Stuart Taylor’s Flirtation With A Job At The Independent Counsel’s Office

Not long after the April 3 disclosure that he had been secretly talking about job opportunities with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor was angrily dismissing his critics on forums like CNN’s Inside Politics . But within a week, Mr. Taylor’s column was on hold, and he was apologizing, in the form of a confessional interview with The Washington Post ‘s Howard Kurtz. So what prompted Mr. Taylor to dismount from his high horse?

Mr. Taylor’s epiphany, it seems, came on April 7, during a blowout with his boss, National Journal editor Stephen Smith. The heated conversation took place behind the glass walls of Mr. Smith’s office in the magazine’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, but was loud enough that staff members could follow along. Mr. Smith was angry that Mr. Taylor had not disclosed to National Journal management that over an 18-day period in March, he’d been in talks with Mr. Starr. “We had a full and frank discussion,” Mr. Smith said. “I’m quite sure I could be heard outside the closed doors.” Mr. Taylor confirmed that Mr. Smith’s “brief display of anger” helped him through “a blind spot.”

“When Steve said, in effect, ‘Damn it, you kept me in the dark for 18 days, that’s what you did wrong,’ I had a sudden realization,” Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Taylor’s flirtation with the job at the independent counsel’s office began in early March when he was approached by a friend of Kenneth Starr’s named Robert Vagley. Mr. Vagley, who is president of the American Insurance Association, a Washington-based lobbying group, was acting on his own, Mr. Taylor said, when he suggested that Mr. Starr’s office could benefit from the columnist’s communication skills. Mr. Taylor told Mr. Vagley he wasn’t interested and informed his editor, Mr. Smith, of the approach. Mr. Taylor said his boss told him such a move would be “professional suicide.” However, despite Mr. Taylor’s refusal, Mr. Vagley presented the idea to Mr. Starr, who was intrigued enough to call Mr. Taylor and request a meeting. (Mr. Vagley did not return calls for comment by press time.) Again, Mr. Taylor said he wasn’t interested, but he agreed to meet with Mr. Starr. He rationalized it this way: “In my own mind, I wasn’t negotiating for a position with him, I was reporting,” he said. “It was an inadequate, but honestly inadequate, rationalization.”

Mr. Taylor met twice with Mr. Starr and two of his deputies, on March 14 and March 27, in a conference room at the independent counsel’s office. After those meetings, while on a skiing vacation, Mr. Taylor started having second thoughts. “I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I should consider this,'” he said. He consulted his family and friends, including Slate editor in chief Michael Kinsley, about the move. The consensus, he said, was that taking a job with Mr. Starr would indeed damage his career in journalism. On March 30, he gave Mr. Starr the news. “I told Starr, ‘You’re a great guy, but I’m chickening out,'” he said. A day later, he told his boss about the talks. Three days later, on April 3, the story of Mr. Taylor’s brief dalliance with Mr. Starr broke in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times .

Mr. Taylor defended himself to Mr. Smith by saying he wasn’t writing any columns at the time of the discussions. But that explanation didn’t wash with Mr. Smith. “It’s impossible to say, ‘I didn’t write anything while I was having serious conversations with Kenneth Starr,'” Mr. Smith told Off the Record.

Oddly enough, Mr. Taylor’s initial reaction was that his bosses didn’t get it. “I at first saw it as them not backing me up when they should have,” he said. “I was angry at them .”

At the request of his editors, Mr. Taylor did not file a column for the April 10 issue of the magazine. “Their thinking was, ‘Stuart hasn’t figured out yet how he has screwed up,'” Mr. Taylor said. “They thought I shouldn’t write until I saw the light.” But Mr. Smith said he has asked Mr. Taylor to address the controversy in his next column, adding that he might write about the issue in a letter from the editor.

Mr. Taylor is eager to rebut his critics but on the advice of his friends and editors, he’s striving to keep his mouth shut. “They persuaded me that I let them down and I saw that they were right,” he said.

Despite his best efforts, New York Post cartoonist Sean Delonas failed to get his naughty Michael Jackson cartoon into the paper’s Easter Sunday edition. Mr. Delonas, the regular illustrator for Page Six who is known for his scathing caricatures of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (always depicted with chickens), submitted his holiday piece before the weekend. In the cartoon, Michael Jackson is depicted as playing host to a group of young boys at his Neverland ranch. With his pet monkey and pet snake in tow, Mr. Jackson-or “Jacko,” in tabloidese-asks his guests, “O.K. kids, are you ready for the Easter egg hunt???” The joke is that the Easter eggs are hidden in Mr. Jackson’s pants.

Even with its randy subtext, the cartoon made it into galleys and was slated for publication on April 12-Easter. But then Post deputy managing editor Thomas Ko got a look. “Tommy saw it and said there’s no fucking way ,” said a Post staff member. Mr. Ko described the cartoon in a telephone conversation with Post editor in chief Ken Chandler, who was vacationing in the Caribbean. Mr. Chandler sentenced it to oblivion.

In front of a newsroom full of bored reporters, Mr. Ko called Mr. Delonas to give him the news. Post staff members said Mr. Delonas didn’t take it too well. He questioned Mr. Ko’s authority to kill the cartoon, newsroom sources say, and Mr. Ko reacted with an expletive-filled rant, slamming the phone down on Mr. Delonas. With that, the bored reporters broke into applause.

Mr. Ko replaced the Michael Jackson cartoon with a Clinton oldie from the archives, adding the note, “Sean Delonas has the day off. This is one of his greatest hits.”

But Post staff members say that, in fact, it’s the Michael Jackson Easter cartoon that is one of Mr. Delonas’ greatest hits. “He’s submitted it a few times over the years,” said one reporter, who added that the cartoon usually doesn’t make it to the galley stage before getting the ax. Each time, Mr. Delonas reacts with renewed indignation.

Neither Mr. Delonas nor Mr. Ko would comment on the episode, but Mr. Chandler said he had no problem with the flare-up. “Things have come to a pretty dull passing if two people can’t have a good shouting match in the city room,” he said.

Forbes editor in chief James Michaels is so upset with the exodus of reporters and editors from the magazine that he recently established an in-house panel to look into the problem. One staff member has dubbed it “the Committee to Find Out Why People Are Leaving in Droves.”

The departures began in earnest last year when about a half-dozen senior editors left for rival magazines such as Fortune , Smart Money and U.S. News & World Report . Mr. Michaels, who at 76 has helmed the magazine for the last 45 years, has not taken it very well. When senior editor Nina Munk announced she was quitting last November, Mr. Michaels “went wacko,” said one staff member, and gave Ms. Munk an hour to empty her desk and get out.

Now comes April and another wave of departures: William Green, an associate editor, quit on April 2 to write for Money . The same week, senior editor Peter Haynes left after less than six months to take a job as a speechwriter for Microsoft Corporation’s chief executive, Bill Gates. But Forbes staff members say it was the resignation in late March of two promising young reporters-Dan Roth, 25, and Katrina Burger, 27, who both left for Fortune -that spurred Mr. Michaels to form his committee.

What went wrong? An informal survey of recently departed Forbes staff members suggests that for all its attention to the free market, the magazine has been slow to react to the increased competition for business writers in recent years. While competitors have been eager to appeal to the egos of Forbes writers with big raises and promotions, Mr. Michaels rules by “tough love,” his underlings say. Staff members have made a sport of collecting his famously withering assessments of their copy, which he posts on the office computer system for all to see. A few gems: “What you have turned in utterly lacks context and is almost bereft of facts. A high school newspaper would not publish this mess.” “This story is so amateurish, I’m ashamed to send it on to the desk.” Or, more succinctly, “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

“There isn’t a single person in this building who doesn’t think that Michaels is fabulously talented,” said one ex- Forbes staff member. “But he manages by fear and chaos. There’s a sense that unless you’re pleasing Michaels, you’re screwing up, and you never know if you’re pleasing Michaels.”

As one current editor noted, “the committee will figure out some ways to see if there is a need for a mild form of ego-stroking.”

Mr. Michaels did not sound that upset about the departures. “We don’t like to lose good people,” he said, “but we’re flattered our contemporaries view Forbes highly enough to seek out our graduates.” When told that one of the complaints lodged against him was that he was stingy with praise, he oozed politesse. “Thank you for telling me,” Mr. Michaels said. “I’ll try to be more generous in the future.” Stuart Taylor’s Flirtation With A Job At The Independent Counsel’s Office