Lewinsky—the Ultimate Washington Drama
By Michael Isikoff
[Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from an essay commissioned by Tina Brown for the December 31, 2012 of Newsweek, the last edition printed in the U.S. Isikoff was the reporter who broke the stories first of Bill Clinton’s indecent exposure of himself to Arkansas government employee Paula Jones and later of Clinton’s sexual dalliances with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Lewinsky story would ultimately lead to Clinton’s impeachment trial for perjury in the U.S. Senate. These stories comprise the most sensational scoop in Newsweek’s history. Isikoff’s full essay is available at the link listed below.]
It isn’t often in this business that you’re sitting at your desk and you get a phone call from a source that causes you to nearly fall off your chair. But that’s exactly what happened in my office at Newsweek’s Washington bureau early on the afternoon of Jan. 13, 1998. “There’s a little event going on at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City right now you might want to know about,” my (very plugged-in) tipster told me. Linda Tripp was having lunch with her good friend Monica Lewinsky—and Ken Starr had the whole think wired.
The Sting: Starr?! Yes, my source said: I know it sounds crazy, but Starr (the independent counsel appointed to look into Bill Clinton’s Whitewater business dealings) was now investigating the president’s relationship with Lewinsky. The lunch was a sting aimed at getting the then-23-
year-old former White House intern to flip and cooperate.
I was dumfounded. I had been talking to [Linda] Tripp for months—ever since I tracked her down one day at her desk at the Pentagon the previous March. I had heard all about Monica Lewinsky and what she had been telling Tripp about her fling with the President: the late-night phone calls, the surreptitious visits to the Oval Office, the telltale evidence [presidential semen] on the blue dress hanging in her closet.
Hush Up: It was a surreal story that seemed improbable at first, but more and more credible (and newsworthy) as Tripp offered up more tantalizing details. Clinton was arranging to get Lewinsky a job. He had given her gifts. And, once she got subpoenaed in the Paul Jones lawsuit, he fully expected her to keep her mouth shut, according to Tripp.
But while I had briefed Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, the levelheaded Ann McDaniel, about all of this, neither she nor I were ever clear on how (or even whether) we were going to publish any of it. How would we ever prove that this affair actually happened? Or that the president had really told Lewinsky to lie? But the fact that Starr was on the case—that was unquestionably news.
Topsy Turvey: The story would turn Washington upside down—and, I immediately knew, would raise as many questions about prosecutorial overreach as it would about presidential recklessness and mendacity. And Newsweek was right in the middle of it. We alone knew what was going on.
What took place over the next few days—as I first recounted in a book some years ago—was a
crazy journalistic dash that seems today like a blast from another very distant era. My job was to nail down Starr’s involvement, the underlying “crimes”
he was investigating, and (there was no way to take this out of the equation) figure out exactly what we could say about the alleged sexual relationship at the center of it. Oh, and to get it all into publishable form in four days, Newsweek’s deadline for the next week’s issue.
A Deal: My efforts led two days later to a tense confrontation with Starr’s deputies in a conference room in downtown Washington. “Let’s face it,” one of Starr’s lieutenants told me. “You’ve got us over a barrel.” If Newsweek went ahead with this story, or started making some calls to the White House for comment, we would tip off their targets and sabotage an ongoing law-enforcement operation.
Could I be persuaded to hold off? I bargained. We could possibly hold off making phone calls for another day. (It was pretty much standard practice at Newsweek to hold off making phone calls to principals on major exclusives until late in the week anyway—to avoid tipping off competition.) But I needed something in return: to know precisely what had led them to launch this probe in the first place. “Unless you show me what you’ve got and establish the predicate for this, you’re going to get roasted,” I told them. They squirmed and didn’t give me much of anything. But when I left, I knew we were absolutely on solid ground in preparing a story.
[To read the full essay, click on: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/23/monica-lewinsky-backstage-at-the-ultimate-washington-drama.html ]
Mike Isikoff joined Newsweek as an investigative reporter the Washington bureau in May, 1994 and left in June 2010