Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story
By Michael Isikoff
Crown; 402 pages; $25
Editor’s Note: Michael Isikoff’s Uncovering Clinton recounts the events of Flytrap from the perspective of a reporter who in investigating the story became a key player in it, since news that his article might appear in Newsweek precipitated Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s hurried investigation into President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. This being a book by a player, we asked another player to review it. Lucianne Goldberg is a literary agent in New York City who served as Linda Tripp’s main adviser and put many of the key figures involved in Flytrap in touch with one another. She was also one of Isikoff’s main sources. To read Isikoff on Goldberg and Tripp, click.
One of the many amazing things about “Spikey” Isikoff’s new book, Uncovering Clinton, is the dexterity of its execution. It must be difficult to type and cover one’s butt at the same time.
Throughout this enthralling tale, one feels a “please don’t hit me” cringe coming from the author. Nonetheless, he plunges relentlessly ahead as he details his deep involvement in the development of the story of Monicagate and the agonizingly slow revelation of the squalid behavior of President Clinton. On virtually every page he risks journalistic scrotal torque as he stiff-arms his reluctant editors and sucks up to his sources, who he wants the reader to believe are as duplicitous and sleazy as the president and his sock-puppet mouthpieces.
H e is particularly savage to the woman the media love to hate (a cheap and easy shot in order to provide the book with a villain). Without Linda Tripp and her dogged documentation of the Oval Office goings-on, Isikoff would not have had the story of his lifetime and a book that will send his kid to college. Isikoff and Linda were performing the same task, exposing the president. Isikoff had a powerful weekly newsmagazine and all its resources. Linda had a cheap tape recorder, a like-minded and determined friend in New York, and an iron will. It is not sporting of Spikey to dump on his source to provide cover for his own deep activity as a deep player in this drama. [Click to read Isikoff’s doubts about whether he should have used Tripp as a source, from Pages 356-57.]
I knew of Michael Isikoff long before I met him. He was one of my heroes, for quitting his job at the Washington Post when his editors would not publish his reporting on Paula Jones. When I heard he had gone to Newsweek I was saddened, for to me that meant the end of the “Bimbo Beat” for Isikoff. The editors at Newsweek would be no different from his faint-hearted Clinton-loving editors at the Post. No one, in those days, wanted to publish what they all knew–that Clinton had a long history of abusing women and threatening people to cover it up.
Then, suddenly, news–or, more correctly, gossip items concerning Kathleen Willey’s Oval Office gropes–began to appear, and I saw that the Sex Beat Columbo was on the job again. In those items a name I had all but forgotten cropped up again: Linda R. Tripp. She was telling a story I had heard before in a book proposal she submitted to my literary agency in l996. Subsequently, she had withdrawn the project and we parted company, a common occurrence in the publishing business. In August of l997, Tripp was back on the phone. She needed help. Michael Isikoff was “hounding” her about what she knew about Kathleen Willey. Linda wanted to talk to him, but not alone. In that first phone conversation I learned that she now had far more damaging information about the president. Would I help her get the story out through Isikoff and Newsweek? Long a defender of the women I knew Clinton had abused, most particularly Gennifer Flowers, I jumped at the chance to be involved.
Isikoff makes much in this enthralling tale of the fact that I “secretly” taped those first calls from Linda and how we “conspired” not only to “overthrow” Clinton but also to arrange a “big-bucks book deal.” A book was discussed in the first calls. I only knew her as a possible author, and for 25 years I have looked at everything and everyone that passes through my life as a possible book. As Linda’s tale quickly developed, talk of doing a book became a moot point that I can say faded to the vanishing point. Note to the Irony Police: Linda never gave me a word on paper regarding Monica and I am at this moment reviewing Michael Isikoff’s “big-bucks book.” Note to anyone who calls me after closing time: Expect to be taped. It’s legal and it saves me pawing around on my night table for paper and a pen. [Click for Isikoff’s account of the first call from Tripp to Goldberg about Monica Lewinsky on Pages 190-91.]
A few weeks after that fateful call from Linda, I met the crumpled, rumpled, and I was soon to learn, occasionally hysterical Isikoff. I liked him. He had no small talk, he barely smiled, his shirt was out, his tie was down, and he accepted a beer. At that meeting Linda produced her first two phone tapes of Monica keening about her “soul mate” the president, and she offered to play them for the reporter. He declined. In Uncovering Clinton he protests a bit much on this point, for he has been criticized by less biased observers than me. He claims he didn’t want to become a part of the story. Jeepers! I wish I had known that: I wouldn’t have spent countless hours on the phone with him after that meeting, keeping him up to speed as we worked throughout the fall to expose the goings-on in the Oval Office. My theory, at the time and now, is that Isikoff had a car downstairs that night to take him to a TV appearance. I mean, first things first. [Click for Isikoff’s explanation of his abrupt departure that evening on Pages 205-06.]
Further, he waits until Page 348, upon learning that Revlon had withdrawn its offer of a job for Monica, to go all Sally Fields on us and exclaim, “What do you know? It’s true. It’s really true.”
N ot once in all the often breathless conversations I had with Isikoff over those weeks did I doubt for a minute that he believed Linda’s story and the facts I was relaying to him regarding her ongoing documentation. But I should have paid closer attention. Right there on Page 302, he explains. In his frantic manipulating to get hold of Linda’s tapes of Monica, he phoned me in New York and remembers it as follows:
You’ve got to get Moody [Linda’s lawyer] to let me listen to those tapes, I shouted at Goldberg. You’ve got to get Tripp to give him the go-ahead. You don’t understand how important this is. Without that, if I can’t write that there is compelling evidence backing up Tripp’s allegations, this is going to blow up in your face–and Tripp’s. …That, at any rate, was what I was telling them. It is the way reporters operate: We threaten, we cajole, we feign sympathy. But the truth for me was slightly different: Whatever was on those tapes, listening to them, and quoting them, would make this a much more compelling and dramatic story for Newsweek.
Ah, Spikey, your sudden burst of candor, like a summer squall, comes without warning. What he meant, of course, was that he could put his hands back on the keyboard. His butt was covered.
All along, Michael Isikoff was a player in this story, and he has written a player’s book. That is what makes it so engrossing. He guarded the story with the ferocity of a mother tiger hovering over the last shard of an impala’s bloody haunch. Never mind that a wily Internet jackal, in the form of Matt Drudge, leapt out of the jungle of cyberspace and ran off with a juicy chunk of Spikey’s hard-won meal. The bulk of it still belongs to Isikoff. He worked for it, he earned it, and in Uncovering Clinton he has found a medium where he can’t suffer the fate that gave him his nickname.
It is a riveting tale written by someone who gave it texture as it unfolded, and I doubt that any reviewer save this one will take him to task for his ingratitude to Linda Tripp. She is an easy target. But it does seem a tad mingy for someone as talented and resourceful as Isikoff to take such cheap shots at the messenger.
Isikoff ends Uncovering Clinton with a quote of mine made during a phone call at the end of the whole ordeal. He tells me that Clinton thinks we are scum. I reply, “Well, we are scum. If anyone ever did to me what we did to him, I would hate them too.”
Isikoff writes, “When that happens … I will plan to be there, watching, listening and taking notes.”
Spikey, tell the car you’ll be right down. Neither Linda Tripp nor I nor the handful of dedicated Americans who made up the truth-tellers of Hillary’s Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy will ever be elected president and proclaim that theirs will be the most ethical administration in history. None of us will ever take a manipulative young intern into the Oval Office bathroom and have her perform sex acts about which we will force an entire Cabinet to lie.
When, not if, the next Linda Tripp comes to me with an amazing story that I know in my heart and gut is true, I will simply bypass the agonizing mainstream media, the doubting Thomases and whiners, and go directly to Matt Drudge.
To read the passages from Uncovering Clinton to which Goldberg refers, click.