Every time I see the name of Al Gore’s press guy, Chris Lehane, I think of a giant mistake I made that I’m still trying to figure out.
I met Chris in 1995. He wasn’t the sort of guy you would think of as a big White House lawyer, though that’s what he was. He was small and dark-haired and not at all slick. He was like the girl’s best friend in a situation comedy. A good straightforward guy-Matthew Broderick could play him. He and I liked one another at once. We shared small-d democratic values and a love of the outdoors.
Chris was from Maine and we used to talk about Mt. Katahdin and argue the state policy that sharply limits how many out-of-staters can camp at the legendary mountain. Chris described the Knife Edge to me, the narrow eastern ridge to the summit that falls away nearly 1,000 feet on both sides. Then, that September, I went to Maine and hiked the Knife Edge to the top. I sent Chris an aerial postcard of the cirque, and argued the out-of-state policy in my little note. Later I saw the postcard on the wall over his desk, not far from a giant Xerox machine.
Chris worked way up in a corner of the Old Executive Office Building, right by the Indian Treaty Room. The Indian Treaty Room was fancy. It had mosaic tile floors and photographs of Presidents, in historic moments, with captions. But Chris worked in a small, bustling computer-filled office crammed into an alcove nearby.
I remember him in the light of a Xerox machine, flashing over him, striping him.
At about that time, I wrote an article blaming Vincent Foster’s death on the lunatics at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and I became a White House friend. I didn’t realize it fully until later, but I was in. One Clinton friend called me to ask if he could put my Foster article on a Clinton-friendly Web site. I was flattered, and naïve. I didn’t understand that the war had already begun, and that on the Web the Clintonites were losing.
One night, Chris and I walked down the back stairs of the Old Executive Office Building to the White House and he gave me a tour of the west wing. I marveled at how small all the offices and corridors were, also how joyless people’s faces were as you walked by them. Chris wasn’t that way. He was loose and real. One day, he sat me down in the Indian Treaty Room to look through documents I wanted to see about the Travel Office firings, and I looked up to see Mr. Gore in another part of the suite with the door open, rehearsing for television. I stood in the door and watched him.
The 2,000 pages of Travel Office documents made me deeply uneasy, because they showed how the White House counsel’s office had coached staff members on exactly what other members had already said in their depositions, regarding firings we had a right to know about. In retrospect, I should have been getting those documents from the critics, the Congressional committee that had released it. But I was leery of the Republicans, and Chris was a friend.
He proudly showed me a report he’d done. It was a thick blue looseleaf binder of news clippings interspersed with some analysis he’d written. It was titled, bizarrely, “The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce,” and talked about how wild allegations about Bill Clinton got legitimized in the press. It blamed the British papers and the tabloids for printing rumors and immunizing them so that the mainstream could then pick them up.
I mulched the report. This is the way the press should work, I thought. Stories bubble up from wherever they bubble up from. People should decide what they think is right to say. But the report saw this as a sinister process. I thought Chris was slightly addlepated but in an earnest way, too eager.
In fall 1996, The New York Times Magazine asked me to look into the Clinton haters, and I called Chris, who overnighted me another copy of the report, bigger than ever. Then I went down to Washington to talk to him and his boss, Mark Fabiani. Mark was the opposite of Chris. He’d worked in California politics and wore designer suits, he had a handsome angular face and struck me as a lady’s man. He sat at a big desk next to the window overlooking the White House and spun a “Duke” on his fingertips, the official N.F.L. ball, then we tossed it back and forth a couple of times. Mr. Fabiani was the picture of slick and spin. (In fact, today there is a conservative club in New York called the Fabiani Society, in mock deference to Mr. Fabiani’s arts of guile.) Mr. Fabiani laughed, talking about what a whiz Chris was on the Internet and the photocopier. The two of them were dark and light.
A week later, I went to Arkansas for the first time and read Chris’ report on my bed in the Excelsior Hotel. The clippings were like a box of candies of Clinton haters. I got to choose which person I’d do first. Sitting on the bed, I called Linda Ives. She was the mother of one of the boys on the tracks, Kevin Ives, two teenagers who were murdered when they wandered in on a drug drop outside Little Rock, and she agreed to see me that night. I drove to Benton and talked to Linda for three or four hours, then walked out with a thick documentary record of the case. The boys’ murders had been blatantly covered up as an accident by Governor Clinton’s medical examiner, and when at last the state was forced to rule them homicides, they had never truly been investigated. The drug dealers were obviously politically connected. The story was nauseating, and left me troubled about the White House counsel’s office. Here was a woman as wronged as an Argentinian mother, still seeking justice, and the White House had lumped her in with the lunatic fringe. When I asked Chris and Mark about the actual stories in the clips, they said they hadn’t looked into them, that wasn’t the point. When I left Linda’s house, late at night, standing under the spotlight rural people have outside their homes, her dog barking, I promised her I wouldn’t sell her out. I didn’t realize it yet, but I was already becoming a Clinton-hater.
Linda had been through hell, and she was a lot tougher than I was, and not nearly so naïve. She’d asked me that night how I learned about her case and I’d glibly told her about the White House documents. Linda told her friend Micah Morrison at The Wall Street Journal . I called Mr. Morrison to interview him for my article. He was suspicious and opaque. He refused to meet with me, would only talk on the phone. In being interviewed by me, he interviewed me, and thoroughly finessed me. Then he called Mr. Fabiani to get the conspiracy report.
After that Chris called me. We were both a little panicked, but I acted like it was no big deal. Chris was gentlemanly. He told me his clear understanding was that the report was off the record. I was defensive. I said I didn’t remember him declaring it off the record. We both braced for what would come.
Micah Morrison got the biggest scoop of his career. For a couple of days in early 1997 the conspiracy report and what it said about the politics of spin became a press feeding frenzy at the White House. Mike McCurry distanced himself from it but said that it accurately described how “crazy” rumors and “nutcase material” got into the mainstream press. This drama is now told in The Boys on the Tracks (St. Martin’s), a splendid new book by Mara Leveritt, a longtime Arkansas journalist. With careful reporting, she clears away the propaganda to get to a nightmare injustice done to Linda Ives by a political machine that served Bill Clinton. “The explanations this mother is seeking are owed, not just to her, but to the nation as a whole,” Ms. Leveritt writes calmly.
I’ll never forget where I was when Mike McCurry’s news conference broke on national radio in January 1997-driving on I-40 behind a cotton truck outside Lonoke, Ark. I ducked my shoulders in the car, amazed that it had made CBS at the top of the hour. Stunned and scared, I stopped at a McDonald’s to call Chris. I left him a message apologizing if I’d burned him. Later, I talked to him from my hotel. At once formal and nice, he let me save journalistic face by listening as I said again that I didn’t understand it to be off the record. Of course, any fool should have known it was off the record. And yet the report should have become public knowledge-it was wrong that taxpayers should have been paying for the White House counsel’s office to put out such crap. I wonder how much of that I’d unconsciously figured out.
Chris was then leaving the White House counsel’s office for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I asked him if it was my fault, but he said No, the change had been in the works, President Clinton’s second term was about to begin. It was the last time I talked to him (and he did not respond when I e-mailed him this story before publication). I felt too ashamed of my betrayal ever to call my friend when I went to Washington. In some way, I hoped he’d disappear, that I could bury my mistake, that he’d become a lawyer in Augusta, Ga., or something.
Now Chris is Al Gore’s spokesman, which is something he should be. He’s smart and funny and presentable and quick. Earnest, he cares about things in the world. His argument about limiting access to Katahdin was a good one. Like Al Gore, he really wants to make a difference. Still, I wonder what he’s taken away from the experience we shared.
Looking back on it, we were both being used. He was the pawn putting out poison and washing his hands of it, I was the slithering snake that fucked him. We told ourselves we were friends, but we were already thousands of feet apart. We were on the knife edge then, and about to fall.