A Scandal Unfolds

By Shepard, Alicia C. | American Journalism Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

A Scandal Unfolds


Shepard, Alicia C., American Journalism Review


A behind-the-scenes look at the reporting that triggered the most serious crisis of the Clinton presidency:

On Tuesday, January 13, Newsweek Investigative reporter Michael Isikoff got a tip. It was hot. So hot it caused him to gasp, turned his face ashen and forced him out of his office near the White House to breathe fresh air. Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had opened an investigation of the president of the United States over possible obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with the Paula Jones lawsuit. Starr had set up a sting that very day of a young woman who had indicated on tape that she had a sexual relationship with the president.

"I was totally blown away," says Isikoff, 45, who has been dogging questions about Bill Clinton's private behavior since the 1992 presidential campaign. "It was clear to me that this thing now had entered a completely different realm."

Isikoff had heard in March 1997 that Clinton was supposedly having an affair with a former White House intern. By October, he had learned her name, Monica Lewinsky. In December, he found out that Lewinsky and her confidante Linda Tripp had received subpoenas to testify in Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against the president. But even if Tripp were willing to go on the record about a Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, Isikoff knew it still wasn't a story if it was just about sex.

Some news organizations have files thick with allegations involving Clinton's extramarital love life, but few have been deemed worthy of printing, absent a lawsuit like Jones' or a very public disclosure like Gennifer Flowers'. The charges often are relegated discreetly to the "he said-she said, it's Clinton's private business" category.

This was different. Isikoff knew that Tripp, a source he had been cultivating since the winter of 1997, had gone to Starr and turned in her "friend" Lewinsky. He knew that Starr's office and FBI agents had set up a sting operation aimed at the 24-year-old former White House intern. "A sting of the president's girlfriend is pretty wild in and of itself," Isikoff says. "At that point I thought it was as much a story about Ken Starr as a Bill Clinton stow."

On Thursday, January 15, Isikoff went to Starr's downtown Washington, D.C., office. Starr's deputies, Isikoff says, asked him to wait until 4 p.m. the following day before calling Lewinsky or Vernon Jordan, presidential First Friend and Washington power broker nonpareil. Starr was investigating whether Jordan or the president had encouraged Lewinsky to lie about her relationship with Clinton.

Isikoff was willing to wait.

Friday, January 16--early Saturday, January 17: Four p.m. came and went, but Starr's people weren't ready. They still wanted more time, Isikoff says, because they hoped to "flip" Lewinsky, to get her to cooperate with the investigation. Starr had tapes of conversations in which Lewinsky intimated that the president and Jordan encouraged her to lie in her sworn affidavit in the Jones case, as well as other evidence. But he wanted more.

"At that point the prosecutors had said to Mike: `If you call anybody for a comment, it's going to blow our case. We haven't had a chance to interrogate Monica,'" says Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's managing editor.

It wasn't, say many at Newsweek, a case of working too closely with the special prosecutor. Initially, say Isikoff and Whitaker, Starr indicated there was a real possibility that Lewinsky could be brought on board by Newsweek's Saturday night deadline.

But while Isikoff was pushing Starr's office that Friday, he says, he was getting mixed messages from Newsweek editors, who were divided on how to handle the stow. "The first signal I got that the story might not go was when I was told we need a backup stow on Clinton's Paula Jones deposition [scheduled for Saturday, January 17] in case we don't go with the stow," Isikoff says. …

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