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Somewhere out there, there is a small missile sailing toward the White House that will land with tremendous explosive power.
If you believe Webnik Matt Drudge who currently has a lot more credibility than the Leader of the Free World this particular missile is made out of tobacco and played an intimate role in the sex play between the president and his eager-to-please intern. “In a bizarre daytime sex session that occurred just off the Oval Office in the White House,” wrote Drudge on Saturday, “President Clinton watched as intern Monica Lewinsky reportedly masturbated with his cigar.”
Stick to the the mainstream press and you get squeamish linguistic back flips: “Private parts,” “fondling,” and “graphic” is about as descriptive as it gets. Perhaps Clinton finally engaged in behavior so unspeakable that it can’t be reported in any of its glorious detail by the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times. The cigar may be lit, but so far the establishment press isn’t inhaling.
The sovereigns of the East Coast media are doubtlessly waiting for cover from their more tasteless competitors. As documented by Howard Kurtz in Spin Cycle, the processing of a prurient rumor goes like this: Drudge burps up some damp, tawdry bit on the Internet, and the British tabloids pick it up and run it as news, not rumor. (Last Monday, the London Daily Mirror called the episode a “bizarre sex game,” after which, it said, Lewinsky handed the cigar back to Clinton, who said, “I’ll smoke that later.”) Gossip writers and TV blabbers hint at something news departments find too toxic, and then, finally, a U.S. news organization typically the Washington Times steps up on the bombshell by reporting on what its brethren across the sea are saying.
So far, even the Washington Times is erring on the side of taste. Editor Wes Pruden did not return calls, but he only went so far: “Some of the answers that Monica gave the grand jury, and the questions the president didn’t want to answer, have not been reported only because editors of newspapers…
haven’t figured out how to describe them without offending pimps and pornographers,” read a column that ran this week. A nice standard, that one that is already being overcome elsewhere.
The Page 6 gossipers at the New York Post said earlier this week that while Monica fiddled with an expensive stogie, “[Clinton] watched with evident enthusiasm.”
Kurtz played peekaboo with the cigar tale in Wednesday’s Washington Post but left out the particulars that make it such a coffee-spiller. No matter. This story, regardless of standards and mores in Peoria, is on the loose. You think Jay Leno is going to give the president a pass on this one? Howard Stern and cigars? Let’s just say Clinton’s famed two-handed shake is probably not going to be the winner it once was out on the hustings.
Offended yet? Feel like a nice long shower? Don’t blame Drudge, Leno, Ken Starr, or the tabs in London. They’re not the ones who reportedly told Monica that making like a human humidor would be the sexiest thing in the world. Clinton’s calls for closure have gone unheeded because this particular witch hunt keeps finding witches. Deviance was defined down beyond Mad magazine in its prime the day that Clinton busted a move steps away from the Oval Office. At least John Kennedy stepped out when he felt like stepping out.
Do we really need to know all this? I think so. The country was not well served when media prudes used a 10-foot pole to dismiss Paula Jones and the salacious specifics of her story. And Clinton’s episodes with Lewinsky offer an even more graphic depiction of his willingness to abuse the power of his office to a variety of very personal ends. The reason that editors all over Washington are working on euphemistic descriptions for something you usually have to pay big bucks in Tijuana to see is that the stories keep turning out to be true. Besides, we’ve always been on intimate terms with this president. We knew he was a boxer guy before the first term ended it’s really just a couple of inches away from “distinguishing characteristics,” when you think about it.
“Our standard has been to assess on a day-by-day basis what we should be telling our readers and do so in a way that is not overly salacious,” says Len Downie, editor of the Post. “We report details when they are relevant. The latest Drudge Report, whether that is precisely accurate or not, I can’t say.”
James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, says his paper has been “rhetorically a little more conservative than most.”
“I think it is possible not to feel morally or ethically guilty about leaving certain matters to the reader’s imagination, albeit with a certain high-minded suggestiveness,” he adds. Besides, he says, I’m not sure what sort of brilliant euphemism I might devise…’tobacco-filled intimacies’? I don’t think so.”
Warren, Downie, and Adam Clymer, Washington editor of the New York Times, all say that their hand may be forced if special prosecutor Starr files a report with Congress that includes the details that Drudge and others are already saying aloud.
“If Mr. Starr files a report and an executive summary becomes available, or we are able to get a copy of the full report, we will print what is in that report,” Clymer says. “Until then, we are not going to go out of our way to shock our readers. There’s already been plenty of that. Up until this story began, the word ‘semen’ rarely appeared outside the science pages.”
Clinton stonewalled on his relationship with Lewinsky for very good reason. As people become aware of the specifics, it sounds less like a May-December romance on the sly and more like what you’d see if you tore the roof off a trailer on a particularly seedy corner of tobacco country. Journalists who carry the guilt of their own mortal pasts have been sheepish about pointing fingers at the president, but Clinton’s newly reported idiosyncrasies have people lining up to get their hands on the first stone.
The yuck factor was apparent on all of the Sunday talk shows, with many of the guests’ noses wrinkled as if they needed clothespins. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Mary Matalin offered a clue as to why people in Washington seem so much more ready to lynch Clinton than the rest of the country: “We all know inside the Beltway what’s in that report. And I don’t think he wants his family to know any more about what’s in that report, or the country needs to hear any more about tissue, dresses, cigars, ties, anything else. And for the sake of his family, he should resign before that report goes to Congress….”
Jonah Goldberg, son of literary agent Lucianne Goldberg and now a contributing editor to National Review, says that from what he has heard on the tapes, the president is guilty of “metaphysical tackiness”: “The president of the United States is not supposed to be tacky, and at some point, this debate is going to become academic. This isn’t an affair. The president led this emotionally unimpressive girl to do these things in the belief that they would be together after he left the White House. All of these details are going to be in Starr’s report, and once one major media outlet prints it, all of these mutual agreements not to print this stuff will dissolve.”
He’s probably right. As Jack Shafer, deputy editor of Slate, points out, “Once you have fondling of breasts and touching genitalia in the New York Times, how much different is using a cigar as a sex toy?” Shafer suggests that once the word “impeachment” is bandied about in the Washington press corps the inside-the-Beltway equivalent of DefCon 4 extraordinary things begin to happen.
The last time the word “impeachment” was floating around, the Post was also confronted with an accuracy vs. decorum conundrum. After Carl Bernstein came up with a story implicating him personally in Watergate, Attorney General John Mitchell threatened, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” The story ran, and the Post editors were then confronted with the dilemma of whether to publish Mitchell’s quote verbatim. Decorum won, and the quote received a mastectomy “tit” was excised. “There was plenty of debate at the time about that, believe me,” recalls Post Vice President At Large Ben Bradlee.
And not everybody is gagging on the developing story. Careers are being made, and stories are being told that will be passed around for years to come. “This is a story that defies gravity,” says one editor at the Post. “Your jaw drops because the stories are too good to be true. In this case, every one of the stories that we thought was too good to be true turned out to be true.”
360 Brian Duffy is one of the hottest talents in journalism. Three major news organizations thought enough of him to offer him big, important jobs in the last two years. He said yes to all of them. Two years ago, Duffy left U.S. News & World Report where he had worked for 10 years and risen to national and investigative editor to become deputy national editor for investigations at the Post. He had been there a year when the Wall Street Journal named him investigative editor. Duffy stayed there for all of nine months before taking another job, this one back at U.S. News & World Report, as executive editor under recently hired editor Steve Smith. How does Duffy feel about stiffing two of the biggest brand names in journalism to go back to U.S. News?
“I don’t like to think of it as stiffing them. Everyone at the Post and the Journal has been nothing but gracious,” he says in a phone interview. “I loved working at the Post, and I loved coming to work every day at the Journal, but the offer I received from Steve gives me an opportunity to go beyond the investigative stuff and weigh in on whole other areas of coverage that I actually have a real interest in as well.”
Smith says he had a few conversations with Duffy on getting U.S. News back in the race, and things grew from there. “If you’re a good editor, you track talent over the years, and I decided a while ago that if the opportunity ever arose to work with him, I’d do my best to make it happen. He is probably without peer in his ability to develop sources in this business, but he also writes so well and so fast that it’s hard to believe at times. I think the informality of our management style here will allow Brian to shape our coverage in a lot of ways. He will top-edit stories, do some of his own, and help us out with the megaprojects that come along.”
Duffy joins a number of other recent hires. Brian Kelly, a deputy national editor at the Post and former editor of Regardies, will become assistant managing editor for national news: “I’m not a lifer at the Post. It was an attractive offer off an editor who seems to be pretty hot right now to do some things that sound like fun.”
Paul Bedard of the Washington Times will be bringing his reputation for aggressive reporting and deep sources to the “Washington Whispers” column, and Victoria Pope will be coming over as an assistant managing editor from the National Journal, which was Smith’s last stop. Franklin Foer of Slate has been hired as a writer to cover the Hill.
The post-Fallows U.S. News is demonstrating an increased interest in newsbreaking. The magazine had breaking news of the embassy bombings on the cover two weeks ago, while Time and Newsweek settled for more dispatches from l’affaire Lewinsky. Regardless of all the recent hires, the magazine still has to overcome its much smaller circulation and hidebound readership if it is to vanquish its reputation for having a stranglehold on dentists’ offices everywhere. —David Carr