William O’Rourke on the beat of the Clinton beat
There are blow jobs and then there are blow jobs. The volumes at hand deal with both figurative and literal examples of the genre. And they manage to range over, as well as map, the landscape of what is loosely called print journalism in book form. They reveal not just hidden agendas, but the transformation journalism has undergone at the end of the twentieth century.
One might first note the obvious: they are all written by men. There are books written by women inspired by Bill Clinton’s life and loves (Gennifer Flowers, Dolly Kyle Browning), but these are, in the main, reminiscences. Ann Coulter, the author of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, who can be called a journalist (if not being called something else: lawyer, elf, part of the right wing conspiracy, etc.), would doubtless be the best seller of the small journalistic sorority mining the Clinton lode, her contribution being in the attack biography genre, with Elizabeth Drew standing in as the more respectable, though stodgier, contender, her Clinton books lagging behind in sales. The skewed proportions of male versus female authors writing about Bill Clinton at book length would not matter much, except that one can readily detect the very mano a mano tone the male authors share. Bill Clinton is the representative generational male figure; he is the norm from which their standard deviations are measured.
But it is journalistic practice that is chiefly under consideration and on display here: we have Bob (and that Bob is the only informal thing about him) Woodward’s sui generis sort, in the sense that he (along with Carl Bernstein) is credited with inventing it. During the heady days of the mid-seventies, when there was a New Journalist lurking behind every mailbox, there came to be the hugely successful hybrid example of All the President’s Men, which was taken as a subset of the form by most commentators of its time. Of course, the most substantial difference went unmentioned: New Journalists were almost all freelance writers. Thumb through Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism and look at the names. Almost none were staff writers of well-established publications (of the 23 listed, only Rex Reed, Richard Goldstein, and “Adam Smith” would be the exceptions - Gay Talese had worked for the New York Times, but freelancing, by and large, went with the territory.)
As the years have gone by, Woodward’s name alone has graced the cover of his successive books, co-authors having been long discarded, though the reader is usually treated to a fulsome thanks for a remarkable underling, (from the example Shadow provides) one (Jeff Glasser) who serves as Bob’s “assistant and collaborator for the last three years,” one who “tirelessly and resourcefully” labors in his behalf.
A reader can be forgiven if he or she is reminded of the acknowledgments prefacing a politician’s ghosted recollections when encountering such gratitude for able staff assistance, because Woodward over the years has become a Senator of the 4th Estate, and as the voice of official Washington, he is now more politician than journalist. And who would deny him the luxury of a staff?
By never letting go of a position at The Washington Post, Woodward has fashioned himself into a pillar of the establishment. In the old days, his and Bernstein’s information collecting technique was, by necessity (with the large exception of “Deep Throat”), bottom up. For a number of books now (Veil, The Commanders, The Agenda, The Choice) his interviewing has been top down. The ditch, the rough patch in the road, that brought about the permanent change was Woodward’s one non-Washington book, Wired, his excursion into the life of the actor John Belushi, Bob’s first book without a co-author in tow. That scary experience (bad reviews, fewer sales, tagged as an outsider) appears to have taught him a number of lessons.
One might have been to listen more carefully to his long-time editor, Alice Mayhew, who suggested the topic that turned into Shadow. Woodward writes that Mayhew “rekindled” his interest in the subject of the presidents he had written about. Mayhew was interested in book making and, taking away the pomp from Woodward’s description of the process, showed him how to put together a book from the parts he left out of the other books. Woodward, though, doesn’t make clear what he already knew and what he has newly learned, but one can assume he missed a number of things in his original investigations of the same ground. To do so would have required Woodward to critique himself, which he is loathe to do. Nonetheless, we are treated to a reprise of the Nixon years, the brief Ford tenure, Carter’s single term, then Reagan and Bush, all accomplished in 223 pages, less than half the length Part Five takes, the Bill Clinton years. But the premise of Shadow’s subtitle created one problem, a real stretch for Woodward.
If there is a “legacy” of Watergate, how does one discuss that if the author himself is a large part of that legacy? Woodward did not go away; he has become an institution himself. Beyond the trademark you-are-there transcript recreations that have been his narrative style and device (producing results which always sound like high school actors badly reciting sententious historical drama), he would finally have to step out from behind the curtain and analyze, or, at least, draw some conclusions from his amassed gab fests, tell us just what the legacy, the lesson, of Watergate is. So he tries mightily. Here it is, Woodward’s summation, his lessons hard learned that future presidents need heed: “First, if there is questionable activity, release the facts, whatever they are, as early and completely as possible. Second, do not allow outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressman or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare.”
It may be hard to see the forest from the trees, if one is a tree oneself, but Woodward does seem to miss the point. His books nourished leaks into more than plants; he left the emperor without any clothes and then complained that the ruler was naked. In Sixties-speak, one doesn’t have a solution if one is part of the problem and Woodward doesn’t see himself as part of the problem.
It is not so much Woodward’s use of anonymous sources that is bothersome, as it is his wooden use of the “omniscient” point of view. Such a literary device begs for sophisticated abilities, abilities which Woodward lacks almost totally. In that regard he appears amateurish. But it is not just Woodward’s use of “fictional” techniques that’s the problem, it’s the unreality of the world his style produces. If he wrote fiction he might be judged the equivalent of the romance writer Danielle Steel; but she doesn’t improve either, no matter how many books she publishes. The impact of the “new journalism,” at least for the fiction writers who produced it, was substantial, because they were very good writers of fiction to begin with. In an age of recorded speech (from the Watergate Tapes to Linda Tripp’s), Woodward’s age, there is endless proof that no one ever talks like Bob Woodward has people talk.
Be that as it may, in Woodward World the style is not the point. It is the information, or the attribution, which is important. He has long become the establishment’s Linda Tripp, recreating over the years so much “conversation” thought once upon a time to be private. He said that? She said that? Official Washington wants to know.
It was clear in the seventies that even though a number of so-called progressive journalists could have explained Watergate and its players to the country with remarkable precision, it required a powerful corporate entity to “uncover” it: “…of the Washington Post” was the Siamese twin label attached to both Woodward and Bernstein’s names and it was that “inc,” not printer’s ink, that was opening doors.
It is the point that Michael Isikoff, a self-described child of Watergate, makes - well, he doesn’t actually make it, he lets it be made - in his contribution to Clinton studies, Uncovering Clinton.
Isikoff relegates it to a footnote: “Tripp also claimed I’d told her that, while I doubted she’d find a publisher ‘in the present climate,’ she should work with me to ‘allow some of this to get out into the mainstream media’ in order to create a more favorable environment. This, too, is ridiculous.” What is ridiculous, Isikoff argues, is that he would have settled for part of the story, not the bit about the power of the “mainstream media.”
The lesson learned, by the nineties, had become subliminal: if some important publication doesn’t run with your news, it will have no legs. Goldberg and Tripp had absorbed the truth of that, which is why they left so much room on their dance card for Spikey (their affectionate name for Isikoff.) Given the example of Matt Drudge (the other reporter, other than Isikoff, who made a national name for himself on the back of Lewinsky), some have concluded that there is now an openness of information, a healthy flow from high to low, but one has to consider if Drudge himself would have made such a noise if his website headline had been ” National Enquirer spikes story of Clinton Oval Office affair….”
One of the many things that all the books under discussion here have in common is their open obeisance to caste and status. Woodward, in Shadow, describing the Clinton White House trying to decide where to leak documents, writes, “Fabiani didn’t want to give the material to some pro-Clinton reporter or someone who covered politics. Instead, he selected Michael Isikoff, a hard-nosed junkyard-dog investigator who worked for a publication, Newsweek, with wide national circulation.” There are a number of interesting things to point out in that second uninteresting sentence. One is that if Woodward did write it he might have felt obliged to mention that Isikoff was his former colleague at The Washington Post. And, at the Post, Isikoff was the “investigator” who worked the Clinton scandal beat, not so much for the delectation of the public, but for the personal gossip-hungry knowledge of the Post’s editors. They wanted to be in the know, even if they didn’t intend to pass on the information to the paper’s readers. But, Woodward, at least, is being forthcoming with his depiction of Isikoff as an “investigator.” Nowhere in Isikoff’s book do you learn from Isikoff what the writing process is at Newsweek. He and other field reporters file reports, reams of material, much like the FBI field agents’ 302s, full of raw data and sporadic narrative. Editors, or writers, at Newsweek’s New York office, turn the material into stories. The only time Isikoff refers to that process is in his acknowledgments: “Assistant managing editor Evan Thomas lent his considerable writing talents to all that appeared in the magazine and gave wise counsel at every stage.”
So, Woodward labels Isikoff correctly, an investigator, while at the same time disowning any human connection to him. Such admissions don’t come easily to Woodward, and one of the strangest excursions is his description of his and Ben Bradlee’s meeting with Jimmy Carter: “Carter had lied about his meeting with us.” The sentence before that declaration is: “I called Powell to complain and told him that we felt sandbagged, summoned to an off-the-record meeting, led to believe one story and now confronted with a well-publicized version - Carter’s own interpretation apparently - that conveyed a rather different impression.”
Yes, I might not admit that I know and work with the people I write about, but I am pissed when the President puts his own spin on a meeting that was supposed to be off the record, one that we were “summoned” to! The idea that the President would waste our time, have the nerve to summon us.
Well, you see the pecking order Bob swears by. They needed to be summoned to a meeting; not that they would bother to talk to the Prez privately unless they had nothing more important to do. This meeting was about whether or not CIA payments to King Hussein had stopped under Carter’s watch.
Woodward is still having trouble with the analysis thing; with the exception of, say, his death-bed conversation with the old CIA Director William J. Casey, he doesn’t like to be out on the paper stage himself.
Given the history of Woodward’s methods, he is something of an “investigator” himself, more of the Isikoff school and tradition, than, say, the one-man-bands of I. F. Stone, or Murray Kempton, or A. J. Liebling, or for that matter, David Halberstam, or J. Anthony Lukas (after they left The New York Times.) Yet, Woodward is more powerful than any of that brethren. He might be a naif when it comes to using the first person, but he isn’t as naive as George Stephanopoulos appears to be.
Now, I’m not saying George Stephanopoulos is naive: he’s made his way in the world by being very savvy indeed. But, he is naive when it comes to employing a literary form. All Too Human is just that, a bildungsroman, a growing up book that has yet to reach grownup stage. But it is not without its savvyiness. From its “Note on sourcing”: “I did not keep a diary while I worked in the White House, but on about a dozen weekend afternoons at that time, I had a series of conversations with my friend Eric Alterman. Eric, who was working on his dissertation in American history at Stanford University, taped and stored these talks to create a historical record. After I left the White House he allowed me to use this material for my book.” George is being Clintonian in the extreme. That this taping does not fall under the legal definition of a “diary” would be convincing only to a lawyer. But, hey, he’s the altar boy, the keeper of Clinton’s secrets. And he was certainly blown away by Bob Woodward. George was so taken with Woodward he gave carte blanche to him for Woodward’s book, The Agenda. Here are his first thoughts about the Bobster: “In the summer of 1993, several months into his project [ The Agenda ], Wooodward’s first call to me had sparked two simultaneous thoughts: Oh, no! and I have arrived.”
Seduced by Woodward’s “stature,” George “encouraged friends and allies…to cooperate with Woodward.” But Stephanopoulos shares more with Monica Lewinsky than the willingness to be seduced (and their books’ similar glossy, white, innocent covers, graced with flattering photographs.) Any number of times in All Too Human is this sort of depiction of his relationship with the president: “But, at that point, doing the president’s bidding was my reason for being; his favor was my fuel.”
There has been a major shift in the career paths of most reporters during my lifetime. During the early sixties, when I was in college, journalism schools were the educational capstone for young reporters to be. The idea of a Neiman Fellowship was as close to a post-doc as any one could hope for. But, around that time, there was talk, as the post-WWII “professionalization” of the profession became complete, of having lawyer-reporters covering courts, economists covering the economy. But, like the maps one sees of how a virus can quickly spread, what was once the exception soon became the rule.
Now, reporting is largely conducted by what I term creatures of the event. Especially in video land. As Eisenhower long ago pointed to the revolving door of the military-industrial complex, there has long been a government-journalism complex at work. First one worked for someone on the hill, or for some failed campaign, or as a speech writer for brain-dead politicians, and then one became a journalist. Watching cable news today is like visiting a hiring hall full of former campaign consultants.
The smaller world of campaign books also provides an apt illustration. There was Teddy White for many years, then Joe McGinnis, then Hunter Thompson, then Carville and Matalin. In 1994 their jointly written book became the new model: creatures of the event who give their own self-censoring versions of history. And their book, All’s Fair, because of their celebrity status, became the most prominent one on the ‘92 campaign. (Joe Klein, an actual journalist, felt it necessary to retreat into fiction [in Primary Colors ] to tell the “truth” of the campaign as he saw it. Anonymity became a stand-in for objectivity. Because one couldn’t immediately tell the bias at work, the agenda that was being worked out. And, who knew, the author could be someone famous!)
The O. J. trial became the final straw in the complete transformation of late-twentieth-century America journalism, at least in television. The one profession that has grown disproportionately since the early seventies has been the number of lawyers let loose in the land. That has something to do with it. But journalists were shunted aside when lawyers were ordained as the priests of cable news commentary.
Creatures of the event rule now, especially in political reporting. Take, for instance, Dick Morris, Clinton’s buddy and bete noir (and the only person he immediately told the “truth” to about Monica Lewinsky), whose disgraceful fall only added to his notoriety, hence his fame. It’s as if Bedlam has produced the talent pool. Morris has the most painful smile ever seen on television. He knows he must smile, but it hurts so much. Much more than a wince.
Television news, especially the cable outlets, is now staffed by former campaign consultants and lawyers. At the heart of both professions is the need to mask the truth from outside observers. Or, more bluntly, both groups are paid to lie. This is what journalism has come to: the messengers, at the most, are converts to the straight and narrow, repentant sinners, asking for our trust.
(And print journalism is only marginally better, as these books all attest. Isikoff, who in a more tawdry way than Woodward has become part of the story [his subtitle: “A Reporter’s Story”]. Which is why we are reading his story. Isikoff understands the difference between print and television all too well. Given the opportunity to listen to the Tripp tapes, he at first declines. Among the reasons he offers is this: “And I was in a bit of a hurry to make it to Hardball.” Why, I’ve only been working this Clinton sex beat for years now, but I am booked on TV and I have my priorities straight!)
Stephanopoulos follows in the tried and true Iron Triangle tradition (Lobbyists, government worker, journalist): Boot camp in politics, and onto the television set thereafter. It is much like former badly-paid prosecutors who become far richer defense attorneys: first they must get to know a lot of criminals personally. George quotes Clinton complaining, “…I never should have brought anyone under forty into the White House.” And, after reading All Too Human, one tends to agree, noting that would have left Monica out in the cold, too.
Which brings me to the two Brits, both tilling different forms of celebrity journalism. These books are all subsets of celebrity journalism. Forget old or new journalism; in fiction there are two forms: one sort about people who will never read about themselves, the other about people who will read about themselves, who are readers. In journalism, there are also two sorts today: about the famous and the unknown, and by the famous or the unknown.
Andrew Morton and Christopher Hitchens are the purest writers under consideration. One writes about celebrities, the other has attempted to become one. But what both men can do first and foremost is write, whereas writing comes unnaturally to George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward, and Michael Isikoff. What that group does best is investigate, interview, fawn, serve or berate, but when actual writing is the subject, they huff and puff.
But not the Brits. Doubtless it has to do with education and tradition. I was surprised by only one book in this batch and it was Morton’s. His control of the material was impressive. All that time spent with Princess Di did not go to waste; he knows how to package and he knows what real people (such as himself) might raise as objections to his subject. Like George talking to Eric Alterman’s tape recorder, Monica avoided various gag orders (of the legal sort) by having Morton pen her tale. The weakest aspect is his flight to decorum when it comes to the physical aspects of Monica’s trysts with the boy from Arkansas. Morton doesn’t even ascend to the heights of Barbara Cartland romanticism in the little recounting he does do. Ah, more’s the pity. Perhaps Monica wished to save something for her memoir, other than the depictions in the Starr Report. Choosing an English author was not necessarily a stroke of genius, but it was certainly smart. Any American author would have had a difficult time keeping a straight face. But it did not keep me from speculating on what, let’s say, Joyce Carol Oates could have done with the material, or Robert Stone, or, for that matter, Bret Easton Ellis; or the hearse-chasing Lawrence Schiller, once Norman Mailer’s collaborator. In fact, it could have been Mailer’s swan song: first Jesus’ Story, then Monica’s! One can only imagine.
Morton does presume (as I do, also) that most readers of his book will have already looked to the Starr Report for the gamey details; he steers any reader not familiar with them to that amazing document, in any case. (The Starr Report must be the apotheosis of what has been taught in law schools for the last decade and a half, a low bow to Stanley Fish and the narratology he has inspired in the legal profession, though one of the Report’s principal assemblers had the additional benefit of fiction writing workshops, another influential stream in the academic culture of the last twenty years.)
Morton has Monica muse about her years in the White House as effectively as George Stephanopoulos, certainly as insightfully:
In the taxi on the way to the airport to return to Washington, she burst into tears. It truly hit home that her dream of working at the White House was over. She had lived with the idea for so long, had had her hopes of a return raised and then dashed,…Now, seeing another office in another city, and being considered for a post involving a wholly new line of work, that hope had finally been extinguished. “I realized then that no office atmosphere would ever compare to the White House,” she says. “It was very painful to come to terms with that bitter disappointment.”
Here is George on the same subject, visiting for the first time after he left the White House, a visit that does not include seeing the president:
…a uniformed agent reached into the room to close the four-inch-thick door facing the Oval’s formal entrance. The president was in. My heart beat more rapidly. My stomach floated with butterflies….I didn’t know what to do. Walking in on the president during one of his rare moments alone seemed presumptuous. Walking by without saying hello seemed rude. I was suddenly shy, and slightly afraid. This was not my place anymore. Clinton was still president, but I could no longer maintain the illusion that he was somehow my president in some special way. Not knowing what to do at that moment was the surest sign that I didn’t belong.
All these authors have something to hide and reading them all is one way to see what that might be for each individual case. Woodward hides his all too often personal involvement, his hope to be above the fray, though by now he is his own Heisenberg principle. As I wrote in my book on the ‘96 presidential campaign reviewed by Kass Fleisher in ebr7, Woodward has always been the oddest kind of “investigative” reporter: an ardent supporter of the status quo.
Isikoff hides, though none too well, his function as a sewer system, which only channels information, rather than his preferred image of the guy with his hands on the shut-off valves. George hides what he knows, self-censors, in the tradition of Matalin and Carville, and tries to find a way to be the supposed conveyor of “inside” information, usually couched in the same circumlocutions of his explanation about his non-diary, not-under-personal-control tape recordings. Morton may have the least to hide, though he scurries behind decorum whenever it suits him, though most of his role is to burnish his image, to gild the lily that is Monica Lewinsky.
What Christopher Hitchens has to hide is perhaps more than he has put into his small book. Though his distaste for the Clintons appears so fundamental it seems to be a case of old-fashioned visceral prejudice, the sort I usually hear from educated Brits about, say, the Irish after enough liquor has been poured.
As an expert on all Clinton sins it is unfortunate that at the start of his book Hitchens gets something wrong, in his description of the Willey affair. On page 16 he writes: Willey
had been a volunteer worker at the White House, had suddenly become a widow, had gone in distress to the Oval Office for comfort and for a discussion about the possibility of a paying job, and had been rewarded with a crushing embrace, some cliched words of bar-room courtship, and the guiding by the presidential mitt of her own hand onto his distended penis.
He gets the sequence wrong. Willey did not know she was a widow when she went to the White House that day, did not know until later, after Clinton’s embrace, that her husband had killed himself. No one contests that time line. I know even Homer nods, but given his need for authority, Hitchens should avoid nodding off at all.
And, at the book’s end, in his brief discussion of his 11th hour involvement in the Senate trial, when he disclosed Sidney Blumenthal’s fraudulent flacking on behalf of the president, he complains, “It was instantly said of me that I did what I did in order to promote this very book - still then uncompleted,” as if the fact that it was unfinished made such a charge superfluous, even though his publisher had been advertising the book and it had been announced some time before. As if the manuscript’s incompleteness absolves him of any thoughts to the book’s future notice.
Hitchens is in line with a number of expatriate British intellectuals who have taken up outposts here in the States for decades. It’s part of the brain drain. And being bright as he is, Hitchens has been doing as much as he can to be, if not in the public eye, in the private high-society scene, securely on the D.C. journalist A-list. Once someone has been part of the McLaughlin Group it’s hard to claim too much remove from that madding crowd. In fact, he is maddeningly upfront about all that, in the same manner his fellow countryman, Alexander Cockburn, has been often in the past, telling of being happy to find more wealth and power so conspicuously available to suck up to. Now sucking up to may not be the same thing as blowing out to, though the phrase itself, blow job, has always been a curious one. It isn’t quite right, isn’t really descriptive, though it does capture something more metaphoric than literal.
So, in all these books, we observe the wonderful daisy chain, of different sorts of sucking up and blowing out. Bob Woodward and his charmed or complaisant interviewees; Michael Isikoff and his talkative cache of ladies, including the boundary-ignoring Kathleen Willey (Isikoff writes: “We walked to my car. ‘All I want to do is hear your story,’ I said again. She understood. She said good-bye. As she did, she was standing just a tad closer than I was accustomed to standing to a source.”); George and the President that caused so many butterflies, who drove him to counseling and anti-depressant drugs, the same sad cycle to which Monica had been driven by the President; Monica herself, the only one who got to be real, not virtual, or figurative, with the president. And Andrew Morton’s courtship and knee-bending service to her (and good service it was!). And Hitchens, more self-lovingly, perhaps, more onanistic (if that can be), than the others, being, as he is, the most postmodern of them all, the one most likely to be aware of all the theories of writing as forms of masturbation.
Given the sorry state journalism has come to, one might ask what any reader might learn about Clinton that is new from these books, news that a cable news watcher wouldn’t have picked up by now. Well, not much. But one does learn that the presidency is not what it once might have been. It is now middle management and that, as a friend said, is why we don’t get the best people these days applying for the job.
Now that the world is dominated by international corporations and global financial firms, the president’s role is little more than that of the attractive account executive, the good looking fellow who handles rich people’s money. When Robert Rubin was Treasury Secretary his nickname was President Rubin. Clinton was merely the crown prince, the smooth underling sent out to speak at fund-raising dinners and ceremonial occasions.
When, long ago, John Dean testified in the first go-round of televised hearings leading to the possible impeachment of Richard Nixon, Dean reported he said to Nixon that “there was a cancer - within - close to the Presidency.” Well, Dean was guilty of understatement, since there was much more wrong with Nixon’s presidency than that. But Dean could have been speaking about Bill Clinton. Since it is the presidency itself that has been diminished and more readily exposed since Watergate (its real, continuing legacy), it is a much more superficial world there, insofar as the surface now counts for everything. And that is why Clinton’s personal failing, his taste for women on their knees, has had such a large consequence. If Clinton was a man of parts, not a hollow shell, one of singular vision, of true confidence and fixed goals, such conduct as these books outline could have been seen as minor, an aberration rather than a trait. But since all Clinton’s many virtues are so much on the surface, such a cancer on that surface was truly unsightly.
Given the old sort of triangulation, reading these books together is healthy and helpful, since each of them checks the other, gives a reader a true multiple point of view; not fake omniscience, but something that feels like the actual story.
If Watergate was, as its perpetrators like to call it, “a third-rate burglary,” Bill Clinton’s impeachment was brought about by a third-rate conspiracy. As was true with Watergate, Clinton’s sex scandal - its revelations, the momentum of disclosures could have been stopped at any number of points. But Clinton, like Nixon, did receive bad medical care for the cancer on his presidency. It was small, but it was persistent and no one who had noticed it wanted to remove it before it was too late.
Clinton’s often-cited recklessness, though, wasn’t reckless as he saw it: Monica wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t been for the linkage, however forged, of Monica, Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, and the right-wing legal elves looking to bring Clinton, if not down, to heel. Because of that linkage, unknown to Monica and the president, the country got to see all that these volumes recount. It wasn’t the film-version Deep Throat’s advice to young Bob Woodward, “Follow the money,” coming back again to haunt the nation, it was just an accommodating Deep Throat and all that then inexorably followed.