Skip to main content

D'Erasmo Has a Gift For the Unexpected Turn-of-Phrase.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Tea" (Algonquin Books) the debut novel by Stacey D'Erasmo.


Other segments from the episode on January 12, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 12, 2000: Interview with Jeffrey Toobin; Review of Stacey D'Erasmo's novel "Tea."


Date: JANUARY 12, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011201np.217
Head: Jeffrey Toobin Discusses `A Vast Conspiracy'
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:00

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is under the weather. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

As a staff writer for "The New Yorker," Jeffrey Toobin covered the Paula Jones case and Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal and has continued to cover those stories since the impeachment of the president.

In his new book, "A Vast Conspiracy," Toobin explores the origins of the story with Paula Jones and a few anti-Clinton activists in Arkansas, examining the personal motives and political considerations that propelled the case into the national spotlight.

He also traces the origins of President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the role Hillary Clinton played throughout.

In addition to writing for "The New Yorker," Toobin is the legal analyst for ABC News. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney and as an associate counsel in the office of the independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. His previous book is "The Run of His Life," about the O.J. Simpson trial.

Terry spoke with him earlier this week.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: When you started the book, did you think that there'd be more left to say? I mean, there were so many people covering the story, there was so much press coverage. Were you worried about that at all?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, "A VAST CONSPIRACY": You know, not a bit. I just recognized -- and this is something where I really drew on my O.J. Simpson experience, to coin another overused term in the media business. I mean, I felt that in a story like this, the events happened so fast and the developments sort of tumble after one another so fast that people lose track.

And this one, I knew in particular that people would be interested in because of the peculiar nature in which the facts were disclosed.

Remember, the world only learned about Monica Lewinsky's relationship with Clinton in January of '98, when in fact it had been going on for several years while the Paula Jones case was unfolding, while the Starr investigation was unfolding. And I knew one of the most satisfying experiences would be to juxtapose what was going on in this completely secret relationship at the same time as these, you know, high-profile cases were under way.

So I didn't have the slightest doubt, and I am -- (laughs) I think -- I hope I'm vindicated on that.

GROSS: Give us an example of something that was going on in private while this big public story was breaking.

TOOBIN: Classic example. Lewinsky's relationship with Clinton was peculiar in many ways, but it really went on for about a year and a half. But there was really only one month when they saw each other regularly, like most people would think of as kind of a normal affair, if you can use that term.

And that month was January of 1996, just to refresh people's memory. The relationship began with the famous thong incident in November of 1995. But November -- but January of 1996, about a month later, they really saw each other a good deal.

So I was curious, what was going on in Clinton's life during this period? Well, it turns out it was a very tumultuous period for Mrs. Clinton. January 3 was the day that her billing records were discovered in the White House, that had been subpoenaed earlier, and this was this mysterious recovery. And she was pilloried like she had never been before in her life because of this. The Starr people were furious. There were these frantic negotiations. Starr wound up subpoenaing her in the grand jury.

It was also the month that Mrs. Clinton published her book, "It Takes a Village." The night that she left for her book tour, January 8, was the first night that Clinton and Lewinsky had phone sex. Their relationship had this bizarre intensity during this period when Mrs. Clinton was under all this, you know, all this stress.

And I thought it was particularly kind of -- to use a fancy term, yucky juxtaposition of events in Clinton's life. But I think you can only, you know, evaluate this period fairly if you know everything that was going on.

GROSS: Well, speaking of Hillary Clinton, she really urged the president to fight the charges against him in the Paula Jones case, and that's -- you know, your interpretation of this, that's part of the reason why he played it the way he did.

TOOBIN: I mean, it -- I mean, again, it -- one of the wonderful dynamics of this story is the juxtaposition of the personal and the political, how really personal motives led to these enormous political implications. Bill Clinton told friends, told lawyers he couldn't settle the Paula Jones case because he couldn't do that to Hillary. He couldn't humiliate her publicly by even seeming to acknowledge that anything went on.

Little did he know what was -- you know, what was to come. But...

GROSS: So do you interpret this that Hillary really didn't have a clue about what he'd really done?

TOOBIN: Not a clue at all. I mean, I am a, you know, complete believer that she, you know, viewed this as a political assault from day one. One of my favorite scenes in the book is -- I think everybody's familiar, right after the story breaks, Mrs. Clinton goes on the "Today" show for her first public defense and offers this extraordinary ringing defense of her husband, an attack on his adversaries, using the immortal phrase, "the vast right-wing conspiracy."

Well, she was so energized, she was so excited by this, she returned to the White House that day, which happened to be also the day of the State of the Union address in 1998, and she said to people in the White House solarium, "I guess that ought to teach them to f- -- with us." I mean, which was -- you know, not a term that you usually associate with the words "first lady." But that is -- that was her mindset.

You know, you fast forward ahead to August of 1998, when Clinton is about to be -- go into the grand jury, and his lawyers -- and by this time the DNA tests are in on the dress, and he has to admit something. Clinton goes to his friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and says, Would you go to Hillary and soften the blow a little bit? Would you sort of, you know, tell her what's coming? And Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, I think commendably for a friend, says, Hey, pal, this is your problem, I'm not getting involved in this.

But I think that's indicative of the fact that he did keep her in the dark.

Now, did Mrs. Clinton have some voice in the back of her head that said, Hey, you know this guy's record, it might be true? I mean, I can't speak to that.

GROSS: One of the things that I find really interesting in your book -- and maybe this is in part because everyone who listens to the show knows on (ph) we have a lot of book authors. One of your theories is, one of the things that really drove this whole story right from the start was the desire for lucrative book contracts. You even write, "when Kenneth Starr flagged the forces of capitalism, the book market, to temporary custody of the anti-Clinton campaign."

Where does this kind of, like, book obsession start?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, this, to me, was really one of the surprises as I sought to -- as I thought to -- tried to reconstruct what went on here. And I think in retrospect, one of the signal events in the history of the Clinton administration will be the publication of Gary Aldrich's book, "Unlimited Access."

If you recall, that was the -- that was the book by a former FBI agent, published by Regnery, a very conservative publishing house in Washington, that purported to sort of blow the whistle on the Clintons in the White House, and how they -- you know, the women didn't wear underwear and they had pornographic Christmas ornaments on the Christmas tree, I mean, all this sort of loony stuff.

But it was an enormous success. And it was, very directly -- and this is acknowledged -- it was what prompted Linda Tripp to seek out Lucianne Goldberg and get a book agent and said, Hey, if I could -- if she can make -- if Aldritch can make this kind of money, I want to do it too.

In fact, stepping back, four of the critical players in this story were primarily motivated by the fact that they wanted to write books about Clinton's sex life, which is really an extraordinary fact, to me. The Arkansas state troopers -- remember, this whole event starts with -- when a conservative critic of the president's in Arkansas named Cliff Jackson takes the Arkansas state troopers to David Brock at "The American Spectator," and they write a story -- and he writes a story that names a woman named Paula, no last name given.

That whole relationship between Jackson, Brock, and the troopers was about plans to get a book deal.

Michael Isakoff, journal -- the reporter at "Newsweek," he too wanted to write a book about Clinton's sex life.

Linda Tripp, as we've discussed. Paula Jones herself went through some hilarious book negotiations during the pendancy of her lawsuit.

GROSS: Well, (inaudible)...

TOOBIN: So those four were all involved in book deals.

GROSS: Well, let's get to Paula Jones and Stephen Jones, who was her husband then. They're not still married, are they?

TOOBIN: Well, they're separated. I believe divorce proceedings are under way but not completed.

GROSS: OK. Well, you say that, you know, it was Stephen Jones who kind of took control over the case. He was the one who was pushing Paula Jones. And that he preferred a book contract to a court settlement.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. Well, I mean, I think, you know, one of the things that you have to keep in mind here is that anyone who ever looked at the merits of Paula Jones' sexual harassment case, even if they believed that Clinton behaved badly, there were no remote chance of substantial economic damages to be paid. So it was not an economic enterprise in and of itself.

It had to be leveraged into something, and Stephen Jones, who was fairly sophisticated, especially compared to her -- her -- his wife, you know, tried to do this in many different ways. He tried to -- you know, he sold some interviews, he tried to get this book deal.

Paula Jones, especially at the beginning of this story, to say she was unsophisticated, I think, overstates her sophistication. I just remember one conversation I had with Paula where she said to me, "The Democrats, are they the good'uns or the bad'uns?" I think that sort of sums up the political worldview of Paula Jones.

GROSS: Right. Now, one of the almost amusing aspects of this is that what Paula Jones really had to sell, you say, was the description of the president's penis.

TOOBIN: I mean, it -- this -- the...

GROSS: You know, this mysterious distinguishing characteristic...

TOOBIN: (inaudible)...

GROSS: ... that we heard so much about.

TOOBIN: Distinguishing characteristic. I mean, this was -- I mean, her original lawyer -- one of her first lawyers -- she had so many that it's hard to keep track. But Gil Davis, who was a sort of big, beefy Virginian who was one of the people who filed the lawsuit, ultimately, gives a wonderful description of negotiating the night before the lawsuit is filed with Bob Bennett, who was the president's lawyer.

And Bennett was, you know, full of bluster, saying, You don't have anything on her, you don't -- I mean, you don't have anything on the president, this case is ridiculous, not true. And Davis describes saying, Well, you know, she can describe a distinguishing characteristic on his penis.

And Davis describes that there was this weird silence on the other end of the phone. Because, you know, it was, in theory at least, conclusive proof that she had had access to said genitalia. Now, the fact is, as it turned out, the White House was frantic about this, because it could have been dispositive.

At the end of the day -- and in fact, one of the chief stumbling blocks to a settlement in the case during the long period when the case was being appealed, was that the Clinton people wanted access to this affidavit before they settled, because they wanted to know if it really was that distinguishing, you know, if it really -- was really that extraordinary.

And in fact, I mean, again, this shows the tug of war that was going on. There's really a remarkable letter written by Gil Davis and Joe Camerata to Paula Jones when she -- when they're urging her to settle the case. And they say, Look, if you go to trial, you're going to have to disclose this affidavit, and you can't sell it. So...

GROSS: You can't sell it in a book.

TOOBIN: You can't sell it in a book.

GROSS: Everyone will already know.

TOOBIN: Everyone will already know. So, I mean, again, you have this sort of pull between commercial motives and political motives. But, you know, the distinguishing characteristic affidavit, which I am half shame -- half proud, half ashamed to say is now on our Web site,, that for people can -- they can see it for themselves. But it is -- I mean, and in fact, at the end of the day, you know, I don't know -- think we need to go into the details here, but it's not all that distinguishing and not all that dramatic.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to not bother to ask you about the dis -- the aforementioned distinguishing characteristic, so...

TOOBIN: But I appreciate your intense interest in the subject, Terry, I (inaudible)...

GROSS: (laughs) Well, I -- the -- but the whole, the whole, the whole book motivation part of this I find absolutely fascinating. And speaking of books, it sounds like you actually read Lucianne Goldberg's earlier books, including "Madame Cleo's Girls," which have, I think it's fair to say, a couple of odd resonances with the subsequent story.

TOOBIN: Oh, it's deeply bizarre. I would have to say -- and I hate to brag -- that I am now familiar with Lucianne Goldberg's complete oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction. She -- during the '70s, she wrote a -- she co-authored a anti-women's liberation tract called "Purr, Baby, Purr"...

GROSS: (laughs)

TOOBIN: ... which I have also read. But "Madame Clio's Girl," I'd hate to spoil it for those who are anxious to read it, but "Madame Clio's Girls" concerns a literary agent who writes -- who tries to get a famous prostitute to write a story. And one of the key ingredients in the story is the surreptitious tapes that were involved with this ring -- prostitution ring.

And it is -- I mean, it is true that throughout Goldberg's life, there is this sort of weird leitmotif of surreptitious tapes. Dominick Dunne, who later became a great friend of hers, and then broke with her over this story, met her during the Klaus von Bulow trial, when she was acting as a literary agent for a one-time male prostitute who was trying to sell tapes allegedly of Klaus von Bulow admitting to various nefarious activities.

So surreptitious tapes and Lucianne Goldberg go way back.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Toobin. He writes for "The New Yorker" and is also ABC News legal analyst. He's written a new book called "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.


This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Toobin of "The New Yorker." And he has a new book called "The Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President." He had covered the story for "The New Yorker" and continued to investigate it after the impeachment process ended. And now he has this new book.

Another story that emerges in your book is this story of how the press was manipulated by people who were out to get the president. An important figure in that story is Cliff Jackson, who you've already referred to. He's the person who Paula Jones's first lawyer called in to help. You describe him as an old adversary of Clinton's who'd also been the chief source of the story about Clinton and the draft during Clinton's first run for president.

TOOBIN: Really, Cliff Jackson is, to me, something out of Faulkner. It's really just an extraordinary relationship between Bill Clinton and Cliff Jackson.

They were both -- they're almost exactly the same age. They both grew up in small towns in Arkansas. And they both found themselves at Oxford in the '60s, they were both scholarship students there. And they kind of warily circled each other. Jackson was a Republican from the get-go, Clinton was a Democrat. And both had political ambitions.

Jackson went on to a perfectly respectable but low-profile career as a lawyer. Bill Clinton went on to be Bill Clinton. And Jackson nurtured these tremendous resentments about the guy who really -- who made it when he didn't.

And during the '92 campaign, Jackson led a group of Arkansas folks up to New Hampshire to campaign against Clinton. He became a major source of the source -- of the stories about the draft, because Jackson played a peripheral role in all of that.

And then he became the liaison for the state troopers to make their story told, and then...

GROSS: The Arkansas state troopers.

TOOBIN: The Arkansas state troopers who claim that Clinton was having sex with various people and whatnot. And then he became the sponsor of Paula Jones' story. But the thing that really surprised me even more in working on the book is, he was, in many respects, the person chiefly responsible for the appointment of a Whitewater independent counsel.

So here's a guy who was -- you know, whose name is known to almost no one, I mean, he's known to news junkies. But he's responsible for the Paula Jones case, for the Whitewater investigation, you know, which combined nearly to bring the president down.

GROSS: Well, he enters the Paula Jones case in this way. Her first lawyer, Danny Traylor, called him in, and then Jackson became, like, the press strategist for the Paula Jones case. And you say that he thought it would be a more credible way of getting attention, to give the story as an exclusive to one reporter rather than calling a press conference.

TOOBIN: And this was a...

GROSS: How did he -- how did he create the strategy?

TOOBIN: Well, what was so extraordinary was that Jackson went up and held this hilarious, awful press conference at a conservative political gathering in February of 1994, where Paula Jones sort of ca -- held this press conference, and they said, you know -- and she said, Well, he treated me in a very unprofessional manner.

And -- but she wouldn't really say what he did, and the reporters were kind of laughing, and there was this, you know, famous question of, you know, Did he ask you to commit a sex act that you could perform without taking off your clothes? And everybody's laughing and saying, Yeah, yeah, I guess that's -- you know.

And the press conference is a disaster. So Cliff Jackson, who is a sophisticated man, says, Look, we cannot go public directly. We cannot bring the story out publicly. We've got to, in effect, launder our allegations through people. We've got to use the press and find someone who will be sympathetic enough to run the story but credible enough to get it into print.

And the person he seizes on is Michael Isakoff, who's then at "The Washington Post." And Isakoff and Jackson become, in effect, partners to bring this story into print. And Jack -- and Isakoff, you know, gets so passionately involved in the anti-Clinton cause, he gets, in effect, virtually fired from "The Washington Post," he gets hired from "Newsweek."

And the story ultimately comes out. And the Paula Jones story starts to come into circulation.

Well, Jackson's lesson is learned well. And at two other critical times in the story, when Clinton's enemies have damaging information to disclose, they learn the lesson. They don't put it out publicly themselves, they use Michael Isakoff once. It's Joe Camerata, the lawyer with Paula Jones who feeds Michael Isakoff the Kathleen Willey story, which surfaces in "Newsweek." And then the, you know, ultimate, most famous example of Tripp, Goldberg, giving Michael Isakoff the Monica Lewinsky story.

It is -- it's an extraordinary example of sophisticated press management by Clinton's enemies.

GROSS: So in your opinion, Isakoff crossed a line and became more of a participant this -- the -- in the story than he should have.

TOOBIN: I thought he was -- he reported part of the story and not the full story. I mean, the fact is, you know, Hillary Clinton made the famous use of the "vast right-wing conspiracy." I think she was more right than wrong. I think she obviously -- she obviously didn't tell the whole story, because it's -- the full story is much more incriminating to her husband.

But the fact is, there was this enormous, coordinated, continued effort by Clinton's enemies that went on basically from the day he was in office to drive him out of office. And Isakoff was used by these people, and he only told the story of what they were trying to get across, not the story of the conspiracy itself.


BOGAEV: Jeffrey Toobin's new book is called "A Vast Conspiracy." We'll hear more of Terry Gross's interview with Jeffrey Toobin in the second half of our show.

This is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: Coming up, the media, the courts, and right-wing politics. We continue our conversation with Jeffrey Toobin, author of "A Vast Conspiracy," about the Clinton sex scandals.

And Maureen Corrigan reviews "Tea," the debut novel by literary journalist Stacey D'Erasmo.


BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Let's return to Terry's interview with Jeffrey Toobin. Toobin covered the Paula Jones case and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as a staff writer for "The New Yorker" and legal analyst for ABC News. His new book, "A Vast Conspiracy," provides the context for the events that led to the president's impeachment, examining the motives of some of the key players, such as Linda Tripp.


GROSS: You say that the reason why -- or at least one of the reasons why Linda Tripp wanted to give her story to Michael Isakoff is that Lucianne Goldberg thought that Tripp would look crazy if she went public with the story in a book before Monica Lewinsky became a publicly known figure, so that the story had to be leaked first.

TOOBIN: See, see, this -- this -- you're -- what you're describing relates to one of my favorite documents in the whole case. It was made public during the impeachment battle and didn't get much, much attention. But it's to me sort of the ultimately -- the ultimate Gothic bizarre document of the whole time.

And it is, Lucianne Goldberg, you know, true to her convictions, taped Linda Trip's phone calls to her that were made around Labor Day in September of 1997. And basically this is after Tripp has abandoned her first book proposal. She comes back to Lucianne and says, Look, you know, maybe there's this Monica Lewinsky character -- although she doesn't need the name -- she doesn't give the name. Maybe we should do a book after all.

And Lucianne says to her, Well, you know, maybe you should just leak some of it to Isakoff, because that'll make the story more respectable, because it'll be in "Newsweek."

But then Tripp says, Well, I don't want to do that, because Isakoff is working on his own book about Clinton's sex life. So you have the political motivations, the dueling sex books at work. And, you know, and all of it being taped, allegedly one ally to another. I mean, it is -- the complexities and the ugliness boggle the mind, but I (inaudible)...

GROSS: Did you get to hear those Goldberg-Tripp tapes?

TOOBIN: I did not hear them. I just read transcripts.

Now, in fairness to Isakoff, it must be said that Isakoff denies that he discussed with Tripp that he was working on a book as well. You know, I think Tripp has a lot of corroborating information. She knows the title of the book. How would she know otherwise? But the fact is, Isakoff does deny that.

GROSS: Now, you describe Michael Isakoff as helping to invent a new field of American journalism, sexual investigative reporting. What other story did he cover besides the Monica Lewinsky story?

TOOBIN: Well, this was another sort of amusing discovery in the course of the book. You know, 1987 was -- I hate to use this term in this context -- kind of a seminal year for the field of sexual investigative reporting. It was the year that Gary Hart -- that reporters from "The Miami Herald" found Gary Hart, you know, outside -- you know, with Donna Rice, and he was forced out of the campaign.

Right around the same time was a story -- again, a dimly remembered scandal of the '80s, the Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker story. And Mike Isakoff covered that at first for "The Washington Post." And if you recall, there was a woman, Jessica Hahn, who claimed that she'd had an affair and that she was shocked and horrified by this.

Well, Michael Isakoff and another reporter at "The Washington Post," they decided to get to the bottom of this. And they broke the story that Jessica Hahn was not a virgin after all. And it was just one of these bizarre stories where, again, they interviewed this guy who claimed that he'd had an affair. And it was -- it really -- a moment in American history when the rules started to change, when journalists really did start to go to determine who was having sex with whom.

And Isakoff sort of got in on the ground floor on this story. When they stopped writing for "The Washington Post," they took some of their material to "Penthouse," and Isakoff told the story to "Penthouse." And again, in a weird foreshadowing, there was a semen-stained dress that played a scene -- that played an important part in Isakoff's story about -- about the Bakkers.

But, you know, this, to me, was an example of how the press got to have a high-minded rationale for writing about stuff that, again, to me, simply isn't important. And -- but, you know, it's certainly how journalism is practiced now.

GROSS: Jeffrey Toobin is my guest, and he's written a new book called "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President."

Now, another theme that runs through your book is how the people who were trying to plant the story would play the mainstream press off of the conservative press and off of more gossipy journalists like Matt Drudge. Give us an example of that.

TOOBIN: Well, the classic example of this Washington during Clinton's impeachment trial last year, when Lisa Myers of NBC News ran -- conducted an interview with Juanita Broaddrick, who as many people know was a woman who accused Clinton of raping her in the late '70s.

And NBC held the interview for a while. Obviously it was a very incendiary allegation, and they went through an elaborate checking process. But during that checking process, while the story was being edited at NBC, the story was leaked to Matt Drudge that NBC was holding back, that they were trying to help Clinton, that they were covering up the interview that they had conducted because they wanted Clinton to survive the impeachment trial.

These sorts of allegations, challenging the courage of journalists, went on throughout this. It was done going all the way back to when Mike Isakoff was doing his original investigation of the Paula Jones case, and he was suspended from "The Washington Post" because of what was regarded as his misbehavior. "The Washington Times," a conservative paper in Washington, ran the story that Isakoff had been suspended for his excess zeal in trying to get the president.

So this sort of goading of mainstream press through the use of Matt Drudge, through the use of "The Washington Times," was something that went on throughout this story and remains a favorite technique of the conservative press.

GROSS: What are some of the lessons you think the mainstream press should take away from this?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I draw a big lesson from all of this, which I am totally certain that my colleagues reject almost in the -- in their entirety, which is that, you know, one distinction in American life that has been under tremendous assault -- interestingly, from the left and the right -- you know, the feminist movement which said, you know, the personal is the political, and the evangelical Christian movement, which says characters count -- which says character counts.

The idea is afoot that, you know, how you conduct your private life is a metaphor, is a important part of determining how you will conduct your public life, that, you know, if we know whether you have extramarital affairs, say, in a classic example, that tells you something about what kind of leader you will be. And that's the received wisdom right now.

And my own view is, I completely reject that. I mean, I think there is a distinction between the private and the public. I think that, you know, the idea at the heart of this theory, that somehow monogamous presidents are better presidents than those who commit adultery, that is a -- you know, that's at the core of this hypothesis. I think the facts actually speak somewhat to the contrary.

And I think it's -- I just think it's poison in our system that's just not gone.


BOGAEV: Jeffrey Toobin writes for "The New Yorker" magazine. His new book is "A Vast Conspiracy." We'll hear more after the break.

This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: Back with Jeffrey Toobin. He's written a new book called "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President."

Another theme in your book is how the legal system has kind of taken over the political system in a lot of issues. And you think that the sex scandal story is a great example of that.

TOOBIN: This, to me, was, you know, the core of why I wrote this book. Because, you know, I come out of being a prosecutor. I come out of -- I worked for Walsh in the independent counsel investigation of Iran-contra, you know, which I wrote a book about and later had some problems with, later had problems with Walsh.

I then became an assistant U.S. attorney, a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. And there's nothing, you know, sort of I feel more strongly about in the need for law enforcement to be as divorced as possible from the political process.

And I think the rich irony at the heart of the Clinton scandal is that it was Democrats, liberals, who throughout the '40s, '50s, '60s, were the pioneers of the idea of using the legal system for political change, whether it was Thurgood Marshall trying to desegregate schools, whether it was feminists, environmentalists, the -- it was the left that tried to use the courts for political change, to, I think, the great neglect of achieving political, electoral change.

Well, what happened in the Clinton story is that the right finally learned the lessons that the left had taught, that the right wing in this country decided that they were going to use the legal system for their political ends. And the Paula Jones case was far more a political assault on the president than it was any sort of legal case, and the Starr investigation was far more a political attack on the president than it was any legitimate criminal investigation.

And I think the irony that the right almost succeeded in using the tools that the left invented, you know, is a rich and important one, but I think the lesson is that we should resume the effort of trying to return politics to politics and not use law enforcement and lawsuits as a proxy for it.

GROSS: Now, you're very critical of how people with an agenda use the courts to advance their political agenda. You single out Judge Susan Webber Wright, who dismissed the Paula Jones case in 1998, and then a year later found Clinton in contempt for lying about Monica Lewinsky. You see her as an isolated beacon of sanity in the darkness around her. Why do you give her such a high score?

TOOBIN: Well, because I thought that she tried to return this case, or keep this case where it belonged, tried to keep it as a lawsuit about in a sen -- a act of employment, an alleged act of employment discrimination, because that's what sexual harassment law is.

She tried to put the politics aside to the great extent and keep the case focused on the issues before her. And there's a wonderful document that I located, and it is on our Web site. On January 12, right before Clinton's deposition, it was a secret court hearing she held, and it was really remarkable, you know, drama.

She had the windows papered over so no one could look inside, and she gathered the lawyers before her and she said -- I mean, this wonderful cry from the heart -- she said, Look, please, settle this case. This case should not go to trial. It is not good for this country. It is not good for Paula Jones.

She very much signaled that she was going to throw it out. She said, You will never get 12 jurors in Arkansas to believe that this man is a sexual harasser. They'll believe he's a skirt chaser -- and that's the term she used -- but they will not believe that he's a harasser.

She -- this -- she suggested, as she ultimately did in throwing the case out, that Paula Jones had suffered no specific acts of recrimin -- you know, recrimination, discrimination, as a result of this alleged pass. And she said to them, Please, just settle this case. It will be good for the country.

And, you know, the parties just blew her off, they were so locked in at that point. And the Paula Jones lawyers, they didn't want a settlement. They wanted to torture the president politically as long as possible. They didn't want -- that was far more their priority than helping their client.

And I think so much of what Susan Webber Wright predicted came to pass. And I think also, I mean, another reason I'm so fond of her, of her role in this case, is if you look at her contempt ruling later on -- I mean, I think in this book it is fair to say I am more sympathetic to the president, Clinton, than to his critics, but that doesn't mean that his perfor -- his behavior wasn't abysmal, horrible, embarrassing, terrible.

And she imposed the Wright sanction, which was contempt of court, fine, you know, personal disgrace, but not the extreme constitutional sanction of impeachment, which I thought was wildly disproportionate to the offense.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the actual political impeachment process. Having covered the story as it happened and continued to cover it after the story ended, what did you learn about Henry Hyde and what happened with him behind the scenes in deal making and in forming the structure for the impeachment process?

TOOBIN: You know, one of the memories of this story I will always treasure was the simple act of walking inside the room in the Rayburn Building where the House Judiciary Committee met, because there before you was this extraordinary tableau in American politics in the 36 members of the Judiciary Committee.

You had 20 Republicans, 16 Democrats, and you had -- the -- it was like a caricature of the Republican, Democratic Parties. On the Republican side, you had 20 white Christian men and Mary Bono. And on the Republican -- and on the Democratic side, you had four blacks, three women, six Jews, one gay man. And it was -- I mean, it -- the -- it was the truest of the true believers on both sides, and it was the most polarized, awful, hilarious, you know, political event it has ever been my pleasure to cover.

And at the center of it all was Henry Hyde. And I really regard Henry Hyde as kind of a tragic figure in all of this, because Hyde knew how this process should unfold if he was going to be judged fairly by history. He knew he had to do, at least to a certain extent, what Peter Rodino did in the House Democratic -- in the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate in 1974, which was make this at least somewhat of a bipartisan process and bring everyone together to the extent he could.

But the tragedy of Henry Hyde is that by 1997 and 1998, he was, to put it simply, an old and sick man. And he didn't have the energy to do it. And there were moments in the story when he tried to broker a deal. When he tried, through his friend Howard Berman, who was one of the senior Democrats and someone he liked a great deal, to try to put together some sort of censure resolution.

He tried even during -- and this is, I think, one of the new facts disclosed in my book, he tried even during the Senate trial through Howard Berman, through Senator Joe Lieberman, to try to work out some deal to cut this -- to cut the trial short and end it with a censure rather than a failed verdict on his part.

But Hyde didn't have the energy, the moxie, any more to fight the extreme right wing that controlled his committee. The people who really ran the show in the House Judiciary Committee, it wasn't Hyde, it was people like Bill McCollum, people like Charles Canaday, the young, tough, intelligent, zealous Republicans who just wanted to see Bill Clinton destroyed and who didn't care about the judgment of history the way Hyde, I think, recognized what it was going to be.

GROSS: There's a couple of really interesting reverberations from this case that have nothing to do with politics but are just kind of culturally fascinating -- Linda Trip's plastic surgery, Monica Lewinsky's weight loss commercials. What does that say to you?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I think it says to me that that's a hell of a good plastic surgeon, for starters. I mean, I -- you know, it's just -- you know, if those photographs are what she looks like in the real world, I mean, you know, it's pretty impressive.

But, I mean, I think that, you know, the line between fame and notoriety has almost completely disappeared in American life. And as long as you're famous, it doesn't -- sort of doesn't matter what you're famous for. I think O.J. Simpson is one of the rare exceptions to that rule. But I -- you know, Tripp and Lewinsky, I don't think, are.

What I think is kind of pathetic is, whether these people recognize it or not, is their fame, such as it is, is a diminishing asset. And, you know, Monica Lewinsky will get a, you know, fancy contract from Jenny Craig now. Three years from now, she ain't getting a contract from anybody, because people will have moved on.

And I think, you know, rather than, you know, pursuing her education, rather than pursuing an actual career, rather than trying to do something in public service, I mean, you know, look, I don't think she's a bad person, I don't think this is -- there's anything improper about this contract. But I think, you know, the string is running out on her fame, and she better get it while she can.

GROSS: What's the state -- what's the status of the Linda Tripp trial, in which she's being accused of unlawfully taping the phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky?

TOOBIN: Well, I was just down there. I mean, it is so funny. I mean, I was just down there for the last hearing in the trial in St. Mary's County in Maryland, and, you know, out of this amazing, earth-shaking scandal, to have the only trial be in this little town. I mean, I have to tell you, Terry, this town, it's like Mayberry, in the middle of Maryland, you know, it's about as rural as you can get.

And apparently she's going to go to trial sometime, sometime soon. I mean, I think, you know, ironically, her trial is proof of everything that's wrong with this story. Because, you know, much as I think Linda Tripp played an absolutely odious role in this, I think it's outrageous that she's being prosecuted. I think it's a classic demonstration of the political -- the legal systems take over the political system.

The only reason this case exists is because a bunch of Democratic legislatures -- legislators in Maryland, the people who control this prosecutor's budget, said to him, We want you to prosecute her. No one's ever prosecuted for this crime in Maryland. So they made an exception and prosecuted her, even though Starr had granted her immunity. Now, where I come from in my tradition of being a prosecutor, if someone's granted immunity, federal, state, whatever, that means you leave them alone.

But still, because of the political motivation, she's being prosecuted, and I think it's outrageously unfair. But, you know, that's how politics -- that's how politics and law enforgement -- forcement are merged these days, and I think it's terrible.

GROSS: Well, one last question. You know, you covered the O.J. trial, you covered the impeachment process, and these were two of the stories that, you know, a lot of people got very obsessive about, endless press and TV coverage to it. I'm just kind of left wondering, you know, what's the next big story like that that's (inaudible)?

TOOBIN: I don't know, you think (inaudible)...

GROSS: I don't think you know, I mean, I'm not -- I'm not...

TOOBIN: I need to complete my sleaze trilogy, is that...

GROSS: (laughs)

TOOBIN: I -- you know, I don't know. It's what I like about my job. I never -- I -- you know, I never know what's coming. But these were, these were -- they were two pretty good stories.

GROSS: Yes. Are you in touch with O.J. Simpson at all, or with the story?

TOOBIN: You know, it's funny, I have now written three books. I wrote a book principally about Oliver North from my experience as a prosecutor. I wrote, you know, the oth -- the book about Simpson, and I wrote this book where Clinton is the central character.

To write each of the three books, I never met North, I never met Simpson, I never met Clinton. And I -- so O.J. -- O.J. and I, you know, he doesn't write, he doesn't call, I'm very disappointed by that. He's on the golf course a lot, so he's busy.

GROSS: Right. Well, Jeffrey Toobin, thank you so much for talking with us.

TOOBIN: Thanks, Terry, always a pleasure.


BOGAEV: Jeffrey Toobin's new book is "A Vast Conspiracy."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the debut novel "Tea."

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jeffrey Toobin
High: Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer for "The New Yorker" and legal analyst at ABC News, discusses his new book, "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President."
Spec: Politics; Trials; Crime; Government; Congress

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jeffrey Toobin Discusses `A Vast Conspiracy'
Date: JANUARY 12, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011202np.217
Head: `Tea' Leaves a Satisfying Taste
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: (AUDIO GAP) an essay called "Beginner," literary journalist Stacey D'Erasmo writes about how she self-consciously joined a writing workshop in order to jump-start her own fiction after years of editing and writing journalism. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says the struggle paid off. She reviews D'Erasmo's debut novel, "Tea."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Out with the old, in with the new. I thought I'd start the millennium off right by talking about the work of a new novelist, although she's not a fledgling writer. Regular readers of "The Village Voice" literary supplement, "The Nation," or "Rolling Stone" are familiar with Stacey D'Erasmo's byline.

I still remember the way D'Erasmo, in one of her TV reviews, described Helen Mirren's performance in the PBS "Prime Suspect" series. She wrote that Mirren made intelligent weariness look sexy. That may not be verbatim, but I've shared that line with all my smart, tired women friends. It's a great pick-me-up.

That's what I've admired about D'Erasmo's literary journalism over the years, the way she nails things down. D'Erasmo brings that gift for the unexpected right phrase to her debut novel, "Tea." "Tea" is a small-scale story about a young girl named Isabel Gold, whose mother, Cassie, commits suicide.

As D'Erasmo portrays the act, it's mundane in its execution but cataclysmic in its effects on Isabel.

Years pass. Isabel grows up in the Philadelphia suburbs, looked after by her father, a dry cleaner, and irritated by her younger sister, who's genuinely fascinated by the dry cleaning business. Like 99 percent of fiction's heroines, artistically inclined Isabel is the odd duck of the family. She becomes even more of one as she gradually realizes she's a lesbian.

So what else is an arty Jewish lesbian from the 'burbs to do after college but move to the East Village with her girlfriend? There, fired up with the zeal of newly graduated women's studies students, they collaborate on what Isabel describes as "an experimental film about the goddess Diana that references current geopolitical conditions and the oppression of women throughout history, but that also sort of interrogates, you know, film-making itself."

Fortunately, Isabel's film-making efforts peter out at about the same time the novel does.

That's it. Like I said, "Tea" is a small story, and sometimes, honestly, I felt it was too small. D'Erasmo presents her narrative as a series of semidisconnected scenes. Plot is not primary here, and I've grown fonder of strong plots in novels, maybe as a dubious consequence of reading too much mystery fiction.

But what kept me reading and thinking about many of those disconnected scenes was D'Erasmo's language. How beautifully she charts Isabel's growing awareness of her sexuality, from preteen matching games with her best girlfriend, where they lie nose to toes, to the horrible moment where Isabel declares her sexual identity to an older woman named Rebecca, whom Isabel mistakenly thinks of as sympathetic.

Here's how D'Erasmo describes that moment. "It was as if Isabel had come riding up with her sentence held high, ready for the thud of it meeting the light of day, and Rebecca had simply noted it and ridden on. Isabel sat on the sofa with her crumpled -- or, worse, uncrumpled -- sentence, her entirely manageable sentence."

D'Erasmo doesn't only do emotional intensity well, she's also got that Virginia Woolf-ian knack for capturing the incidental, the even-keeled. I like how D'Erasmo vacuum-packs a whole personality into a few words, when she remarks on Isabel's father's "peculiarly cheerful passivity." And as that earlier film synopsis showed, she has a naughty comic flair, especially for describing intellectual pretensions.

Isabel gets a day job at an art foundation in New York where she reads grant applications. "I would most desire to stage `Othello' on the Staten Island Ferry," writes one hopeful, "throwing Desdemona, dressed as a homeless woman, overboard. Cost of life preserver, $25."

As a long-time book reviewer herself, D'Erasmo, in her nightmares, probably has anticipated some of the dreadful ways in which other critics might appropriate her novel's title in their reviews. Like, for instance, my own, shall we say, strained verdict on the book.

As fiction, "Tea" isn't exactly strong brew, but its satisfying taste lingers.

BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Tea" by Stacey D'Erasmo.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Chris Fraley (ph).

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Tea," the debut novel by Stacey D'Erasmo.
Spec: Art; Media; Recreation

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: `Tea' Leaves a Satisfying Taste
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditr─âu, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue