A Vast Conspiracy’

To the Editors:

Michael Isikoff is displeased by the portrayal of him in my book, A Vast Conspiracy [Letters, NYR, June 29]. For my account of Isikoff’s actions and motivations, I relied principally on his own account. As Isikoff wrote in his book on his investigation of President Clinton, “I was in the middle of a plot to get the president.” This was not surprising because he and his principal sources, Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp, all felt the same way about Clinton. “I was convinced,” Isikoff wrote, “Clinton was a far more psychologically disturbed individual than the public ever imagined.”

As I detail in A Vast Conspiracy, Clinton’s enemies faced a persistent problem: how to get their allegations about the President’s personal life into general circulation. Isikoff was the solution to this dilemma. On three critical occasions, individuals with personal, financial, and political incentives to destroy President Clinton used Isikoff to make their accusations public. First, Clinton’s longtime Arkansas rival Cliff Jackson gave Isikoff the first exclusive with Paula Jones; second, Jones’s attorney Joseph Cammarata fed Isikoff the story of Kathleen Willey; and, finally, Goldberg and Tripp presented Isikoff with the saga of Monica Lewinsky.

In using Isikoff in this way, Clinton’s enemies were drawing on the reporter’s well-known (and, in my view, unseemly) preoccupation with the President’s sex life. (Isikoff’s book includes the results of his sexual investigative reporting on Clinton’s alleged relationships with at least thirteen women.) The anti-Clinton forces also played on Isikoff’s long-term plan to write a book about Clinton’s alleged personal entanglements. Indeed, in the Gothic complexity of this strange story, Isikoff apparently tried to dissuade Tripp—who was, famously, seeking a book deal of her own—from beating him to press, while at the same time keeping her alive as a source. “He’s working on a book deal. He’s doing an all-the-president’s-women kind of deal,” Tripp told Goldberg in one of their tape-recorded chats during September of 1997. A few days later, quoting Isikoff, Tripp said to Goldberg, “And he said, ‘Well, in the present climate, I doubt you’d find a publisher…. But if I were to, uh, work with you and, you know, allow some of this to get out into the mainstream media, then that would set you up for a’—which is precisely what you and I had talked about.” (Isikoff denies advising Tripp on her publishing plans.)

In reporting on Isikoff’s plans to write a book about Clinton’s sex life, I made an error in A Vast Conspiracy. I said the working title for Isikoff’s book was All the President’s Women; it was Secrets and Lies. (This work was published, in 1999, under still another title, Uncovering Clinton.) Readers may decide for themselves whether this mistake represents, as Isikoff says, a “significant embarrassment” for me and my publisher. In his letter, Isikoff also says that the general counsel to The Washington Post recently wrote my publisher asking for corrections of my “demonstrable falsehoods” concerning the work of Susan Schmidt in that newspaper. The letter resulted in no changes in the book, because my reporting was accurate.

Isikoff appears to recognize that we are moving toward a first historical consensus about the meaning of these tumultuous events: that Clinton’s impeachment, and the events leading to it, amounted to a constitutional and cultural disgrace for this country. (To make my own bias clear, I should add that this is the thesis of A Vast Conspiracy.) In light of this, Isikoff seeks in his letter to portray himself as a “level-headed observer” who was merely acting out of “good faith” and for a “legitimate professional purpose.” But try as he might to pretend that he only had a seat in the stands for this epochal contest, the truth is that Isikoff was down on the field—performing, as it turns out, for the losing side.

Jeffrey Toobin
New York City