The Isikoff Factor  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 1998

The Isikoff Factor   

Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff's stories and inquiries played a major role in shaping developments on the road toward impeachment.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     



HE DIDN'T "BREAK" THE STORY ABOUT THE PRESIDENT and the intern, but that's a technicality.
Michael Isikoff was the first journalist to learn of the liaison between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky--long before Matt Drudge revealed online in January that Newsweek had held up Isikoff's initial story on the saga (see ``A Scandal Unfolds," March).
In fact, not only did he know about the romance, it's clear from grand jury testimony released this fall that Isikoff's tireless reporting was often a significant factor in decisions made by the major players: Clinton, Lewinsky, Betty Currie, Linda Tripp, Kathleen Willey, Vernon Jordan, Lucianne Goldberg, the Paula Jones legal team and Kenneth Starr.
In a number of important instances, Isikoff's pursuit of the story triggered developments that led to Clinton becoming the third president in history to face impeachment proceedings.
Linda Tripp may never have made her infamous tapes were it not for a line in an Isikoff piece.
Lewinsky was spooked when she realized Isikoff knew about a courier she had used to send gifts to the president. She and White House secretary Currie paid a hurried visit to Clinton confidant Jordan after Isikoff called Currie. Currie even hid a box of presents the president had given Lewinsky under her bed because of Isikoff's interest.
And Isikoff's call to Starr's office hastened the independent counsel's efforts to get permission to expand his investigation into a possible cover-up of the Clinton/ Lewinsky dalliance.
There's a world of difference between Watergate and the scandal that engulfed the president. But one thing is clear: The name Michael Isikoff is linked as inextricably to the latter as the names Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are to the former.

"Someone had told Michael Isikoff, and I knew it wasn't me."

In a well-crafted novel, there often comes a point that marks the beginning of a chain of events leading to the dénouement.
In the real-life story of the president and the intern, that date was July 4, 1997. It was the day that Lewinsky alerted the president to Isikoff's probing. The previous afternoon, Currie had instructed Lewinsky to come to the White House at 9 a.m. on the Fourth of July to meet with the president. The meeting came in the wake of an obliquely threatening letter Lewinsky had written the president because he hadn't helped her find a new job. She hated her Pentagon position and desperately wanted to get back to the White House.
It was a ``very emotional" visit, Lewinsky in August told the federal grand jury investigating the president. Although they had no sexual contact, the president hugged her, stroked her hair and kissed her on the neck; she concluded the president was in love with her.
As Lewinsky was leaving, she had something to tell the president, something that would change the nature of their relationship and would accelerate the sex scandal that dominated 1998 news coverage and created the most serious crisis of the Clinton presidency.
Lewinsky told the president that a Newsweek reporter was working on a story about a former White House volunteer, Kathleen Willey, who had told the magazine that the president had sexually harassed her in November 1993. This could mean serious trouble for the president, who was in the midst of fending off a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former Arkansas state employee named Paula Jones.
Lewinsky told the president about a Pentagon colleague who had previously worked in the White House, knew Willey and had been approached four months earlier by the Newsweek reporter.
``I was concerned that the president had no idea this was going on and that this woman was going to be another Paula Jones, and he didn't really need that," Lewinsky testified. Clinton told her not to worry: Willey had called the White House and said she wasn't going to cooperate with the magazine.
Ten days later, after Lewinsky returned from a trip to Madrid, Currie summoned her to the White House around 7:30 p.m. This time, rather than warm and affectionate, the president was distant and cold. It seems Willey was upset because the Newsweek reporter had somehow learned that she had called the White House.
How had that occurred, especially if the only people who knew about Willey's call were Willey, Lewinsky, the president and two of his closest and most loyal advisers, Bruce Lindsey and Nancy Hernreich? Could it be, the president asked Lewinsky, that she had passed on this bit of information to her friend at the Pentagon, Linda Tripp, and Tripp might have told Newsweek?
Lewinsky admitted she had told Tripp. From that moment on, testimony by many involved in the scandal indicates, the president no longer seemed to trust Lewinsky, and Lewinsky's trust in her friend and confidante Tripp also diminished. Up to that point Lewinsky had instantly shared with Tripp every breathless detail of her encounters with Clinton, but she kept the July 14 meeting a secret for a while.
``I didn't tell Linda that I had seen the president on the 14th of July," Lewinsky told the grand jury, ``because I was somewhat wary of her, having learned that someone had told Michael Isikoff, and I knew it wasn't me." She assumed, she testified, that it was Tripp.
As for Tripp, ``Things changed forever in my mind [around that time]," she told the grand jury. ``I started becoming aware of conversations that she [Lewinsky] was having with the president about me and certain information that was being relayed to me. And I realized then that Monica had made a choice and I need to make a choice too." By October, Tripp was taping her phone calls with Lewinsky.

"And so I knew it was all going to come out."

The name Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who had caused such alarm for Willey, the president, Lewinsky and Tripp, appears repeatedly throughout the 453-page Starr report and 4,610 pages of grand jury testimony and supplemental information released in October. In the comprehensive Starr report detailing how the scandal unfolded, Isikoff's name appears 10 times. In fact, there is even a section titled ``January 15: The Isikoff Call." And he's referred to in the much-ballyhooed ``talking points."
Type in Isikoff's name for a Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers and it will tell you: ``Your search has been interrupted because it probably will retrieve more than 1,000 documents." As of November 6, Isikoff's name appeared in the text of 2,427 stories in the major newspapers category and in 1,007 television transcripts. In the spate of stories written after three thick volumes of Starr material were released, other journalists could not write about how the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship came to light without referring to Isikoff's role.
Just as other key players have code names--Currie and Lewinsky left the name ``Kay" on each other's pagers, and Tripp paged Lewinsky as ``Mary"--Isikoff had a code name. It was ``Harvey," according to Tripp's grand jury testimony. (Literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, another important member of the scandal's cast of characters, calls him ``Spikey.")
Isikoff admitted to playing a ``minor but real role in the unfolding drama" in a February 2 piece on which he shared a byline with Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas: ``The twists and turns of Isikoff's reporting are complex, and normally Newsweek would not detail the behind-the-scenes work of its own reporter. But as will become clear, Isikoff's actions had an unavoidable impact on the story as it played out."
Even Clinton singled out Newsweek for his woes, blaming the magazine and Isikoff in his grand jury testimony. ``Newsweek, frankly, was--had become almost a sponsoring media outlet for the Paula Jones case, and had a journalist who had been trying, so far fruitlessly, to find me in some sort of wrongdoing," Clinton testified. ``And so I knew it was all going to come out."
Clinton also testified that he learned in January of Isikoff's probing before he was aware that Starr was investigating his relationship with Lewinsky. ``I did not know that the Office of Independent Counsel was involved," the president testified. ``And I was trying to get the facts and try to think of the best defense we could construct in the face of what I thought was going to be a media onslaught."
Since the scandal broke, other journalists have sometimes outreported Isikoff, among them Susan Schmidt and Peter Baker of the Washington Post; Jackie Judd of ABC; Scott Pelley of CBS; and Jill Abramson, Don Van Natta Jr., Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton of the New York Times. But none has played as critical a role in the affair as Isikoff, who has been awarded a six-figure contract to write a behind-the-scenes book for Random House's Crown Publishers. ``It's `All the President's Men' meets `Primary Colors,' " Crown Editorial Director Steve Ross told the New York Daily News.
Today, Isikoff, 46, splits his time reporting for Newsweek and working at his Maryland home on his book, due out next summer. He declined to comment for this article, saying, ``I'm certainly not seeking personal publicity." He remains a mainstay on the television talk show circuit (Time magazine counted at least 41 Isikoff appearances between January and August), although he's limited on where he can appear because of a contractual arrangement he had with MSNBC long before Monica Lewinsky became a household name.
At almost all times, he said in October at a discussion sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists in Washington, D.C., he tries not to reveal his opinions, instead sticking to the facts, which he knows as intimately as Starr. He can be found on many of the myriad panels discussing how the press behaved during the Lewinsky scandal and is often the most interesting and provocative participant because he knows the story so well--and never pulls his punches.
Occasionally, he can become emotional, as he did at an American University discussion in October. Initially reticent, Isikoff eventually raised his voice in a crescendo after panelist Ann Lewis, White House director of communications, criticized the press for blowing the scandal out of proportion.
Isikoff, who has covered allegations of personal misconduct by Clinton since 1994, erupted: ``The thing that puzzles me is if anybody did understand the political media culture of Washington and this country better than Bill Clinton, I don't know who it is. He, more than anybody else, had reason to know that conducting a sexual relationship while he was president, with all the baggage he had, if he got caught, it was going to be a big deal.
``More than that," Isikoff continued, ``knowing by 1994 that he was a defendant in an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit, he, more than anybody else, had reason to know that if he started fooling around with a member of the White House staff and got caught, it was going to be a big deal. Beyond that, once having got caught, if there was any group who would have reason to know that having been called on this, if we lie about it, it's going to be an even bigger deal, it's the people in this White House. Yet Bill Clinton did what he did, and I have to say, Ann Lewis, you did what you did. You misled the American people, as did everybody else on the White House staff, based on misleading statements coming from the president. And it seems to me it shouldn't be a puzzle that we have had seven to eight or nine months of this. It was inevitable. It was predictable. It was going to happen."
His outburst drew sustained applause from the student-dominated audience.

"I always thought there was more to the Paula Jones story."

It was cold and snowy in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 1994, when Isikoff, then a Washington Post reporter, was assigned to cover a press conference by a hitherto unknown woman from Arkansas. Her name was Paula Corbin Jones, and she was being trotted out by Cliff Jackson, a Clinton friend turned Clintonphobe, at a hotel where the Conservative Political Action Conference was meeting. She told a story that made the reporters on hand squeamish:
Nearly three years earlier, on May 8, 1991, Jones, a state employee, was working at a conference for manufacturing executives and government officials at a hotel in Little Rock. She told reporters an Arkansas state trooper approached her, saying that then-Gov. Bill Clinton wanted to see her in his hotel room. In the room, Jones said at the 1994 press conference, Clinton took her hand and said: ``You have nice curves. I love the way your hair goes down your body." And then, she said, he asked for a ``type of sex."
In short, Jones was accusing the president of the United States of sexual harassment. Isikoff returned to the Post, he said in an interview with AJR in 1994, and was told by editors to pursue the allegations and file a 14-inch story for the next day's paper. By 7 p.m he had done so. But the story didn't run. In fact, Jones' bombshell got little attention in the nation's newspapers and on network television.
Post editors told Isikoff to use the press conference as a starting point and do more reporting on the episode. They were pleased when Jackson offered Isikoff exclusive access after the press conference bombed. The reporter made several trips to Arkansas to interview Jones and others. But when Isikoff thought he was ready to publish, Post editors balked.
``I certainly understood their reticence and by no means thought it was an easy call, but having done the reporting, I felt to not publish the story was withholding information from the readers," Isikoff said in the 1994 interview.
On March 16, 1994, Isikoff and then-National Editor Fred Barbash got into a screaming match in Barbash's office. Isikoff lost. He was suspended for two weeks for insubordination and abusive behavior toward an editor. Undeterred, he pursued the story when he returned, and on May 4--nearly three months after Jones' press conference--the Post ran a highly detailed story about her allegations. The peg was that Clinton had hired a prominent Washington lawyer, Robert Bennett, to defend him, a sign the president was taking the matter seriously. The following month, Isikoff, a 12-year Post veteran, jumped ship to become an investigative reporter for the Post's sister publication--and often fierce journalistic rival--Newsweek.
For much of the next four years, Isikoff reported, among other things, on Whitewater and campaign finance improprieties. But he never lost sight of Paula Jones. ``I always thought that there was more to the Paula Jones story," Isikoff told AJR last January. ``I thought that it ought to be pursued.... Very few people in this town who are not part of the organized right-wing obsessives were going to pursue this. They were not going to touch this story. They're all queasy about it."
But Isikoff wasn't.

"I got enough body signals to know she knew something."

As he continued to report on the president, Isikoff became convinced that Clinton's sexual behavior revealed a great deal about his character and his recklessness and needed to be brought to light. In January 1997, Isikoff got a tip from Joseph Cammarata, then one of Jones' lawyers. Cammarata said he'd heard about a White House volunteer whom Clinton had fondled when she asked him for a job. Isikoff wasn't given a name, but he had one important clue: The woman's husband had committed suicide.
It wasn't long before Isikoff tracked down Kathleen Willey, an attractive woman living in Richmond who had worked on the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. The wife of a Clinton contributor, she had landed a volunteer job in the White House Social Office. She told Isikoff about an encounter with the president, but refused to do so on the record. She suggested he talk to Linda Tripp.
According to Tripp's grand jury testimony, she and Willey became friends while working in the White House. ``By early spring 1993, Willey told Tripp that she was flirting with the president, and that the president appeared interested in Willey," according to an Office of Independent Counsel report that followed at least 23 interviews with Tripp.
The way Tripp saw it, Willey was doing all she could to attract the president's attention. ``Willey would arrange to cover evening social functions where the president would be present," says the report. ``Willey would wear a particular black dress which accentuated Willey's cleavage." By the summer, Tripp told investigators, Willey was calling her at home regularly, asking about Clinton's schedule, and was outspoken about her need for a paying job. She intended to ask the president for one at a meeting set for November 29.
``At about 3:30 p.m. November 29, while Tripp was on her way out to have a cigarette, Willey walked out of the elevator," says the OIC report. ``Willey was disheveled, her hair and makeup messed up, and there were red marks on Willey's neck. Willey's face was red and she had a strange expression on her face.
``Tripp said to Willey: `It happened, didn't it?'
``Willey stated: `I need your lipstick, and I need to speak to you in West Exec right away.' "
Willey, according to Tripp, gave her 30 minutes of details about an encounter with the president in which, she said, he forcefully kissed her and placed her hand on his penis. That night, Willey called Tripp at home, and they ``discussed the significance of the encounter and whether Willey would be a girlfriend of the president," Tripp testified. ``To Willey, it was not a matter of if another encounter with the president would happen, but when the event would happen. Willey wrote a card to the president to thank the president for seeing her."
Fast forward 3 1/2 years.
Tripp, a career civil servant who joined the federal government in 1972, has been working as a public affairs officer at the Pentagon since August 22, 1994, earning $88,000 a year. She hasn't spoken much to Willey since Willey's husband, grappling with insurmountable financial pressures, committed suicide around the time of her 1993 meeting with Clinton.
One day in March 1997, Tripp was in her office when a reporter appeared without an appointment. It's not an easy feat to ``appear" in somebody's office at the high-security Pentagon, where uniformed guards check you through metal detectors. But Isikoff had done it. ``I had Newsweek's correspondent John Barry get me in," Isikoff told AJR earlier this year.
Isikoff ``appeared one day unannounced in my office," Tripp told the grand jury on July 14.
``And the significance of that is that he's not allowed in there. You have to have a--you have to be either cleared to come in, you have to be a passholder or you have to be escorted. He was not a member of the national press corps assigned permanently to the Pentagon who keeps offices up there and whom we all know on sight, NBC, ABC, the major dailies and so on.
``And I didn't know him by sight," she continued. ``So the secretary said I had a visitor and the next thing you know he's sitting on my desk in my cubicle, introduced himself as Mike Isikoff and said: `I really need to talk to you. Do you have a few minutes?' "
Tripp, according to her testimony, thought Isikoff was there to do a ``slam dunk" or critical piece about a Pentagon program she ran. `` `It's not about the program,' " she said Isikoff told her. `` `We need to go somewhere private.... This is very important.'
``And then I started to get a little nervous," Tripp told the grand jury. ``I had no clue what it was about. I said, `Well, I'll walk out with you in the alley. I'll have a cigarette and you can tell me out there.' So he didn't talk about it the whole way out to the alley and, as we're going out there, I'm thinking, `This is odd. He's not even giving me an idea.' Get out to the alley and he just explodes a bombshell.
`` `I'm doing a story which I intend to publish either this week or next,' " she recalled Isikoff saying. He told her the story was about Willey's allegation that she had been sexually harassed by the president. For a moment, Tripp was speechless.
``Now, remember, this is almost four years after that incident had happened and I had never spoken publicly about it," Tripp testified. ``In the 1996 book proposal, I had referenced it and we had used different names. Never spoken about Kathleen Willey." (Tripp had tried to sell a book on sex at the White House through literary agent Goldberg but then backed out.)
In fact, it was Willey who had told Isikoff that Tripp could corroborate her story. The problem for Tripp was that yes, she believed there had been a sexual encounter between Willey and Clinton, but to her it didn't seem like sexual harassment. Willey had sought it out; it was between two consenting adults.
``That's all completely inaccurate and I'm not talking to you," Tripp said she told Isikoff.
``She was extremely reluctant to talk, but I got enough body signals to know she knew something," Isikoff told AJR in January. ``But she wasn't going to cough it up right away."
As soon as Isikoff left, Tripp told the grand jury, she called White House counsel Bruce Lindsey to warn him about the Newsweek reporter. Lindsey never returned her calls. ``I tried paging him. I tried placing calls and I tried e-mailing through his secretary," Tripp said. ``I got no response. On one of the pages and one of the e-mails, and I'm not sure, it might have been both, I said: `Urgent. Matter of potential national media significance.' "

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