Magazine article American Journalism Review

The ISIKOFF Factor

Magazine article American Journalism Review

The ISIKOFF Factor

Article excerpt

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

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 stow 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.

In a well-crafted novel, there often comes a point that marks the beginning of a chain of events leading to the denouement.

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. …

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