By Howard Kurtz
Tonight he's on David Letterman. Just him and Fergie.
"Reporting and writing about this stuff is extremely perilous," the Newsweek reporter says of his excavations of President Clinton's sex life. "It's not anything any sane reporter would relish. It makes editors uncomfortable. It makes everyone uncomfortable."
Newsweek writer Mark Hosenball puts it this way: "He has the stomach to go after stuff nobody else would touch because it's in such bad taste."
Oddly enough, Isikoff has attracted the limelight in part because he's had trouble getting his seamy stories into print, first about Paula Jones and, last week, about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. This has cast him as the passionate scribe battling cautious corporate editors, giving him the undisputed Pulitzer for unpublished stories.
While some White House officials privately disparage him as overzealous and obsessed with sexual dirt, Isikoff says: "It became clear early on that this was a major cloud hanging over Clinton. The larger issues were not sex and infidelity but questions about character and recklessness."
A bundle of nervous energy, Isikoff, 45, typifies the strange breed of journalistic investigator: dogged, compulsive, willing to see connections -- critics would say conspiracy theories -- that might seem far-fetched to others. It takes a combative personality to pound away, month after month, collecting bits and pieces of evidence, and some editors came to regard Isikoff as "difficult."
Newsweek President Richard Smith says Isikoff has "drive and determination and a pretty damn good BS detector. He loves to dig into big, complex, thorny subjects."
The Long Island native began his career with the Capitol Hill News Service and States News Service before jumping to the Washington Star. He joined The Post after the Star's 1981 demise.
Isikoff had more of his share of scoops for The Post. He disclosed that federal agents had lured a suspected drug dealer to Lafayette Square so President Bush, in a televised speech, could hold up a bag of cocaine seized near the White House. He helped report that Bush administration aides had obtained the passport files of candidate Bill Clinton and his mother. "The Clinton people loved me then," he says.
In 1994, Isikoff began investigating Paula Jones's little-publicized charge that she had been sexually propositioned by Clinton. It took several months for Isikoff and two other reporters to produce a story Post editors considered ready to print, and during that time Isikoff and his editors clashed often. At one point he and an editor got into a shouting match that resulted in Isikoff's suspension from the paper for two weeks. The story, the first detailed account of Jones's allegations by a major news organization -- and the length of time it took to get it into the paper -- made Isikoff a cause celebre in conservative circles. Soon after it was published he left The Post to join Newsweek.
Last summer, Isikoff was scooped by Internet gossip Matt Drudge on his own story about whether Clinton had made a sexual advance toward former White House aide Kathleen Willey. And last weekend, Newsweek held his explosive story that Clinton was under investigation for allegedly having an affair with Lewinsky and lying about it under oath. Although Drudge (and several news organizations) had scooped him again, Isikoff rebounded when his report was posted on America Online and he launched a television blitz, including an appearance on "Meet the Press" yesterday. MSNBC, where he works as a consultant, is preparing promotional spots on Isikoff.
While one rival accused Isikoff and Newsweek of "shameless" self-promotion, Smith said: "I don't mind him being on TV. But there have been so many requests that if we accepted them all, we wouldn't have the reporters to put out the magazine."
Sensing that his techniques may have been coming under fire, Isikoff says, he declined an offer last October by Lewinsky's friend Linda Tripp to listen to tapes of Lewinsky that she had secretly (and illegally) recorded. It was "awfully tempting," Isikoff says, but he feared he would become part of the story. "If I was rabidly and solely interested in getting dirt on Clinton, that would have been the obvious thing to do. But I was very conscious that I should not step over any ethical boundaries."
Despite his brief burst of fame, Isikoff has yet to win over one distressed reader: "My mother said, 'Why do you always have to be picking on our president?' "
Proceed With Caution
This is the first presidential scandal in history to be accompanied by parental warnings. And with rapid-fire allegations ranging from oral sex to phone sex to a semen-stained dress, it's not hard to understand why.
On CNN, Judy Woodruff said: "A warning here: We're dealing with a sensitive subject which is not suitable for young children." Her report dealt with whether politicians who had engaged in oral sex believed they had committed adultery.
CNN's Candy Crowley issued a similar warning before asking: "If you only have oral sex, is that a sexual relationship?"
On NBC's "Today," Matt Lauer prefaced a discussion involving oral sex by saying: "I want to give that warning one more time again, because we're about to discuss an issue that may not be suitable for children. In fact, it probably is not."
A cynical interpretation would be that the networks are getting quite graphic about Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky because the story is jumping off the ratings charts. But it is just as likely that the warnings reflect the unease of a mass medium trying to deal with what the president is alleged to have done, without offending millions of viewers.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company