Uncovering Clinton, Michael Isikoff

Crown, 1999, 402 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-609-60393-0

Was the Clinton/Lewinsky affair a Watergate for the nineties? Hardly. Well, maybe. Every generation gets the scandals it deserves, and maybe all the carefree nineties warranted was a scandal about presidential naughtiness. Or was it just about presidential naughtiness?

I certainly didn’t think so in 1998, and neither did Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who was an integral part of the affair. In Uncovering Clinton, Isikoff describes his own tortured history vis-à-vis Clinton (including his dealings with Paula Jones and Katherine Willey), the contacts he had with Linda Tripp (the real mover and shaker behind the Lewinsky business) long before the story went public and all the behind-the-scenes machinations at Newsweek, at the Kenneth Starr office, at the White House during the lead up to the entire affair. Isikoff isn’t shy about his opinion of the whole business: It was Clinton’s pattern of unrepentant deception and lies that were his real problem, not the assorted gratifications he pursued.

(Which pretty much rejoins what I thought of the whole business. Naturally, there’s now a certain naive nostalgia is considering Clinton’s indiscretions during the Bush II administration. Nobody died when Clinton lied, goes the bumper sticker. But I digress.)

All the President’s Men this isn’t, as poor Mickey Isikoff is dependent upon Linda Tripp for further tales of Clinton’s indiscretions. But it’s still an interesting story. For better or worse, Isikoff was at the center of the media side of the Lewinsky investigation, and was well-prepared to deal with it given his experience with Jones and Willey. His description of his work as a journalist is endlessly fascinating to a news junkie like myself, and at least this part of the book is a pure delight. There is a lot of good material in here on the lives of journalists, from interrogating sources to fighting with editors. Isikoff is a pro, and his meticulously detailed version of the story is fascinating to read. I suspect that this book will remain a primary source for all future historians with an interest in the scandal. (Don’t forget to read the end notes, some of them as fascinating as the main text.)

But what emerges from Uncovering Clinton goes further than simply the revenge story of a spurned public servant (Tripp) or the unfortunate infatuation of a young woman who should know better: it’s the collision of two forces: Clinton’s own self-destructive pattern, and the right wing’s rabid obsession with something, anything, to get the sitting Democrat. All else was merely excuses and justifications. No one managed to get Clinton on Whitewater, Flowers, Jones, Vince Foster, Willey or any of the other little things. So they used Lewinsky. It was a dirty and complicated business (it takes hundreds of pages to get there and as Isikoff writes in one of the book’s best passages, sometimes the best stuff comes from the worst people), but things are seldom simple or admirable at that level of political viciousness.

(In some ways, Uncovering Clinton is a charming reminder, to amend my previous digression above, of a simpler time where I was able to dislike a Democrat for the things that he’d done rather than cheering for anyone-but-the-Republican-madman. Aaaah, so that’s what it felt like to be non-partisan… I long for those days again.)

And so Isikoff’s account will find a place as a point of view in this whole business. Not an impartial one (Isikoff is himself too much a part of the story to see it objectively), but a valuable one. The Lewinsky scandal started a long time before it broke on the Drudge Report, and there was more to it than a headline on a web site. At least this book gives proper appreciation to that.

But what is maybe the book’s truest passage comes on the last page, where Isikoff suggests that yes, maybe journalists were scum to pursue a story like this. But that nevertheless, it was worth pursuing, and so will all stories like that in the future. And when that will happen, Isikoff’s ever-present notepad will always be there to note the details.

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