To the Editors:
You would think that an author—caught red-handed in multiple errors and forced by his publisher to revise more than a half-dozen passages in his book—would feel chastened. But as Jeffrey Toobin demonstrates anew in his letter [NYR, July 20], he is unburdened by any of the usual strictures—including the slightest awareness of his own hypocrisy. [Mr. Toobin was replying to a letter from Mr. Isikoff in the June 29 issue, following Anthony Lewis’s review of Mr. Toobin’s book A Vast Conspiracy in the April 13 issue.—The Editors] Toobin claims to find my journalistic efforts to determine the truth of sexual harassment allegations that swirled around Bill Clinton to have been “unseemly.” Yet Toobin’s professed distaste for the topic doesn’t stop him from retailing all sorts of titillating sex gossip whenever it suits his purposes. In A Vast Conspiracy, Toobin regales his readers with the vitally pertinent news that Lucianne Goldberg once used a friend’s apartment for “private afternoons with a prominent Washington writer.” Two paragraphs later, he recycles a thirdhand account of a supposed long-ago dalliance involving Lyndon Johnson. Elsewhere, he quotes a disaffected brother-in-law claiming that Paula Jones “had sex with fifteen men” while a teenager. Toobin’s position seems to be that it is perfectly fine for him to print such stories; the “unseemly” part would be first determining whether they are actually true.
Toobin devotes two lengthy passages in his book to the unusually sordid (and wholly uncorroborated) allegations of Dennis Kirkland—a convicted felon who claimed to have witnessed a scene of multiple fellatio by Jones at a high school graduation party. He implies he is only trying to illustrate how “degrading” a spectacle the Jones case had become. Yet the Kirkland story first saw the light of day not in any public court filing. It surfaced fourteen months earlier—in an article in The New Yorker magazine authored by Jeffrey Toobin. When his book came out, Toobin tried to promote it by creating his own website that offered inquiring minds the opportunity to peruse unexpurgated (and previously sealed) sex documents from the Jones case. All this proved a bit much even for Toobin’s ABC News colleague Ted Koppel. Noting that there was “a lot of seamy stuff in there,” Koppel asked Toobin during a Nightline appearance last January how it is he could possibly criticize those who reported the sexual details of the Lewinsky story and then “at the same time go and write a book about it and do essentially the same thing yourself.” Caught off guard, Toobin for once blurted out the truth: “Guilty as charged.” Most journalists, so ensnared by their own words and writings, would at this point have the decency to drop the subject entirely.
They might also have the good sense to avoid subjects over which they have famously tripped in the past. Trying to salvage the fictional portrait of me in his book, Toobin dances around the many factual mistakes he made the first time—and only proceeds to make new ones. He claims, rather preposterously, that I had “longstanding plans” to write a book about President Clinton’s “sex life.” (Who exactly is preoccupied here?) The facts are rather more prosaic. In the spring of 1997, I had several discussions with Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson about writing a book about all the scandals of the Clinton presidency, principally Whitewater and campaign finance abuses. Toobin blithely adds the claim that this same book was published two years later under the title Uncovering Clinton. That would have been a nifty trick: Uncovering Clinton is about the events that led to the President’s impeachment—and dwells at some length on the machinations of the President’s enemies. That would make it quite a different book. Toobin insists on portraying me as a supporter of impeachment. I wasn’t—and never wrote a single word advocating that cause. I could go on, but discerning readers by now get the point: Sloppy, partisan, and brazenly hypocritical, Toobin’s word on any of these matters can’t be trusted.
Anthony Lewis replies:
The appropriate person to respond to this letter is Jeffrey Toobin, whose reply follows:
To the Editors:
I have already responded to Mr. Isikoff’s assertions about the purported mistakes in A Vast Conspiracy [NYR, July 20], and will not belabor the issue here. Nor does it seem fruitful, at this late date, to quarrel about whether I wrote too much about sex in a book about a sex scandal or whether I stammered on Nightline. Rather, it seems appropriate merely to observe that the tone of Mr. Isikoff’s letter is as revealing as its content, and that he still fails to respond to the merits of my critique—that he joined forces with similarly hysterical anti-Clinton eccentrics who repeatedly used him to ferry their accusations into print. “Swirled” is an interesting word, suggesting as it does a kind of meteorological inevitability. But the impeachment of President Clinton was not a force of nature but rather the work of men and women, who ought, I think, to take credit, or at least responsibility, for what they wrought.
The New Yorker
New York City
October 19, 2000