Mike Isikoff Just Wanted Respect–Then He Started the Clinton Beat

Michael Isikoff was the guileless Candide of the Clinton scandal. Things kept happening to him. Even when he tried to

Michael Isikoff was the guileless Candide of the Clinton scandal. Things kept happening to him. Even when he tried to get away from the Jones-Lewinsky-Willey-Broaddrick beat, he was dragged back (as were we all) by the sheer exorbitance and squalor of the President’s behavior. At one point, his Newsweek editor told him to do what all reporters claimed to want to do–put this crap behind him and go out and cover health care and social policy: “After a year of scandal, of Whitewater and Webb Hubbell and campaign finance and Paula Jones,” he writes in Uncovering Clinton (Crown Books). His editor wanted him working on “an entirely different subject: Andrew Cuomo, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mr. Cuomo was a rising political star. Washington insiders were talking about him as a possible running mate with Al Gore in the year 2000.”

At last, a decent H.U.D. story; something a shoe-leather journalist can really get his teeth into. Alas: “In working on it, I had gotten in touch with Cuomo’s staff to seek some backup material and ran across Cuomo’s new press secretary, somebody I knew from an earlier incarnation. It was Karen Hinton, the woman who in 1994 had described to me the unpleasant sexual overture Clinton had once made to her 10 years earlier.”

There was just no escaping it. As you can see from Mr. Isikoff’s Capitoline prose (“rising stars” intersecting with “insiders” all the way), he didn’t become a reporter in order to be scraping congealed jizz off unlaundered garments. I used to see him around Washington a bit, looking sincere and committed and doubtless imagining a chance to make some public figure go straight. I remember giving him a sympathy call, a few years ago, when he was suspended by The Washington Post for believing that the Paula Jones allegations ought at least to be reported. (Now, doesn’t that seem a while back?) The whole charm of his book consists in the extreme reluctance with which he became involved in this skein of intrigue–that, and the exemplary doggedness with which he did pursue it when he came to appreciate its importance. As if in overcompensation, he worries still about being used by right-wing talk-show hacks, about spending too much time in the national underwear drawer, and about “getting too close to” or indeed (gasp) “becoming part of” the Story. I’ve been there, Mike, and I say deal with it. This was all Mr. Clinton’s idea, not yours.

Here is how he finds out about the Gap dress, and here’s how we almost didn’t:

“So what do you think?” Tripp whispered over the phone.

“I think that’s incredible.”

Tripp paused. “Should I take it?”

“And do what with it?” I asked.

“Give it to you,” she told me.

I paused. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Have it tested,” said Tripp.

To say that nobody had ever before proposed anything along these lines would, to put it mildly, be something of an understatement.

“What in God’s name are you talking about?” I said to Tripp, my voice somewhat elevated.

He had the same incredulous, back-away reaction when offered the Lewinsky tapes, when told about Kathleen Willey’s hot moment in the Oval Office, when informed about Vernon Jordan’s go-between role and when confronted by the Paula Jones deposition. If any of this is true, in other words, the President is a serial dirtbag. Can that be right? As a result, The Post and Newsweek both very nearly missed the story, not because it was inauthentic or unimportant or ill-sourced but because it was too foul to be true. (If you should desire an example of the idle, snide journalism that gave Mr. Clinton a free pass for so long, Mr. Isikoff supplies it in the shape of some telling recollections of his former Post colleague Lloyd Grove.)

In the intelligence world, the tradecraft expression “blowback” describes the consequences of a failed or even sometimes a successful operation: the shady “assets” that must be disposed of; the cover-up that must be instigated; the mouths that must be shut. In its tawdry way, the analogy holds here. Impeachment was a “blowback” from years of deceit, character assassination, rough and nasty sex and moral (at best) blackmail. Wronged and insulted women decided on their day in court; bits of evidence floated to the surface; those hired to make it go away sometimes tired of their jobs, or just fucked up. “The politics of personal destruction” returned to plague their innovator. In this metaphorical sense, an investigative type like Mr. Isikoff was just the man for the job, because when it did become a matter of tapes and forensic paper trails he knew the form. The fact that he looked and felt like Charlie Chaplin in a brothel in Naples only adds to the cream of the jest.

There are a number of useful glimpses of the way that White House toadies, even the supposedly “straight” ones, went about their tasks. Mike McCurry, for example, knew from his experience on the Bob Kerrey campaign that Mr. Clinton had a loutish way with women. But while in office, he expected to earn brownie points from the press for acting like a “see-no-evil” monkey. However, he wasn’t so pure or neutral. When Newsweek put Paula Jones on the cover, he used his publicly financed office to start “a low-level whispering campaign” to the effect that this “was all the work of that renegade Isikoff. He’s a zealot on this issue. He got into trouble over at The Post .” Mr. McCurry “voiced some of those sentiments to Newsweek ‘s new White House correspondent, Karen Breslau.… [He] let it be known that Breslau shouldn’t be expecting any exclusives from the White House staff for some time to come.” More journalists should be proud of such treatment, but the fact remains that few of them are, and that editors don’t invest in such troublemakers for long.

Then there is the dubious figure of Bob Bennett, chief among the President’s many attorneys. To hear the Clinton people talk publicly, you could imagine that they found all sexual talk, let alone sexual innuendo, a distraction from the higher callings of politics and law. But Mr. Isikoff has also heard Mr. Bennett talking privately, and spreading a salacious story about Paula Jones having posed in the nude, and thereby hoping “to get messages across without leaving any fingerprints.” He had been doing this for some time, and with some success, until he got dealt the following card in return while talking to one of Ms. Jones’ lawyers:

Bennett … added the line he had been sharing with every journalist he talked to. “I understand there are some nude photos of her.” If Bennett was trying to play hardball, Davis and Cammarata were prepared to retaliate in kind. “Well, Bob,” said Davis, “might it affect your thinking if I told you that Ms. Jones can identify certain distinguishing characteristics in the President’s genital area?” There was a long pause. “Goddammit, Gil,” Bennett finally said. “We’re lawyers–and here we are talking about the President’s privates…. Well, I guess this is not your usual personal injury lawsuit.”

No indeedy. The privates of women, of course, had been fair game up until then. Serves Mr. Bennett right, I say, and bravo to Mr. Isikoff for ratting him out.

This is also the only book, or indeed journalistic account of any kind, that gives a full and serious account of how Kenneth Starr’s team became “attached,” in the prosecutorial sense, to the Lewinsky matter. Mr. Isikoff relates how a nexus of conservative lawyers and activists developed connections among themselves and with actual and future plaintiffs. But he also shows how Jackie Bennett, a crucial Starr attorney, became impressed by Vernon Jordan’s tireless fund-raising for Clintonoids who were in legal jeopardy. To help recruit so much money from Revlon, James Riady, John Huang and the Lippo Group, and for a busted flush and jail-bound man like Webster Hubbell, and then to go back to Ron Perelman when it was a matter of rewarding a perjured affidavit from an intern … well, prosecutors are just bound to have suspicious minds. Now, if Mr. Clinton had run as a man “soft on crime,” that might be one thing. But he ran, and governed, as Mr. Zero Tolerance and Mr. Law ‘n’ Order. So any irony here is strictly at the expense of those who supported the crime bill, with its unusually strict new clauses on sexual harassment and the questions a defendant may be

required to answer.

I have the impression that Mr. Isikoff would still much rather have got a Pulitzer nomination, or some other damn-fool award, for cracking the campaign-finance story. He clearly isn’t comfortable in the world of rape charges, soiled linen, heavy-breathing phone tapes and (see that famous Starr report footnote) “oral-anal contact.” More credit to him, then, for making an intelligible and serious narrative of it. The Bill Clinton of the China donations is the same Bill Clinton who hired private dicks to push his discarded women around. The hypocrites are those who can look at this evidence of distraught and corrupt and brutish sexuality, and decide that only those who expose it are “pornographers” or “obsessed with sex.” The shy, almost apologetic figure of Michael Isikoff is a part of the necessary refutation of this semiofficial lie.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair .

Mike Isikoff Just Wanted Respect–Then He Started the Clinton Beat