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Howard Kurtz is The Washington Post's media reporter. He is the author of Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, published this month by Free Press, from which this article is excerpted.


From The Post Magazine
Spin Master

By Howard Kurtz
Sunday, March 8, 1998; Page W11

Page One of Four

The daunting thing about Mike McCurry's job was that he was always one phone call away from disaster.

In the summer of 1997, the White House press secretary had known for weeks that Newsweek was sniffing around on yet another story about Bill Clinton's sex life, and this one was particularly explosive. A former White House volunteer, Kathleen Willey, was apparently telling the magazine that Clinton had propositioned her right there in the Oval Office, and that they had had some kind of furtive sexual encounter. This was not some ancient Arkansas allegation; this was said to have happened while Clinton was president, in the office where he received heads of state, in the very house where his wife lived.

It was no surprise to McCurry that Michael Isikoff, a combative, invariably rumpled Newsweek reporter, was the man on the bimbo patrol. Isikoff had been the first national reporter to trumpet Paula Jones's charges back in 1994, when he worked for The Washington Post, and he was tight with Jones's lawyers, who, in McCurry's view, were undoubtedly behind this latest sleazy charge. Isikoff and Newsweek had practically become publicists for Paula Jones, McCurry thought. The two had tangled before, and the press secretary had bad-mouthed Isikoff around town as an overzealous investigator. He had once ordered the reporter out of his office when Isikoff slipped in with another Newsweek correspondent and began pressing McCurry on whether he had been candid about the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal – an old-fashioned ambush.

The White House was right about one thing: Isikoff had gotten the tip from Jones's lawyer Joseph Cammarata. Isikoff tracked down Willey, a former campaign worker, who told him off the record about the sexual encounter, saying it had occurred in 1993. There were other bizarre twists to the tale: The alleged encounter took place on the very day that Willey's husband, an attorney accused of embezzling $275,000 from a client, committed suicide. Clinton had subsequently dispatched the onetime flight attendant as a delegate to U.N. conferences in Copenhagen and Jakarta, despite her lack of expertise. But Isikoff couldn't persuade Willey to go on the record, and he wasn't going to level such a serious charge with an anonymous source. The story was stalled.

In the incestuous world of journalism, however, there was always another way for sleaze to bubble to the surface. The conduit this time was Matt Drudge, a 30-year-old Walter Winchell wannabe who ran his own Web site, the Drudge Report, from a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood. Drudge's gossip wasn't always solid – he used material from the National Enquirer and Clinton-haters in Arkansas and had repeated predictions that Hillary would be indicted before the '96 election – but he had become fashionable among the media elite. One of Isikoff's Newsweek colleagues whispered word of the inquiry, according to Drudge, who quickly declared that Isikoff was "hot on the trail of a woman who claims to have been sexually propositioned by the president on federal property." White House staffers were so fixated on the story that they logged onto the Drudge site more than 2,600 times.

McCurry told Clinton he planned to stiff the press. "My instinct here is to make it very difficult for reporters to report this story and not do anything to help them," he said. But McCurry did not ask his boss whether the charges were true. As always, he had to stay away from fact-gathering, had to leave that to the lawyers, or he could be subpoenaed next in the Paula Jones case.

The White House, according to interviews with key participants who asked not to be identified, needed some intelligence fast. Lanny Davis, the special counsel who dealt with scandal and had known Isikoff for years, was asked to check things out. He felt awkward trying to smoke out a reporter in the guise of a social call, but he dialed Isikoff at home over the July 4 weekend. "I'm calling because we're old friends and some people here want me to find out what you're up to," Davis said.

Isikoff wouldn't bite. "You're asking me about an Internet gossip column?" he joked. "C'mon, Lanny."

Within weeks, the story spun out of Isikoff's control. CBS's Bill Plante learned that Cammarata had subpoenaed Willey as a witness in Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit. He called Robert Bennett, the president's lawyer, who derided the Willey charge with a pair of expletives off the record but confirmed the issuance of the subpoena. Plante reported the subpoena, without naming Willey, on the "CBS Evening News" the last Wednesday in July.

Within minutes, Wolf Blitzer, CNN's White House correspondent, was chasing the story. He called Cammarata, who refused to comment.

"Your no comment means it's basically true," Blitzer said.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I've been a journalist for 20 years. If it was a lie, you'd say it was a lie." Bennett confirmed the subpoena soon afterward and Blitzer matched the story for CNN's 8 p.m. newscast. The Washington Times named Willey in a front-page story the next morning. The New York tabloids also joined the fray.

McCurry repeatedly refused to discuss Willey. He would not give the press a hook to reel in this journalistic garbage. Maybe he could prick their consciences, somehow shame them into dropping it.
Bennett thought all this was utter hypocrisy on the media's part. They were using the subpoena, and this Drudge guy, as an excuse to publish unsubstantiated charges that they could otherwise never touch. An analogy came to mind: When he lived with a bunch of guys in college, four were neat and one was a slob; by the end of the year they were all slobs. That's how it was with these seamy stories – a few irresponsible clowns were dragging everyone into the gutter.

McCurry, too, felt that the journalistic bar had been lowered yet again, that the press was feasting on rumor and innuendo, no matter how personally demeaning to the president. At the daily briefing, he repeatedly refused to discuss Willey, and would not even say whether she had once worked in the White House.

"I'm not answering questions on this matter . . . You're not going to use me at this podium to further stories that your news organizations have to decide on their own whether or not they want to publish," he said. McCurry felt strongly that he would not give the press a hook to reel in this piece of journalistic garbage. Maybe he could prick their consciences, somehow shame them into dropping it.

But the subpoena angle had rendered the unconfirmed allegations fit to print. An alleged sexual advance in the White House made news executives nervous; a witness summoned to discuss the same episode in a lawsuit was deemed fair game. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday and USA Today were all in hot pursuit. McCurry started hassling Peter Baker as soon as the Washington Post reporter called.

"I can't believe you're gonna do this story," McCurry said. "I'm not gonna talk to The Post until a senior editor calls me and assures me you've thought through the consequences."

"Mike, you're not gonna talk me out of doing this story," Baker said. "This is a subpoena in a lawsuit we've been covering."

"I could subpoena you for [oral sex]," McCurry replied, meaning that anyone could make a wild charge in a legal document. Then he hung up.

After Baker's editor called to assure McCurry that the paper was serious about the story, McCurry told Baker: "Look, I was rough with you. I just want to make sure you've thought through this thing."

"Can't we just say the president denies this happened?" Baker asked.

That, for some reason, riled McCurry again. "You have no basis on which to ask that question," he snapped. "You never ask questions based on other people's reporting." But McCurry knew full well that this happened all the time; indeed, he himself had lectured reporters about repeating charges from the tabloids or the conservative press.

McCurry in floor/AP
McCurry climbing into the White House briefing room from the former swimming pool just below (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

Newsweek, which had triggered this journalistic chain reaction, now felt it had no choice but to publish what it had. Isikoff called McCurry, who launched into his spiel. "My policy on this – and this is not directed to you in particular – is that I'm not going to do anything with questions on this matter until I hear from a senior executive of your news organization, who tells me you are seriously pursuing a story on this matter and consider it a matter for publication." Ann McDaniel, the Washington bureau chief, called McCurry the next morning.

The sparring was just beginning. On Saturday, Isikoff, Evan Thomas, an assistant managing editor, and McDaniel gathered in the magazine's 12th-floor Pennsylvania Avenue office, one block west of the White House, and talked to McCurry on the squawk box. McDaniel assured him that Newsweek would do a balanced story reflecting that the Willey situation was "murky."

"There was a time when if it was a murky situation and it involved the president of the United States, news organizations wouldn't publish the story," McCurry declared. "It's pretty sad that we've come to this point. You're basically writing a story involving a charge of inappropriate sexual behavior by the president of the United States of America, and your own story says you don't have any idea whether it's true. You tell me that would have been the case five years ago."

He was just warming up. "Newsweek has an institutional investment in the Paula Jones story," McCurry said. "You've put her on the cover twice. You're pumping the story."

Thomas began to talk about how the Washington press corps was handling the matter.

"No, you, Evan. You've got an investment in this story," McCurry shot back. "You have just made the judgment that she is telling the truth and Bill Clinton is not."

"That's not true," Thomas said.

Isikoff's piece that Monday quoted a former White House aide, Linda Tripp, as saying that Willey had emerged from the Oval Office that day with her lipstick smeared, looking disheveled and happy. Willey had a good relationship with the president, her lawyer said, and Bennett said that Clinton had no recollection of having seen Willey in the Oval Office. It was the Paula Jones case all over again, two dramatically different accounts. The story was at a dead end, and the reporters, vaguely embarrassed and lacking further ammunition, quietly let it drop. For the moment, at least, McCurry had contained a story that threatened to reopen the whole seamy issue of the president's sexual behavior.

Later that week, Clinton pulled McCurry aside for a rare word of thanks. "I think you handled that correctly, and I appreciate it," he said. "I know it's not easy."

(continued on Page Two)

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