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II. A Winding Trail
At the time, Isikoff, who is based in Newsweek's Washington bureau, was reporting on Paula Jones's lawsuit against President Clinton. In January 1997, one of Jones's lawyers told Isikoff that he had been given a tip about a sexual incident between Clinton and a female staffer at the White House. In hopes of buttressing their sexual-harassment case against Clinton, Jones's legal team was eager to find other women who could tell of sexual encounters with Clinton, particularly women who worked for the president. The name of the woman in question, Isikoff learned after some further reporting, was Kathleen Willey, a low-level White House aide. Isikoff also got a lead on a possible witness: Linda Tripp.
In March, Isikoff found Tripp working at her desk in the Pentagon. Tripp suggested that they go into the Pentagon courtyard, where she could smoke. Tripp was very reluctant to talk, but she agreed to stay in touch with the reporter. Events then took over: on May 27, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that Paula Jones's case could proceed to trial. Jones's lawyers soon subpoenaed Kathleen Willey. Working on the story for Newsweek, Isikoff went back to Tripp, who agreed to go on the record about what she had seen. Tripp told Isikoff that she had run into Willey by the elevator in the West Wing. Willey looked disheveled and her makeup was smeared. The two women went out to a picnic table outside the White House, where Willey told Tripp that the president had kissed her and fondled her in his hideaway study off the Oval Office. Willey had told friends the advances were unsolicited and unwelcome. Tripp begged to differ: Willey did not seem upset at the time, Tripp said. Her face was flushed and joyful.
When Newsweek was preparing to report this in an issue that appeared the first week in August, Clinton's lawyer Robert Bennett lashed out. "I smell a rat," he said, using a line he would repeat last week. "Linda Tripp is not to be believed." Tripp began to feel afraid. She worried that she, too, would now be subpoenaed in the Jones case. She was fearful that she would be asked if she knew any other women who had had sexual relations with Clinton. If she lied, and did not reveal what she had heard from Monica Lewinsky, she would be vulnerable to a perjury charge. On the other hand, if she told the truth, she would be savaged by Bennett and the White House team and probably lose her $88,000-a-year job at the Pentagon (Tripp was still helping pay for her daughters' education; her financial-disclosure forms show that she has more debts than assets). Tripp decided that she needed to protect herself. She bought a tape recorder and began secretly recording her conversations with Lewinsky.
In the past, Tripp had explored another potential source of income. After Foster's suicide in the summer of 1993, Tripp considered writing an "inside the White House" memoir. She had been approached by a New York literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, who was shopping for a book about the Clintonites ("Everybody was curious about these people from Arkansas," says Goldberg) and had heard about Tripp from an old friend in the Bush administration. Goldberg herself had a political background as an undercover operator for the Nixon White House in 1972. Posing as a reporter for some women's organizations, Goldberg had been a Nixon spy on the George McGovern press plane, passing on advance copies of press releases and whatever salacious gossip she could pick up. Goldberg immediately hit it off with Tripp. "She was a straight shooter and she had great dish," said Goldberg. "I love dish." The book idea they discussed was not, Goldberg insists, a sex expose, but rather about the culture of the Clinton White House. Goldberg couldn't find an interested publisher, however, and the project died.
Then, last October, Tripp called Goldberg again. "There's more stuff, and it's far worse," Tripp said to Goldberg. "And it outrages me." Tripp revealed her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. "Oh my God," Goldberg exclaimed. "I'm coming down." At the Washington home of her son, Jonah, Goldberg was given a tape of a conversation with Lewinsky. She was not impressed. "It was two white chicks talking," said Goldberg. Lewinsky and Tripp were chatting about a sale at Nordstrom's department store, about their breast sizes, about how they looked in different outfits. "It was slumber-party city," says Goldberg. At the time, the agent and Tripp did not talk about reviving the book idea. "Absolutely not," says Goldberg. "We maybe spoke one sentence about how someday we could get a book. That's the way agents think. But it was on the back burner."
There was another guest at Jonah Goldberg's house in the Adams Morgan section of Washington that day. For some months, Newsweek's Isikoff had been in touch with Tripp "hounding" her, Goldberg claims. Aware that Isikoff knew of rumors that Clinton was having an affair with a former White House staffer, Goldberg suggested to Tripp that she play the tapes for Isikoff. Uncomfortable with the whole taping process, Isikoff declined to listen and left Goldberg's house.
In their many phone conversations that fall, Lewinsky complained to Tripp that she was being neglected by the president. After she had been farmed out to the Pentagon, Clinton tried to reassure her that he would "get her back" to the White House as soon as the 1996 election was over. Lewinsky told Tripp that Clinton had even made vague (and preposterous) hints that he would see more of his paramour in the ill-defined future. According to Lewinsky, Clinton talked about strains in his marriage and suggested that he would be "alone" after he left the White House. In fact, however, Lewinsky was stuck at the Pentagon; her application for a White House job was just sitting on the desk of White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta. By the fall of 1997, Lewinsky was complaining that Clinton's ardor for her seemed to be cooling. He wasn't calling her much, and he rarely returned her increasingly frantic calls. Lewinsky was restless and bored at the Defense Department. True, she got to travel the world on official trips, but the broad dull corridors of the Pentagon could not compare with the cozy warren of the West Wing. Her mother had moved to New York, and Lewinsky wanted to be close to her. Maybe the president could help her get a job in New York City.
In October, White House officials acknowledge, Podesta at the request of Betty Currie asked U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson if he could help Lewinsky. At a breakfast meeting at the Watergate, Richardson offered Lewinsky a public-affairs job at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She turned him down because, she said, she wanted to work in the corporate sector. The White House tried to accommodate her wishes. In November, Currie sent Lewinsky to see Washington superlawyer Vernon Jordan.
On the Washington power spectrum, Jordan is at the extreme opposite end from a low-level aide like Lewinsky. Jordan is the ultimate insider, a master fixer to whom the powerful turn when they need advice or help. He is in the tradition of Clark Clifford, the famed counselor to presidents who helped persuade Lyndon Johnson to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Vietnam War and who quietly handled John F. Kennedy's girlfriends. Jordan is almost too powerful to hold government office himself; a public job would limit his flexibility and discretion. A former civil-rights activist before he turned corporate lawyer, Jordan is an old friend and golfing buddy of Bill Clinton's. They have a similar smooth charm and fondness for ribald jokes.
Jordan has power in part because of his favor bank. He routinely renders services, large and small, for the powerful, with the implicit understanding that the favor might be returned one day. Getting a job for Monica Lewinsky was actually a pretty routine task for someone like Jordan. As he publicly acknowledged last week, Jordan made calls to Young & Rubicam, the New York ad agency; to American Express, and to Revlon ("where I am privileged to be a director," Jordan said in his prepared statement).
Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 8, according to messenger-service receipts obtained by Newsweek, Lewinsky sent out nine packages from the Pentagon eight to the White House, listing Currie's phone number as the contact, and one to Jordan's office on New Hampshire Avenue. Some of those packages contained job-search materials letters and resumes. But, Lewinsky told Tripp, they also included letters to the president, and in one case contained a sexually provocative audiotape that Lewinsky told Tripp was meant for the president's listening pleasure.
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