It’s summer down in Washington. The sun glints off the white sidewalk on L Street in front of the Washington Post building. The real world slips past slow as syrup. A sex scandal that sizzled in darkest January is sputtering out.
That’s where I come in. At the corner CVS drugstore, inside a fresh stack of Mirabella magazines, there lies an essay I wrote about sex, power and playing cards with Bill Clinton. I described how surprised I was to find that power is seductive, even for a feminist like me. I said I thought that the President had looked at my legs a little longer than was perfectly normal, and I described how that felt (quite flattering, actually).
Nine in the morning, Monday, July 6. Fire Island. I’m supposed to be on vacation. The phone rings. A friend is calling to tell me that Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media critic and best-selling author, has written about me under the headline “A Reporter With Lust in Her Heart.”
I was heading for a spin through the news cycle.
Media types desperate for a new Monica Lewinsky woke up to Mr. Kurtz’s column, and within hours I was asked to appear on three TV talking-head shows and various radio programs.
Tuesday, July 7, 7:30 P.M. I’m (still) supposed to be on vacation, but instead am sitting at a kitchen table talking on the telephone with a WABC talk-radio jock. We’re on the air and he’s screaming at me: “You’re living proof that women shouldn’t be allowed to cover the White House!” Soon he was accusing me of being jealous of Susan McDougal because “You wanted to have sex with Clinton!” He concluded his show by howling: “Do you think you will ever be able to get a job as a serious news journalist again?”
Wednesday morning, I wake up to a telephone call advising me to read Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times . Under the headline “In All His Feathered Glory,” I am identified as one of the women Maureen considers to be responsible for the death of feminism. (Recently, before my Mirabella piece came out, I ran into Maureen at a party, and she asked me if I had any story ideas for her. Guess I provided one!)
That night, I was the subject of a Tonight Show skit, in which, I’m told, I was portrayed as a blond bimbo reporter. (For the record, I’m a brunette.) Now, I was in the Zeitgeist . High school friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years wanted to know what I did with the President.
The next day, my mother called from Chicago. She doesn’t watch Jay Leno or read The Times , but a friend of hers had called to tell her her daughter had been the subject of some late-night TV joke. “There must be some mistake,” her friend had said.
No, Mom, that was me.
Knowing you are going to be savaged by people like Howard Kurtz and Maureen Dowd is like having the flu. All day long you have the sick feeling that you will vomit. When you finally do, you feel much better.
The first symptoms actually came several days after Mirabella hit the street. The stuffy National Journal called, looking for a picture of me. They were planning to quote from the Mirabella essay and apparently wanted to run a picture of me next to it to let readers gauge for themselves whether I was babe material.
A day or two later, Mr. Kurtz rang. “I hear you wrote an article about your legs,” he opened, with a small snicker.
“Have you read the piece?” I asked. He admitted he had not, but planned to do so and would call me back.
I started feeling queasy. I pointed out to Howard that American jets had bombed an Iraqi radar station in southern Iraq that morning. He was undeterred.
When he called back, I decided my only defense would be to give him a quote that would knock his socks off. I also wanted to test the Post ‘s new “sizzle”-the paper’s post-We Broke the Lewinsky Story advertising hook. So when Howard asked whether I could still objectively cover the President, having found him so attractive, I replied, “I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”
I recognized Howard’s visceral response to my words by his sudden intake of breath and the spurt of pounding fingers of keyboard. I’d never been on that side of a good quote before. It was better than sex!
For days afterward, I wondered whether he would have the guts to run the quote. After all, sizzle does not equal pornography. Lo and behold, on Monday, he printed it, to the enormous hilarity of my girlfriends in Washington and the horror of my former colleagues at Time . He sanitized “blowjob” only slightly by putting “oral sex” in brackets, and noted that it is “unusual for a journalist” to express such an opinion.
Many are the dinner discussions I’ve had with pious Washington Post reporters that ended in screaming matches about reportorial objectivity. More than any other journalists I’ve met, Post reporters like Mr. Kurtz hold fast to the notion that they are personally capable of what I consider to be only a Platonic ideal. I refuse to believe that any human being is capable of the kind of androidlike unbiased observational qualities that Post reporters say they possess.
I think they are secretly a little envious of those of us who do say what we think. I mean, who wouldn’t covet becoming the subject of a Brent Bozell press release in Washington? Brent Bozell is the director of Media Research Center, a right-wing media watchdog group always looking for left-wing leanings among the scrupulously middle-of-the-road Washington press corps. He wrote me up on Tuesday in a mass fax I will frame and cherish forever. “Nina Burleigh’s comment that she would give [oral sex] to the President to thank him for keeping abortion legal is an apt metaphor for the way the liberal media has treated Clinton.”
Come on, Brent, it’s our patriotic duty!
The final attack-at least thus far-came from the token women on Meet the Press . I didn’t see it, but a friend said to me dryly, “It wasn’t your finest hour.” Mary McGrory, one of The Washington Post ‘s oldest women reporters, accused me of doing a disservice to fellow female journalists. My old Time colleague Margaret Carlson even told Bob Novak that I was never a real White House correspondent. Apparently, the horrifying spectacle of the pack devouring one of its own had prompted even kind Margaret to disavow me.
I have not covered the White House for two years, and I have no intention of moving back to Washington. But once having entered that exclusive club, loyalty to an unwritten creed that some subjects are off-limits for publication remains in force for life.
I have been told that by admitting the President is attractive to some women, I have tainted the image of the objective female scribes who are above such observations and who want to remain lifetime members of the correspondent’s club. These women will hide their own views on that topic even though the issue of the President’s attitudes toward and effect on and behavior around women has been Subject A on their agenda for months now.
Wake up, ladies! Were we ever to get a female President, Pete Hamill or Norman Mailer would never be so savaged and maligned and ridiculed for writing about the woman’s charms. On the contrary. They would be paid a king’s ransom by Esquire for performing the service.
Follow Nina Burleigh via RSS.