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Pulling Teeth Over Lunch With Author

April 30, 1999|IRENE LACHER

Who do you suppose are the most frustrating people to interview? Would it surprise you if we said: other journalists?

We're lunching at red on Beverly Boulevard with Michael Isikoff, Newsweek's reporter of the hour, the guy who triggered the Rube Goldberg contraption of tantalizing disclosures that climaxed with President Clinton's impeachment trial. And at the moment, we're not doing much better than U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) did when he tried to weasel more incriminating information out of Isikoff in January.

"I'm sorry, I can't help you, I said," Isikoff writes in his new book, "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story" (Crown). "I can't tell you anything I haven't already published."

Isikoff's "cruise missile" reporting style, as his colleagues have described it, sliced through the web of White House lies and helped point investigators in the direction of Clinton's recklessness and sexual misconduct. To get there, Isikoff nosed around the tawdry corners of Clinton's affairs and did business with right-wing ideologues who really were conspiring to bring down the president.

Which might complicate people's reactions to his work. "There is an element of controversy to it, needless to say," Isikoff says. "I do talk in the book about my own ambivalence at various stages of this. That's how I feel about aspects of this now. So it's my story and that's a part of my story."

Uh, OK. What do you think of Matt Drudge, the hometown boy who broke the Lewinsky story on his gossip Web site when Isikoff's Newsweek editors delayed publication? "He is who he is," Isikoff says carefully. "I like to think we do very different things. I talk about what I think about Drudge in the book."

No doubt. But listen, bub, this isn't a book review.

Isikoff nods. "Actually," he says, "I'm feeling pretty good about the way it's gone." And well he should. On Sunday, "Uncovering Clinton" hit the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists at No. 11. Three days later, Isikoff and Newsweek colleague Evan Thomas won the National Magazine Award for reporting for their coverage of the scandal. And in the juiciest bit of irony, the president is scheduled to present Isikoff with an award Saturday at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington.

"That's going to be awkward," he says with some understatement.

The thumbs-up from one's peers is the most anyone can hope for professionally. Still, we couldn't help wondering about the profession itself and where Isikoff's success has left it. Are journalists being granted license to go too far in inspecting the private lives of public figures?

"Does it matter if the president or the presidential candidate has had extramarital affairs? No. But I also believe every case has to be looked at in its particulars. This started with [Paula Jones'] allegation that involved nonconsensual sex. When I first heard about Monica Lewinsky in March of 1997, I wasn't immediately convinced there was a story here.

"I concluded that Clinton's conduct was so much more reckless and disturbing over such a long period of time, and required this vast machinery of lawyers and spin doctors and private investigators whose job it was to smash the accusers and destroy his enemies. Lying done often enough has a corrosive effect. It's not everything you need to know about Clinton's presidency, but it was part of it and it helps explain why the White House kept finding itself in all these adversarial battles. The public should know what this was all about."

So read all about it.

Out & About runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on Page 2. Irene Lacher can be reached by e-mail at

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