Memories

 

Monica and 911

 

By Evan Thomas

 

   The best times were sitting around the Bureau Chief's office trying to figure out what was really happening on a big story. The process worked best when Ann McDaniel and then Dan Klaidman were Bureau Chiefs, and I was the main re-writer. Both of them were great reporters--thorough, scrupulous, hard-driving, fair-minded and never easily fooled.

   I felt proudest of the stories I wrote when we had our reporters coming in and out of that office, telling us what they had learned, trying to figure out the holes, always searching for the telling back story--the what-/really/-happened that made for great narratives.

   The Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton story has been told well by its main reporter, the amazing Mike Isikoff, but I will offer my own memory from the writer, quasi-management point of view.

Man in Black: I recall a mysterious figure--dressed in black, or only in my memory?--coming to the bureau on a Friday night in January 1998 to play tapes Linda Tripp had recorded of her friend Monica talking about "the Big Creep"--President Clinton. I think the group in the Bureau Chief's office was Isikoff, Ann McDaniel (then the bureau chief), Klaidman (then the Justice Department reporter), and me. It was clear that there had been some kind of an affair, but the cover-up aspect was murky. And in retrospect, I wish we had pushed a little harder on the identity

and motivations of the man bringing us the tape (he was a conservative activist lawyer out to get Clinton).

   But we knew the world, or at least the world inside the Beltway, was about to turn upside down. In the morning, Klaidman's best source told him that the Justice Department had given Starr, the independent counsel, permission to open an obstruction of justice investigation. To me that was enough solid information to justify running the story, and I said so during our rambling and at times chaotic squawk box conversations with New York.

  Holding Back: But throughout Saturday afternoon, facing a deadline that night, we dithered and debated, running out the clock before we could get to Clinton's lawyer, Vernon Jordan, for comment or find Lewinsky (who, as it turned out, was with the special counsel's lawyers and the FBI, wisely saying nothing until her lawyer arrived). At the time I thought we sort of chickened out, but now I see that Rick Smith, the editor in chief, was wise to have stalled.

   Drudge, in his early days as rightwing scandal-mongering blogger, halfway broke the news that night on the Internet, saying that Newsweek was sitting on a giant story.  He had been fed by Isikoff's odd menagerie of sources. The Washington Post got it Tuesday. We came in with our huge narrative the next week. It won the National Magazine award for reporting--and should have.

   Cell Call: The strangest, most powerful day was 9-11. I actually saw the fireball erupt at the Pentagon as I looked out my window south across the river. We were cleared out of our

office (only a block and a half from the White House) but came back in the afternoon to go to work. Lucy Shackleford, our remarkable researcher, found the family of one of the victims of Flight 93, the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania.

   The wife had talked to her husband by cell phone before the plane went down. We got on the squawk box with the family and heard the story of some of the passengers getting together to say the 23rd Psalm before storming the cockpit. I remember we all got choked up. About 4 a.m., I went to get an hour or two of sleep at the Hay Adams. Naturally, I couldn't sleep and walked back across Lafayette Park full of frightened-looking young soldiers in combat gear. We filled the magazine with remarkable reporting and analysis in the issues that followed.

   Of course most weeks we never got the whole story, but we came close with Lewinsky and a lot of our post 9-11 coverage.  This was newsmag journalism that really worked and gave our readers something meaningful and hard to match.

  There were times when I wondered at the newsmag model, usually when we were out of synch with New York, either because we couldn’t get the reporting or the editors were pushing for stories that weren’t really there. But there were more times when things were humming and we knew were bringing readers great stories.

 

Evan Thomas served as Washington bureau chief from 1986 to 1996, as assistant managing editor from 1991 to 2007 and as editor at large until 2010.