The Frenzy Over Lewinsky
As the Scandal Unfolded, a Media Storm Swirled in Washington
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page B01
Theresa Walterbach, an operating room nurse from Missouri, was taking the classic tourist stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol when she came upon the scene at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse.
Nearly two dozen satellite trucks, and cameras of every size. Power cords covering the stone plaza like a thick growth of vines. Photographers lurking in the trees and on the roofs of nearby buildings. A CNN crew perched in a cherry picker 50 feet above. Hundreds of reporters with microphones and earpieces and tape recorders and notepads trampling the grass turned brown by summer heat.
Then, the assemblage turned into a frenzy as a sport-utility vehicle pulled up and the young woman at the center of a presidential scandal emerged for the 20-second walk into the courthouse.
"It was unbelievable," Walterbach said, remembering how she stumbled that August morning in 1998 onto the media encampment that had come to be called Monica Beach. "Oh my gosh. I knew in my mind this was history in the making."
Caught in the swirl, Walterbach snapped pictures of Monica S. Lewinsky and the media mob . They remain tucked in a photo album, mementos of the family's summer vacation in Washington.
There was a certain lightness to the national mood then, when the dot-coms still boomed and the Dow Jones surged past 9,000. The must-have holiday gift was the Furby, an interactive stuffed animal that giggled and cooed in an indecipherable language. Britney Spears was on her way up. Anthrax was an infectious disease contracted by cattle and sheep, and more people may have watched the "Seinfeld" finale than had heard of Osama bin Laden.
"It seems so tame," said William J. Hennessy Jr., a sketch artist who spent much of that summer, and year, standing in a hallway outside the third-floor grand jury room, capturing the likenesses of more than 70 witnesses. They were called to testify as part of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into accusations that President Bill Clinton had lied under oath and obstructed justice by trying to conceal a relationship with the then 25-year-old former White House intern.
"I know there were serious constitutional issues," said Hennessy, whose drawings were broadcast by CNN, ABC and Fox. "But I long for the days of those kinds of problems. It was a little ridiculous."
The grand jury began hearing testimony in January 1998, but public interest heated up with the weather. On July 28, Lewinsky's attorneys worked out an immunity and cooperation agreement with Starr's office. Nine days later, she appeared before the grand jury and told of her sexual encounters with the president. On Aug. 17, Clinton gave his own testimony at the White House, followed that evening by his acknowledgement to a national television audience that he'd had an "inappropriate" relationship.
Reporters and photographers from around the world descended on Washington, chasing witnesses down the polished hallways of the courthouse, camping outside lawyers' offices and staking out the Watergate apartment complex where Lewinsky lived.
"It was the most intense coverage of anything I've ever been involved in," said Bruce Santhuff, a freelance sound technician who earned enough money working 10-hour days for NBC News to make a down payment on a house in Arlington. "It was good for my bank account -- a good year. It all seems kind of silly, to put it into perspective, compared to what's going on today."
The courthouse, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Gallery of Art, has been the backdrop for some of the city's greatest legal dramas. The Watergate conspirators, would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr., former D.C. mayor Marion Barry and Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North -- all created spectacles as they passed through its doors.
But the Summer of Monica seemed to dwarf everything that had come before.
"Part of it is the economics of news gathering, with cable TV driving it," said Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. "The story writes itself, it's cheap to do and doesn't require any thought. Cable news has a small audience, but whenever there's an event they can sell as a showpiece, the audience spikes."
As a junior member of Lewinsky's legal team, Preston Burton had the task of escorting the star witness around town, shuttling between her apartment, the courthouse and Starr's office.
"I served as an unofficial bodyguard," said Burton, a 41-year-old defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "I got shoved a lot and shoved back. I don't think I'll ever experience anything quite like it again, in terms of being in the center of something like that. . . . Throngs of people pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of her."
He remembers throwing an elbow into a particularly aggressive network reporter. "Like playing basketball," he said.
Burton represented accused spies Aldrich H. Ames and Robert P. Hanssen, but neither case came close to generating the frenzy that trailed Lewinsky.
"Sometimes it was scary, trying to drive," Burton said. "You didn't want to hit someone. People would press against the car. The photographers were particularly intrusive. They'd go right up to the edge, and then they'd get out of the way at the last second."
To avoid the media, Burton and Lewinsky occasionally employed evasive tactics. Instead of pulling into the parking area for her Watergate residence, they entered the hotel, took the elevators to the garage, then switched to another bank of elevators up to reach the condominiums.
"I didn't appreciate being part of something historic. I didn't view it in that way at the time," Burton said. "It was more like we were just working our tails off, going through interminable debriefing sessions with Starr's people and watching people argue about this on TV."
Despite the climate in the country today, where terrorism concerns weigh heavily, Gitlin said the appetite for an ongoing televised scandal remains insatiable.
"All the talk about a more sober, less trivial post-9/11 world -- that was largely self-flattering bravado, maybe wishfulness on the part of more serious people in the news media," Gitlin said. "And the more serious people aren't always in charge. In TV, they're definitely not in charge."
"The potential is ever in place for another media carnival," he said. "We get little traces of it: Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson can pack a crowd. . . . Part of the appeal is the public's desire to stop and rivet attention on something that doesn't jump around. On something that sits still. These jamborees are stagnant. Nothing much happens. That's part of their weird attraction."
For all the marathon workdays and stresses of being hunted by the media, Burton enjoyed the Summer of Monica.
"We were working on the biggest case in the city, if not the country, and we got a fabulous result for the client," said Burton, who helped arrange Lewinsky's testimony in exchange for immunity from prosecution. "It was some of the most fun I have had or will have practicing law. It was an exhilarating experience."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company