Obstruction of Journalism

Betty Currie is–perhaps now that the impeachment trial is long past, we should say was–the weak link in Bill Clinton’s obstruction-of-justice defense. The circumstances under which Currie retrieved presents that Clinton had given Monica Lewinsky were, as Chatterbox and many others noted repeatedly, somewhat fishy. Currie’s grand jury testimony on this point seemed, when it was released last fall, pretty shaky. Now that Chatterbox has read Michael Isikoff’s Uncovering Clinton, Currie’s testimony seems even more shaky. In a footnote on pages 378-80, Isikoff writes about Currie’s heretofore unexamined alibi that she acted because Lewinsky told her “that Mr. Isikoff was making inquiries about the gifts.” The advantage of this alibi, Isikoff points out, is that while “it was potentially illegal to conceal evidence in a lawsuit, it is not at all illegal to conceal evidence from and lie to the news media.”

But “there is one important problem with this account,” Isikoff writes. “It could not possibly have been true. I had never posed any questions to Monica Lewinsky, or to anyone associated with her, about gifts from the president.” Assuming the exchange took place on Dec. 28, 1997, as Lewinsky claims it did, “Lewinsky had no reason to suspect I was even aware of her existence.” Isikoff was talking to Linda Tripp during this period but says he doesn’t recall discussing the gifts with her–and adds that if he had, Tripp surely wouldn’t have mentioned it to Lewinsky, who at that point was still unaware that Tripp was setting her up. Isikoff also puzzles, “What did these women think I was going to do? Break into Lewinsky’s apartment?”

It’s possible, Isikoff writes, that Currie sincerely confused the gift exchange with a conversation Isikoff had with her two weeks later, on Jan. 15, when he phoned her to ask about the courier message slips showing that Currie had accepted packages from Lewinsky. It’s also possible that Currie was simply lying. Either way, her testimony, Isikoff writes, was “patently false.” Isikoff says he pointed this out during the impeachment trial to a friend who is a journalist, and the friend told him he ought to let the House Republicans know. “I don’t think so,” Isikoff replied. “I’ve had enough involvement in this story.”

Fair enough. But why didn’t Isikoff at least write a piece for Newsweek? Apparently because he didn’t really think Bill Clinton should be impeached: “Exposure–not impeachment–was the only remedy that interested me.” Chatterbox, who eventually came down against impeachment too (but in favor of resignation), can understand Isikoff’s tongue-biting impulse, but thinks he was overly fastidious in this instance. It was Isikoff’s journalistic duty to tell his readers why Currie’s testimony was even more suspect than they probably realized–not to fret about the impact such truth-telling might have on whether Currie got called as a witness, or whether Clinton got convicted, or whether people got tired of hearing the name “Michael Isikoff” over and over. For his silence in January, Chatterbox regretfully hands Isikoff a Columbia Journalism Review-style dart.

–Timothy Noah