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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

A Tawdry Tale Bereft of Heroes   

Uncovering Clinton: A Reporterís Story

By Michael Isikoff
Crown
402 pages; $25


By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Halfway through "Uncovering Clinton," Michael Isikoff's seriocomic reconstruction of a certain president's very, very bad year, one of the players in the Monica Lewinsky saga utters to another, "If I knew what kind of person you were, I never would have gotten involved with you." Can you name the speaker?

a.) Linda Tripp, on being surprised to find that literary agent Lucianne Goldberg has a bit of a mean streak;

b.) Paula Jones, on learning that her husband, Steve, had lost his job as a ticket agent for Northwest Airlines;

c.) Vernon Jordan, on realizing that his tailor left the cuffs on the new Turnbull & Asser a skosh long;

d.) Isikoff himself, on discovering that Matt Drudge is really bad at keeping secrets; or

e.) None of the above.

If you said "e," congratulations; your autographed copy of the Starr report is in the mail. The speaker was in fact Bill Clinton, who said those words, sharply and without apparent irony, to Monica Lewinsky in October 1997. This was after Monica insisted that if the First Paramour wasn't going to make good on his promise of bringing her back to the White House, the least he could do, in consideration of past favors rendered, was find her a job.

And not just any job, like that lame gig Bill Richardson was proposing over at the United Nations. (Too many "Arabs" working there to suit her.) No, she preferred something in the glamorous world of Manhattan public relations--and without jumping through hoops, if you please.

"I don't want to have to work for this position," said Monica, as caught on the notorious Tripp wire. "I want it to be given to me."

"Right," said Linda, helpfully. "You don't want to go through the whole interview process."

"Right," said Monica.

And on and on it goes. One searches in vain for an admirable character in "Uncovering Clinton." If possible, everyone here is even more on the make, more disagreeable, more selfish and petty and banal than we had come to believe after watching them on television for a solid year. How depressing is this story? Put it this way: Just about every character who isn't an actual or prospective Clinton girlfriend is a lawyer.

OK, there are journalists in here, but frankly they don't fare much better.

First among these, naturally, is the author, the intrepid reporter for Newsweek, and before that the Washington Post, who found himself literally at the center of the unraveling Clinton sex scandal. This was not an especially comfortable place to be, Isikoff freely admits, and for journalists, the most fascinating aspect of the book may well be watching him try to do the near-impossible--report the story without directly influencing it.

He is torn between a nagging conscience and the prize-winning exclusive. For instance, when Isikoff first gets the chance to listen to one of Tripp's tapes of Lewinsky, he declines in light of its treacherous origin. Three months and 100 pages later, he's screaming at Goldberg to get him those tapes now.

Ironically, Isikoff is perhaps best known for having his biggest stories shot out from under him like unlucky horses--that of Paula Jones, which the Post was reluctant to publish until it had no choice, and of Kathleen Willey, in which he and Newsweek were scooped by Winchell wannabe Matt Drudge, and of Lewinsky, which had the magazine on the fence until Drudge (again!) forced its hand. "Editors always wanted to know these things," Isikoff writes. "They hardly ever wanted to publish them." So true. Thus, "Uncovering Clinton," hasty but straightforward, is Isikoff's chance to tell his story unencumbered, and in the process delineate the winding, confusing trail that led from the Arkansas state employee to the White House intern.

His involvement began innocently enough, covering the 1994 press conference where Jones first accused Clinton of making a crude sexual overture in a Little Rock hotel room three years earlier, when he was still governor. But the press conference was an odd, clumsy performance, and the reporters who didn't ignore it played it for laughs. Still, Isikoff had a hunch Jones might be telling the truth. And in pursuing her allegations, he descended, like an archeologist who can't believe his luck, into the randy sexual past of Clinton.

Even for the most inveterate Clinton-hater, here is an almost unbelievable trove of trysts, bimbo conquests and comical rebuffs. At times the early chapters read like the Young Politico's Handbook of Surefire Pickup Lines. (Arkansas Trooper Larry Patterson relates the tip he got from his young boss about the way to approach an attractive woman who happens to be reading: "I can't believe you're reading this! This book changed my life!")

Isikoff credits Marilyn Thompson, a respected investigative editor, for pressing her reluctant superiors at the Post to examine the growing evidence that Clinton might just have a zipper problem. Isikoff writes that he and Deputy National Editor Fred Barbash nearly came to blows over whether, and how, to publish the Jones story--which the paper did only after conservative outlets accused the Post of suppressing it (and after Clinton hired superlawyer Bob Bennett to lead his defense).

Jumping to Newsweek, Isikoff, a tenacious reporter, continued to unearth Clinton's past, especially after the Supreme Court green-lighted Jones' lawsuit against the president. Isikoff found Kathleen Willey. Who led him to Linda Tripp. Who led him to Monica Lewinsky. Who led him to Ken Starr.

The jacket copy likens "Uncovering Clinton" to "All the President's Men," but Isikoff knows better and says as much. What he has is a riveting tale of journalism and political paranoia. You might even be tempted to call it a morality tale, if there were any morality to be found in it. But there isn't.

In the end, it's just a pathetic story of a gifted but cynical politician who jeopardizes his career with pathological womanizing, and the people around him--staff, friends, even his wife--who in the last analysis were nothing more than enablers.