. Later, Mr. Chang noted on the air that he was at the While House asking “the same question I asked Joey Buttafuoco.”

After the press conference, Mr. Donaldson was hot again. “Yesterday the story was: Questions they won’t answer. What do we do today-more questions they won’t answer?”

The Stakeouts

The real action was unfolding at roughly a dozen media stakeouts in the Washington area: Crews had set up at the three exits around the Watergate apartment building where Ms. Lewinsky lives; at independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s office on Pennsylvania Avenue and at his home in McLean, Va.; at the Cosmos Club near Dupont Circle, where William Ginsburg, Ms. Lewinsky’s attorney, is staying, and at his temporary office downtown; at the home and office of the President’s attorney, Robert Bennett; and at the home of Mr. Clinton’s well-connected pal, Vernon Jordan.

The stakeouts yield more in the way of mishaps than actual news. The most frenzied scene was in front of the Federal Courthouse where Mr. Starr’s grand jury convenes-the place where Mr. Clinton’s personal secretary, Betty Currie, was mobbed after her testimony, and where a black-haired Monica Lewinsky look-alike caused a stampede by putting a coat over her head and sprinting from the building.

Fox News cameraman Jim Shule was injured when his foot was run over by Ms. Lewinsky’s limousine. Work boots prevented any broken bones, but he injured his back when he fell. He was hospitalized for a short time and sent home. An NBC crew had its cameras stolen at the Watergate-the work of a far-reaching Chinese electronics smuggling ring, they hypothesized, sounding a little like Mr. Blumenthal. Other crews have been harrassed by people on the street.

“I’ve been called idiot, scumbag, vulture and told to get a real job,” said a cameraman at the Watergate who wouldn’t give his name.

Skirmishes have broken out between local crews and journalists flown in to cover the story. At the Cosmos Club, a dozen camera crews had agreed to line up and pan together, so everyone would get a shot of Mr. Ginsburg leaving in his car. But when Mr. Ginsberg drove by, an out-of-towner from the Associated Press charged Mr. Ginsburg’s window, ruining the shot for everyone else. The crews surrounded the rogue from the A.P. and demanded his film. “It was a lynching situation,” said Gary Demoss, a Washington cameraman.

Another blooper: An ABC crew at the Watergate gave chase when Mr. Ginsburg left the building and tailed him all the way across town to … an ABC studio, where he was scheduled to give an interview.

And when Paula Jones took a cab to her attorney’s office, she was instantly mobbed by camera crews, and fled without paying her cab fare. The cab driver had to settle for a few minutes of fame, as camera crews interviewed him about the experience.

The Chelsea Factor

Late on the afternoon of Jan. 30, Mr. Clinton was due to leave the White House in Marine One for Camp David, and reporters gathered on the South Lawn as darkness fell. Mr. Donaldson called the gathering “a protective stakeout.”

“In case anything happens to the helicopter, God forbid, we better be here,” he said.

The press corps crammed themselves between a thorny hedge and a rope barrier. The air was thick with the jet fuel exhaust from the helicopter, which shrieked like a vaccuum cleaner, even idling. Of all the journalists on the South Lawn, only Mr. Donaldson had a voice powerful enough to cut through the din. “I have a question in mind!” he said. He looked especially fiendish.

But then the helicopter engines shut down, a sign that the President would not be coming out soon after all. The cameramen and reporters in the press corps turned to the White House and shouted “Thanks, Bill!”-a sarcastic refrain they use whenever the President’s schedule isn’t convenient for them.

“That’s a bad sign,” Mr. Donaldson said. “We could be here all night.”

ABC’s Ann Compton, on a cellular phone with a source in the West Wing, reported the cause for the delay: Mr. Clinton was on the phone in the Oval Office with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. From the South Lawn, Mr. Clinton could be seen pacing about his office, a tall blue shade. After about 20 minutes, the President emerged from the Oval Office with deputy White House counsel Bruce Lindsay, and walked down the colonnade and into the White House. Still, the helicopter engines didn’t restart, which meant Mr. Clinton’s departure was not imminent.

“He’s got to change into his country gentlemen attire,” a reporter said.

By now, the reporters were shivering and bored.

“I’ve always thought this part was demeaning,” Mr. Donaldson said, almost to himself. He’d gone from scrub reporter to media celebrity, and now, at 63, was back on the beat and having his doubts. “I can’t imagine what 20/20 wants me to do tonight, unless they just want me to B.S.,” he said. He slipped into his television voice again: “The news is- There is no news . Barbara.” Then he turned toward the White House living quarters: “All right!” he cried, exasperated. “We have dinner plans!”

A Presidential aide on a cell phone baited Mr. Donaldson. “The President said you could leave, Sam,” he said.

“If it’s silence you want, I’m not your man!” Mr. Donaldson retorted. “You’ve successfully stonewalled us into the ground!” Mr. Donaldson turned to address his peers: “As the late Emperor Hirohito said to his people, ‘The trends of the war have not necessarily developed in our favor!’”

A young military attaché to the President emerged from the White House and approached the press corps. “I want you to know about a great event we have coming up,” he announced earnestly.

“What’s that-bombing Iraq?” Mr. Donaldson said. He was on a roll. “Where is the President?”

“He left out the front door,” a White House aide said.

“Yep, rolled up in a rug!” shouted Mr. Donaldson.

The press corps had been waiting in the cold for about an hour, when, out of nowhere, Mr. Donaldson howled in praise of ABC’s corporate owner: “Disney hit 106 and three quarters today! Hellooooooo, Michael Eisner! My hero. I love you!”

The helicopter engine fired up again. The lights went on, and Mr. Donaldson barged to the front of the pack. The back door of the White House opened, and the President appeared, bathed in bone-white halogen generated light, his daughter Chelsea under his arm.

Chelsea! Sacred Chelsea! Off-limits Chelsea! Her presence put Mr. Donaldson in a quandary: How could he ask the indecorous question required by the sleaziest scandal ever to hit Washington? He had about three seconds to decide what would come out of his mouth. Mr. Donaldson leaned over the rope, and with an artery-bulging intensity he shouted over the howl of the helicopter engine, “What was the subject of the Albright phone call?”

Mr. Clinton and Chelsea turned. The President shrugged, smiled and said nothing. The next morning the image was on the front page of The Washington Post .

The Lewinsky Tour

Washington is small enough that it’s possible to take a short walk and tour the entire Lewinsky scandal. A stop at the Palm around 1 P.M. on Feb. 2 revealed the vast right-wing conspiracy on its lunch break. William Bennett sat with Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer at one table. In another corner, conservative pundette Kelly Anne Fitzpatrick was eating with a friend, as was bow tie-wearing Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson.

Just a few blocks away, at a soup joint on Pennsylvania Avenue, Newsweek writer Michael Isikoff-the man who broke open the whole mess-was grabbing a snack. He was asked if he had been back to the White House since his story.

“I’m not sure I could get in,” Mr. Isikoff said. “But I still get phone calls returned from my White House sources.”

What about the appearance on Late Show With David Letterman ?

Mr. Isikoff took a step back. “I had qualms….but [my editors] encouraged it,” he said. “I didn’t want to be seen yucking it up… but you only get one chance to be on Letterman…. So I have my 15 minutes. So what?”

Inside the White House press room moments later, the Lewinsky story seemed as distant a memory as President Clinton’s first term. Reporters were back to the old hackwork-retyping press releases and sending out updates on the wires about the President’s travel plans. The mood was weary and depressed. Reporters who recently had become part of the news themselves were just reporters again. And that mood carried over into the goodbye for Lanny Davis at the National Press Club that evening. No one was drinking much, and the guests started leaving early. Standing over the hors d’oeuvres table, a young man asked a gathering of other guests, “Do you know the difference between Bill Clinton and the Titanic ?”

“Heard it,” they said.