Print Listen to the full conversation here. Most journalists experience indelible moments that color our thinking long after the story moves on. These moments, usually in the first half of a career, come when a reporter or editor is immersed in a story that at the time is all-consuming—as though history suddenly has revved its jets—and remains a frame of reference even years later.
It is just our luck that for many Washington journalists of my generation, one of those career-defining stories revolved around furtive acts of West Wing fellatio. Story Continued Below Sure, go ahead and snicker.
Lewinsky, which broke publicly on this day 20 years ago—January 21, —was the inspiration for no end of lewd jokes and chortling.
And they may not perceive what seems clear to many veterans of those days: How much the angry, raucous, media-saturated politics of the Age of Trump has its roots in the angry, raucous media-saturated politics of the Age of Clinton.
Within several weeks, however, it became evident that even as the sex scandal was at least briefly an object of prurient obsession for nearly everyone, only for some people—well short of a majority—was it an object of moral indignation and constitutional gravity.
Jay Leno cracked on The Tonight Show that Clinton was doing so well in the polls that he was already planning his next sex scandal.
In this light, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the kind of story that could only flourish outside the main currents of history—after the end of the Cold War but before the September 11, , attacks jolted us from our national slumber.
Those of us immersed in the Clinton story sometimes perceive we were present at the destruction. In this case, the destruction of confidence that the game of politics was on the level or that people with respected titles, like president or senator or lawyer or anchorman, were necessarily comporting themselves in respectable or responsible ways.
It was about power. The conversation is excerpted below. Michael Isikoff, then a Newsweek reporter and now with Yahoo News, was the reporter who first learned about the connection between Lewinsky and Clinton and the fact that Starr was investigating. Newsweek editors wanted more time to deliberate whether to publish, meaning Isikoff got partially scooped on his scoop when Matt Drudge used his platform on the then-new internet to publicize the big battle taking place inside the magazine.
Isikoff predicted that Washington will again see an impeachment battle after what he sees as the probability that control of the House of Representatives flips to Democrats in the elections.
Clockwise, from upper left: AP Photos Isikoff also asserts that recent events have vindicated his old reporting. It is just a fact that there is no reasonable way—under the new prevailing standards around sexual harassment—that Bill Clinton could pass a test that Al Franken or Charlie Rose or Kevin Spacey failed.
Of course, as many have noted, it is hard to see how Donald Trump passes such a test either. Lying was proven to work in some way that has enabled further the cynical and divisive political culture of Washington. How is it that a story that would have been jaw-dropping—and quickly all-consuming for the news media—in the Clinton years seems to be moving swiftly to the margins of Trump coverage. This was the revelation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that a few weeks before the election, Trump's personal lawyer secretly paid a pornographic-film actress, who then recanted her previous claim that she and Trump had a sexual relationship a decade earlier.
Why has this has not produced a style feeding frenzy? Peter Baker, then the White House reporter for the Washington Post and amazingly still on the beat 20 years later for the New York Times, reminded the group that lots of Democrats in were none too fond of Bill Clinton, in the same way that many Republicans in were appalled by Richard Nixon. But Clinton used the modern political and media culture to ensure that his own party did not turn on him.
In the same way that Trump has so far kept his own party—which includes many leaders who loathe him—from turning on him. During that year of partisanship and frenzy, he said, he first noticed non-journalistic voices, like The Daily Show, having as much power—and, in some ways, more power—than traditional media in setting the agenda and creating the prism through which politics is viewed.
And, if true, one from which he benefits. Listen to the full conversation here. Twenty years ago this week, the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks wide open, and for a certain group of us, it was a defining moment in our careers covering Washington. Mention her name to my children, who [in ] were not yet born, and it prompts snickers. Those snickers and eye rolls—many people have those now when they think of that scandal. The issues raised about the presidency, about the media, seemed—then and even now—seem profound.
That was just a case of sexual McCarthyism gone amuck. I think the comparisons that are echoing for people right now are, as Peter correctly pointed out, the MeToo movement in Washington and the sense that the world has changed and that what seemed an acceptable level of sort of sexual peccadilloes on the part of the president is actually something much more predatory and disturbing. Trump poses these big questions about the nature of the presidency, what our expectations are for the office, what is the proper role of Congress or the media when the presidency seems to be out of balance in some way.
And, of course, that is instantly what people recognized as the potential problems and threats when the Monica Lewinsky story first broke. That was the question we were instantly confronted with that people forget.
Michael, take us back though that moment. Nobody was closer to the story than you. I had, through a weird set of circumstances, been aware of the Lewinsky relationship with Clinton for months. I had been talking to Linda Tripp. She had been telling me everything … the late-night phone calls and surreptitious visits. At one point, she offered to give me the blue dress.
So I was aware this was a potentially big story. We would talk about it at Newsweek: How would we ever publish this? How would we ever be able to prove that this was real? Then I get the phone call on a Tuesday. There is this little event going on at the Ritz-Carlton: And I nearly fell off my chair. Ken Starr is on this? Washington was about to explode, because any way you cut it, this was going to be a monster story. Those few days 20 years ago were as gripping and nerve-racking as any I have experienced.
Washington was about to explode. Just to take people back, Peter and I both covered the White House [for the Washington Post], and Susan was our editor on many of the important stories. But we would, for the most part, never think about injecting that into our stories or making it a major subject of coverage. In part because of the politics before then. And I think there was a feeling that, politically speaking, it was out there and the judgment of the public had been heard on it. Now, who does that sound like when you hear it today?
The Post went around and round about how to handle something like this. The woman who was sitting next to her confirmed that the state trooper was there and took her down and she came down and appeared shaken as she left the hotel room. Who does that sound like when you hear it today? We used to torture ourselves: I went back and [read] both the original, fascinating Newsweek story , which was written by Michael [Isikoff] and the original, fascinating Washington Post story , which was written by Peter [Baker], Sue Schmidt and Toni Locy.
And I was really struck: There is a very antiquated and very sexist characterization of all of the women, in particular Monica Lewinsky, in those original stories. Questioning her veracity, her presentation—everything about her was considered to be fair game, from how she dressed and her lack of maturity and her own penchant for talking about sex with Linda Tripp.
There was a deep vein of skepticism that she could ever possibly be telling the truth about this sexual relationship with the president of the United States. What really struck me, reading those accounts 20 years later: Everything Monica Lewinsky said was true. This was a Clinton scandal; it was not a Lewinsky scandal. It was a tough story to write. Gennifer Flowers came out through a tabloid in a campaign setting; it was just different. We had gotten the gist of it ourselves through our own reporting, and we were about to publish.
Newsweek did hesitate, understandably, for good reasons, because they wanted to be responsible. Just to make that clear. I think that they were trying to sort through tough issues, and they made a wrong call. What if she is just making this all up, and we go put on the newsstands for a week that the president is being investigated for this relationship, and it turns out she is a complete flake? We had listened to the tape that Friday night into the wee hours of the morning, parsing every word—I remember we just went around and around.
I suspect that accurately reflects what actually happened, because Clinton, for all his recklessness and stupidity for getting himself involved in this situation, was smart in that sense. You said you listened to the tapes on Friday. It was not until Saturday, which is actually 20 years ago today—Saturday, January 17th, —that Clinton went to give his deposition in the Paula Jones case. And they had the information about Monica, and they asked him a series of questions.
And Clinton up until that very moment … probably sitting in the room is when he realized the vulnerability. But the Jones lawyers blew it. They relied on this tortured definition of sexual relations instead of asking specifically, you know— Glasser: Again out of a desire not to besmirch the presidency.
This is a tough thing. On one hand, I think we would agree: Except there is no way that Donald Trump could also pass that test, and yet he seems to pass it. There are so many other things. Is he mentally fit? Is he saying racially inflammatory things?
Oh, and is he paying off a porn star? Had the admission come from the very beginning, it might have shocked the public enough to force him to resign.