The President Helps Mortimer Zuckerman Scoop the Post

It was why Mortimer B. Zuckerman had bought the New York Daily News . The President of the United States, upset at how Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post had been painting his wife as an anti-Semite, called the publisher on Sunday, July 16, with the offer of an exclusive interview.

Mr. Zuckerman was–and is–out of the country on vacation. His staff tracked him down. Mr. Zuckerman passed the interview with Bill Clinton to Michael Kramer, who was recently made managing editor for political affairs at the New York Daily News .

On Friday, the news had broken that Jerry Oppenheimer’s book, State of a Union: Inside the Complex Marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton, contained an anecdote alleging that, in 1974, Hillary Rodham Clinton called Mr. Clinton’s campaign manager a “fucking Jew bastard.” The Post put the story on the front page. The Daily News ran it on page 6. According to a Daily News source, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign had told Mr. Kramer that Mr. Clinton denied his wife had ever used the anti-Semitic slur, but that they would not be able to speak for the President.

Mr. Kramer conducted his interview Sunday evening, dealing primarily with the allegation in Mr. Oppenheimer’s book. But he stumbled onto a news break on the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David, where the White House press office had instituted a news blackout. According to an excerpt of the interview released by the White House press office later that day, Mr. Kramer asked the President, “How’s it going?”

According to a Daily News source, Mr. Kramer wasn’t asking about the Camp David talks, but Mr. Clinton took “it” to mean the negotiations and said, “I’m more optimistic than I was when they got here. This is really important. We might make it. I don’t know. God, it’s hard.” The President then went on for a while with his optimistic-and-pessimistic take on things.

The Daily News put the Hillary denial story on the front page of the Monday paper; then, just past the “exclusive” story on former President Gerald Ford’s advice for George W. Bush on choosing a running mate, the Camp David story showed up on page 5.

Nevertheless, the Daily News looked like it had a big day. Mr. Zuckerman’s paper was front-page news worldwide. “The owner was in heaven,” said one Daily News editor. “That is why the owner owns the paper.” Mr. Zuckerman, still out of the country on vacation, was unavailable for comment.

“It was a fascinating episode,” said Daily News editor in chief Ed Kosner. “It was fascinating that the President wanted to speak out. I think he thought it was important for him to say what he had to say. I suspect that they were concerned that if he only put out a statement that it would seem half-hearted.”

The rest of the news media was ticked off. “It was extremely annoying,” Barbara Slavin, the USA Today reporter at Camp David, said of the interview. “It was initiated by Clinton and he violated his own news blackout. He should not have answered questions on the summit.” Still, Ms. Slavin added, it was nice to have some hard news to report. “We are drowning in a sea of rumors, misinformation, and fifth-hand spin,” she said.

Stuck in Thurmont, Md., the press corps covering Camp David had been starving for news. At the White House press secretary’s afternoon briefing on Sunday, July 16–around the time that the President was speaking with Mr. Kramer–Joe Lockhart stuck with the same statement he had been making for days on the peace talks: “Well, the U.S. view is, given there’s a news blackout, we’re not going to comment on any progress or lack of progress.”

At Thurmont Elementary School, reporters were reduced to asking about how the presidential dog, Buddy, was getting along with the negotiators, to which Mr. Lockhart answered, “Let’s just say, without getting into the substance of what’s happened at the talks, this has been a bonanza for Buddy because the amenities from a canine point of view at Camp David are far superior to what is offered at the more urban center of the White House.”

As for The New York Times , it did its own version of a whine.

For the late edition of Monday’s Times , Jane Perlez, covering the talks in Thurmont, wrote that Mr. Clinton had “violated a White House news blackout” before reporting that he was “more optimistic” about the outcome of the talks. The first full quote from Mr. Clinton didn’t come until the fourth paragraph.

A different version of the same story that ran on The New York Times ‘ Web site dwelled even further on the situation that led to the paper being scooped. Before getting on with her Camp David reporting, Ms. Perlez explained that the Oppenheimer book had “been given prominent coverage in the New York Post , which vigorously opposes Mrs. Clinton’s Senate candidacy.” She added, “Mr. Clinton apparently jumped at the opportunity to defend his wife when the Post ‘s main competitor, the News , gave him a chance to do so.”

Then, on page A15 of the next day’s paper, Marc Lacey wrote that “the president and Mr. Zuckerman know each other well. They have traveled together to the Middle East and played cards aboard Air Force One.” Mr. Lacey then wrote that “Mr. Zuckerman arranged for the president to speak on the record to Mr. Kramer, whom Mr. Clinton also knows. Mr. Kramer’s former wife, Kimba M. Wood, had been an early Clinton choice for attorney general before her name was withdrawn.”

Contacted, Mr. Lacey denied any bitterness toward the Daily News . “I was happy for the Daily News to get their scoop and that is all,” he said.

This, of course, is not the first time that Mr. Clinton has caused a stir by offering an unsolicited interview to a reporter. In May 1999, the President made an unsolicited call to Times reporter Richard Berke to share his feelings on Vice President Al Gore’s campaign. The move backfired, though, when the Gore campaign interpreted the call as a sign the President lacked confidence in his Vice President.

“Sometimes I think he thinks, ‘I’m not going to go through all these filters–I just want to get my two cents in,’” Mr. Berke said. “Sometimes there can be unintended consequences.”

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at gsnyder@observer.com