Peter Baker may be leaving soon to cover Moscow for the Washington Post, but at heart, he knows he’s the last guy living in Monicaland. Last month, Baker published The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clintonone of the latest, it appears, in a seemingly endless succession of impeachment books.
Baker strove to make his tome different by focusing not on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair or on the prosecutorial efforts of Kenneth Starr, but rather on the battle in Congressa series of constitutionally significant events, he contends, “that will affect every future president.”
After covering the scandal for 13 months, Baker spent the next year conducting 350 interviews with 200 participants, as well as poring over memos, tapes, and transcripts. Although Baker rarely ran into any of the other Clinton-book authors while researching his endeavor, he does acknowledge that the competition gnawed at him a little.
“Yes, I was concerned,” Baker says. “There’s Clinton fatigue, and there’s Clinton-book fatigue, too.” Whenever he explained to people that his book would focus on power, rather than sex, Baker’s wifefellow Postie Susan Glasserwould chime in: “Why are you telling people that? Sales will immediately start diving!” Luckily for Baker, the book has managed to dent a couple of best-seller lists.
Baker doesn’t buy the proposition that the media covered the scandal and its aftermath with excessive prurience. “That suggests we went out there rooting around in the dumpster,” he says. “The first story that appeared in the mainstream press was about a federal prosecutor investigating the president for possible subornation of perjury. Tell me how that’s invasive or prurient. I’d hope no press would look the other way if a president is being investigated for a felony.”
Baker, 33, grew up in Fairfax and attended Oberlin College, but he left years before graduating. (He’s had little interest in going back: “I wasn’t a very good student,” Baker admits.) He came to the Post in 1988 from the Washington Times. After eight years covering Virginia for the Metro section, he was assigned to the White House beat in 1996.
In retrospect, the main thing Baker finds worrisome about the pre- and post-impeachment coverage is the media’s “all Monica, all the time” sensibility, which didn’t exist during the last major presidential scandalIran-Contrabecause cable news and Internet outlets had yet to come into their own. “That to me is the bigger question: Did we overinflate the importance of the story because there was so much airtime to fill, so many Internet pages to post?” he says. “Nobody read it all. I didn’t, and I really tried to.”
One scandal figure Baker hasn’t interviewedbut would like tois Lewinsky. Asked what questions he’d toss her way, Baker launches into a long pause. “What hasn’t been asked of her, between Ken Starr and Barbara Walters and her book? I guess what I’d like to know is whether the picture we have of her is anything like the reality. It would be fascinating to meet her as a real person.” Louis Jacobson